I only saw one man herding a group of children at the Refugees Festival. He was tall, thin and dressed in a long white garment. As he urged his children to make way for me and my wheelchair, I asked him his country and he answered “Iran.”
In conversation with a 9-year-old girl, I learned that she was born here but her mother was from Asia. “Where in Asia?” I asked.
“A small country,” she replied.
“What is the country’s name?”
“Laos,” she said, not knowing that the little country of Laos is known—at least—to every American over the age of fifty.
Her mother’s family came to this country—no, she has no grandparents—but the cousins moved on to Minnesota. They have come back to Syracuse now for a wedding—that greatest event that has drawn families together throughout the history of time and the world.
There is one thing about these people that strikes me very strangely. I cannot get through the crowd in my wheelchair so, as I always do when people are standing with their backs to me, I reach out and gently but firmly tap on arms. Among American-born people, this gets an immediate response, often as startled as if they’d been shot. Among the Asian, Indian and African refugees, there is no response at all. They don’t turn and look to see what has touched them. Is it a matter of personal boundaries? Do Americans have this special space around them, whereas refugees from other continents experience themselves as part of community, not as isolated individuals?
On stage—yes, there was a stage—groups performed, variously all-male, all-female, or mixed male and female. The performances were done with a minimal sound system and few instruments. Mostly, the performers and their audience relied on the oldest instruments in the world: they clapped their hands. And they danced and sang or chanted. Imagine a world without electronics. Imagine dancing and singing without instrumentation or amplification. No T-shirts saying, “Miss Nancy’s Dance School,” just the people moving to the rhythms in their bodies. Human beings are the only critters that have a sense of rhythm, the only beings that naturally move to the beat (see also: American Bandstand, “I like it because it has a beat and you can dance to it.”)
Behind me, I hear an American woman complaining about a road that was closed by construction and she had to park her car and walk, and I am reminded of a refugee woman’s story. Her country in Africa was in the throes of civil violence. She came home to find her husband killed, so she took her children and walked to the next country. She took her children and walked to the next country. It was the only way to save their lives. She carried them for days, weeks, she doesn’t remember. When she got to a refugee camp in the next country, she was taken to hospital for treatment of exhaustion, dehydration and malnutrition. It was the only way to save their lives.
I continue to sit under the shade trees and watch the world mill around me. Two little children with nothing but two plastic cups engage in hilarious play in the water fountain. They do not need to be entertained; they are entertaining. An old woman with a wrinkled face, wearing a red and yellow sari, has an American flag stuck in her hair. Bicycles abound. An old man holds a small child on his lap and they engage in finger-play.
I only see one cell phone.