In the grim days following Hurricane Katrina's pounding of America's Gulf Coast states, people across the country and around the world were rushing in to fill some need, to contribute something to a rescue-and-recovery effort the magnitude of which may never be fully measured.
It was something that seemed to touch us all ... we ALL wanted to do SOMETHING. Some people contributed food, or clothes or money. Some people opened their homes to those fleeing the destruction ... while others rushed INTO that destruction, to deliver comfort and relief in person.
And some people argued over semantics ...
"What do you call people who have been driven from their homes with only the clothes on their backs, unsure if they will ever be able to return, and forced to build a new life in a strange place," the Associated Press asked in an article the week after the hurricane, as news media were filling with reports on the plight of hundreds-of-thousands of people who fled Katrina's wrath.
One thing for sure, those news organizations were being told, don't use the word "refugee."
Among those devoting an inordinate amount of attention to what, at first glance, seemed a non-issue, was the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who claimed, "it is racist to call American citizens 'refugees.'"
Of course, serious consideration might - for many people - have ended then and there ... as it often does when Reverend Jackson addresses an issue and attempts to shape and direct the debate and the attention it receives.
But, then, in came President George Bush. Now, President Bush will not go down in history as a wordsmith of the highest order ... his strengths lie in other areas of his mind and his character. But, still, he felt compelled to address the word usage, as well, saying, "The people we're talking about are not refugees. They are Americans, and they need the help and love and compassion of our fellow citizens."
Sources for definitions ... both on- and off-line ... vary. www.dictionary.com defines "refugee" as "One who flees in search of refuge, as in times of war, political oppression, or religious persecution" and that seems to exclude those who fled Katrina, if you limit yourself to the examples offered in that definition. At the same time, though, the website defines "refuge" as "1. Protection or shelter, as from danger or hardship; 2. a place providing protection or shelter; 3. a source of help, relief, or comfort in times of trouble" and THAT certainly sounds like what they were seeking, and what they were offered by those of us fortunate enough to be out of the storm's path.
So, what are these people?
In my own, humble opinion, they ARE refugees, among other things. In my work at www.newswest9.com, I have used the word, and others, to refer to those that fled the hurricane's destruction. Have I used it every time? No, of course not ... one thing a writer must beware of is over-using a word. So I use "refugee" as well as other words. (Another one that is over-used right now, "devastation")
And while it does set me at odds with Reverend Jackson and President Bush, that's fine ... there's plenty to keep us all busy in the weeks and months (and years?) ahead ... and most of it is a heck of a lot more important than the use of semantics as a form of political posturing.