In his song, “Blowin’ in The Wind” Bob Dylan asked many thought-provoking dialectical oppression and freedom questions, including: How many times can some people exist before they are allowed to be free? And to all of them, he said: The answer is blowin’ in the wind. While, on the surface, that answer looks like a fatalistic resignation to oppression; namely, the impossibility of resolving a problem that blends precariously with thin air, I argue that Dylan was tickling the oppressed into creative thinking and action about their condition.
Here is a situation that calls for creative freedom-based thinking and action on the part of the oppressed and exploited. So often, we hear of humanitarian sponsorships of poor refugees in troubled countries by the governments of rich Western nations. Instinctively one’s heart melts in gratitude to them for the kind gesture of giving refugees opportunity to better their lives in their new countries.
However, looking at the Canadian formula (and I have no reason to think otherwise about that of other rich nations), here is a snippet into its exploitative and enslaving chemistry. The Canadian Government, on the basis of strategic self-interest, selectively looks at some war-torn, economically impoverished countries of the so-called Third World, and hand-picks people for sponsorship as refugees in Canada. In the process, the candidates are promised a better life, which includes free housing and financial support for one year, and opportunity to work and improve their economic conditions. Furthermore, their airfares are paid for, with a repayment clause whose subliminal details are too tucked into the better life in Canada message for the candidates to fully understand in their combined space of trauma, and excitement about leaving their poor conditions of fear and uncertainty behind. In many cases, they had been living in refugee camps – away from their real homes!
Meanwhile, in the Canadian Government’s projection of the so-called humanitarian gesture that focuses on the very wretched and vulnerable, most of the refugees have little or no education or work skills with which to compete in the Canadian job market. Many families are of the single parent structure with children and aged parents/grandparents. In many cases, these parents/grandparents do not speak English! Yet, they are falsely informed (made to believe) that there is employment opportunity for them on arrival at their new country. The truth, though, is that even if they had skills and education, these would still be denigrated as inferior Third World employment portfolios for the Canadian market. In whatever category the refugees find themselves, they leave their home countries without genuine information about what awaits them in the Canadian world of work.
Welcome to Canada – and the woolly, abracadabra drama begins! Yes, they are given apartments to live in, and given funds that include upkeep money, to pay for them. They are shown the apartments cost on a monthly basis vis-a-vis the funds they are given, and they see that the difference allotted to their upkeep is a heart-wrenching paltry sum. Timid, and as if in some hideous dream, they wonder why they were not given cheaper places so as to free up more upkeep money. As a result, fear replaces their excitement about being in a rich country of hope. Fear again! Yet, they thought that all that had been left behind in their troubled homes. And as they do their best to suppress the fear, especially as their friends and families back home send them congratulatory messages about their landing in this new land of hope, the hard reality of the gap between their upkeep money and high cost of living trashes their efforts. The economy is a cold and callous system without any face for the poor – or refugees for that matter!
After a few weeks, they are sent notes by the Canadian Government reminding them of their agreement to pay back their airfare loan. In the details, they are given good financial advice on how to successfully pay it in small monthly installments over a three-year period; otherwise, they will pay interest on the loan. As the good financial advice does not include how they can (a) get into a reduced rent space to free up some money, and/or (b) get employment for a viable income, their fear slowly turns into a strong pathological desire to go back home. It is a pathological desire because as they silently debate how their return move would be read by the Canadian Government (possibility of being thrown into jail), and friends/relatives back home (reality of being jeered for throwing away an opportunity to live in a rich nation), their indecision throws them into depression. And as that depression needs to be hidden from their children in a protective strategy, their situation worsens.
Meanwhile, while they would like to pay back the loan through hard work, their finding employment to meet the challenge (including proper upkeep) is dimmed by (a) government rule that they would be cut off the financial support when they find work, and (b) the poor perception that employers have of their skills/education – not to mention, accent! In this connection, whatever jobs of the menial, dead-end, baby-sitting type they find will be inadequate to replace the supporting funds they get from the government.
As they are thus stuck on the paltry government support (which is just for one year), their depression deepens in angst of what happens thereafter. In the face of this discomfort and uncertainty, all they are told is that they are very lucky to be living in Canada through the opportunity of government sponsorship. And from what they learn from government social workers about their odd work prospect, they are silently contemplating doing the menial minimum wage jobs at the end of their one-year government assistance! What that means is that their financial situation will, at best, remain the same as it is under government assistance – with the reality being more inclined toward a poorer condition. And as they sigh that their lives are being subtly reduced to slavery condition, they wonder about the better life they had been promised, and the great difficulty in realizing that in their lame journey ahead. At the same time, they bemoan the impossibility of going back to their homes for some regeneration from the ashes of their past. Their state is that captured in “Song of Sorrow” by Ghanaian poet, Kofi Awoonor, about the trap of oppression in which returning to the past is impossible and going forward is a great difficulty.
Here then are some searching, oppression-freedom questions. What is the purpose of government sponsorship of refugees from the so-called Third World countries as here highlighted? Is it neo-slavery, or to be more blunt, has slavery ever ended? Is it a ritualistic charitizing – to make the wealthy nations to look (and feel good) on the surface? For the wholesome benefit to the recipient is obviously questionable in terms of life-giving space and human dignity! How financially uplifting and freeing is the loan arrangement they are cornered into – especially giving their obstacle to finding viable and decent jobs? What hope for authentic economic freedom is there for a single parent without English – but with four-eight children and an old parent/grandparent to cater for? What real assistance have a people got when they have to enter a state of subtle monetary insolvency straight from refugee camps? Sponsored refugees responded to the kind gesture of assistance with dignity to apply themselves for a better life via the promised work opportunity. Thus, they did hope that through employment, they would be able to pay back the airfare loan. Becoming enslaved in some financial insolvency and its net was not in their dream.
Recently, I read in a blog by one Matthew Rossano his reference to Thomas Aquinas’ thoughts that slavery can be justified when the slave is well treated by the owner. He talked about slavery’s moral permissibility when irrational salvage, being incapable of running their lives is better off under the control of someone as owner. The reference to Thomas Aquinas struck me as didactic because of the high value put on his thoughts as having a great influence on Christianity, which in turn shaped Western ethics. My point here is that Western ethics find it hard to separate assistance to people in need from an unequal power chemistry of oppressor (the benefactor) and oppressed (the beneficiary) – namely: a master-slave relationship! And that is the spirit at work in the Canadian Refugee Sponsorship: an embedded dichotomy in which the refugees as recipients of some assistance from a powerful Canada must stay in an oppressed, unequal state vis-a-vis their benefactor. Thus, asked Bob Dylan: how many times can some people exist before they are allowed to be free?
This is a point for reflection in the theories and praxis within the task of social change. I wear that cap to tickle a good look at the oppression-freedom questions above. And I go further to encourage a questioning of the conditions that tempt people to flee their home as refugees – namely: the behind-the-scene interests and forces of so-called civil wars. The movie “Blood Diamond” gave a snippet into the war in Sierra Leone that has caused a massive fleeing of the nationals from their homes. The picture presented in this blog story points to what they must be going through in their so-called new homes in the West… Bob Dylan’s song calls us all to reflect on the factors and chemistry of oppression and exploitation.