No Scapegoats Please! Learning from Ordinary Folk after Hurricane Irma

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The President of the University of St. Martin (USM) Dr. Francio Guadeloupe addresses ethical and moral behavior of everyday people of varying ethnicities and nationalities, documented and undocumented alike, coming together to clean up and to help rebuild the bi-national island of Saint Martin and Sint Maarten after Hurricane Irma. Summarizing the hopes and dreams of one of those selfless people who came to the rescue of fellow islanders, he writes, “The world needed a restructuring whereby the categories of the law and nationality would not trump the dignity of men and women who were simply trying to lead a decent life.” [This article has been published in St. Maarten’s The Daily Herald, Weekender Edition; link pending.]

Have they touched you too? Are you one of the persons who have benefitted from their unselfish loving kindness and wisdom? Or, have you been moved by what others told you about the way they went out of their way to help those who lost homes and loved ones after the passing of Hurricane Irma?

I am referring to those ordinary Saint Martinoise and Sint Maarteners (St. Martiners), inhabitants of our bi-national island of Saint Martin & Sint Maarten, whose ethical and moral behaviour in the aftermath of that category 5 typhoon is nothing short of saintly. They were the first to share the little that they had, after they had lost much or most of what they had, with their neighbours. They were the ones who sternly yet respectfully addressed those who took stuff from businesses and homes that did not belong to them. They were the ones who began to clean up the rubble, and encourage others to make their neighborhoods habitable again.

These St. Martiners, and I employ that term in this piece to include everyone that resides here regardless of their status or ancestry, aren’t renowned intellectuals, political hot shots, or well positioned philanthropists tied to charities or NGOs with clout; the good deeds of the latter are sufficiently heralded, as they should be; in a similar vein that one should not romanticize the poor as always virtuous, one should not immediately doubt or depreciate the good intentions of the well off. Those of whom I speak, those who are the focus of this piece, are men and women and their children who despite working hard and long hours barely make ends meet at the end of the month. Sometimes they are undocumented working to make the purgatory like conditions their families face in their impoverished homelands a bit more bearable. Structurally they are exploited and rendered socially invisible except when a scapegoat is needed.

And the general sentiment seems to be that a sacrificial victim is needed right now. When one translates all the vehement comments one hears on street corners, reads on social media, or picks up from political representatives and opinion makers, one can discern that the blame game is on. That means that someone or some group of persons are being assigned the role of agents of the coming economic crisis.

It is an understatement to say that St. Martin is in shambles. Many businesses will not reopen. Many will be out of a job. There is a fear that the island will not be the darling of western tourists after the negative media coverage on CNN of the looting and incompetence of the government apparatus.  No amount of hurray and positive talk about speedy recovery and our island bouncing back can change this.

We arrive at this realization when we take the time to recognize that matters weren’t picture perfect prior to hurricane Irma. We were facing an economic crunch, there was a moral malaise whereby the gap between the well to do few and those St. Martiners struggling was widening, and generally the population was becoming well-adjusted to indecency. Lest we forget, we were being called to do some soul searching on a collective and individual level.

Those who were performing that role of calling us to order are exactly those persons who are today exemplifying that saintly behavior. I speak from experience having had the good fortune of receiving help and intellectual guidance by some of them. It was a Dominican woman, a cleaner in her fifties who would occasionally babysit my daughter and who would rather remain anonymous, who took the time to help me clean out my house and move the little valuable items that remained after the hurricane destroyed my home. I did not ask for her help. She simply heard of my loss and came. It must have been quite a sight to behold seeing us, differing in age and class and ethnicity, sweeping, mopping, lifting rubble, and sharing the little that we had. And as her small apartment became a shelter, it was a set of undocumented women and men who came and pitched in (this is the category that is now being told to leave the island as they were supposedly the only ones doing the looting!). My point should not be misconstrued as distinguishing the virtue of newcomers versus the moral indifference of the oldcomers. The categories are often blurred and intertwined. An example of this is that a recently arrived newcomer from Jamaica and her local St. Martin husband immediately offered shelter to my family after our house was devastated. I could go on furnishing illustrations, but I think you get the point. Those who exhibit saintly behaviour are a multicultural bunch.

Let me end this by sharing with you some of the wisdom I was privy too conversing with the Dominican lady while we cleaned up the mess. I share it with you, as it is an echo I have heard throughout the island, visiting the many families that are suffering. On the matter of assistance from The Hague and its possible colonial implications, she was practical. She understood when properly explained the line of argument of intellectuals such as Levi Gahman and Gabrielle Thongs of the University of the West Indies that the colonial wrongs in terms of gender, class, racism, and governments still emulating the ruthlessness of the political ancestors of the current North Atlantic powers, are still felt in the region and as a consequence exacerbate the effects of hurricanes such as Irma and Maria. She would say ‘por supuesto’ (of course), but then go on to furnish personal stories that boiled down to helping me realize that the legitimations of racism, gender inequality, and treating the poor as footstools, were on the defensive. Those who still harbored racial hatred and contempt could not proudly proclaim it as they did when she was growing up. It was important to recognize that some progress had been achieved. Many were to use a popular urban expression, “woke” (aware and seeking to dismantle the unequal world we inhabit). Her dealings with the Dutch Marines on island, to give a pertinent example, was one in which she was able to see that while some implicitly behaved as though the islanders were childlike, most genuinely sought to establish a relationship and wanted to help. Her station in society, a domestic and ‘Jane of all trades’ focused on making sure her offspring would have it better than she did, made her a keen observer of behavior. She looked at what an individual did, minimizing the grip of categories such as “white, “black,” “neocolonist,” etc. that as useful as they maybe can sometimes render us captives of generalizations. She was critical of “los Holandeses” (the Dutch from the Netherlands) whom she equated with persons coming to deport hardworking friends of hers who unfortunately did not have the proper papers to be residing on SXM. But that generalization did not blind her from seeing and judging individual Dutch men and women based on their deeds. The world needed a restructuring whereby the categories of the law and nationality would not trump the dignity of men and women who were simply trying to lead a decent life.

Given that that was her dream, she disliked all abstractions that could lead men and women from acknowledging the life of every individual. For her it was matter of the goodhearted recognizing all their differences, coming together to rebuild St. Martin. Those with technical expertise in the field of economics, politics, and social dynamics, ought to consult practical men and women and children like her when coming up with viable plans. The reconstruction of St. Martin is not about solely providing food, building materials, and water, but more importantly about creating a society where all will be treated with dignity. To arrive there thinking outside the box is not sufficient. One will have to think outside of the known universe of cherished solutions.

Her dream is shared by many on the island, throughout the Kingdom of the Netherlands, the French Republic, the wider Caribbean, and dare I say the world. If we listen to them, we will be less tempted to scapegoat in dire time and instead come together to come up with practical solutions issuing a different political structure and society.

[This article has been published in St. Maarten’s The Daily Herald; link pending.]

Photo above from https://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2017/09/photos-from-saint-martin-after-hurricane-irma/539103/

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