The rubber sides of the boat were like arms – thick, round, hard. “These are the boats refugees have to travel through, men sit on the side, the women, children and elders in the middle, sometimes getting splashed and sick with the leaking gasoline from the engine because they are covering miles of ocean to go from one country to another.”
The words of the tour guide from Medicines Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders) rolled out of her mouth like water, narrating the “Forced From Home” traveling exhibit of removal, government/empire wars and NGO/government abuse of indigenous bodies across the global south.
As she spoke she cut lines into my already broken heart, breaking it into even more pieces. Our liberation school Decolonize Academy was on a field trip to this exhibit, sitting together in a dull gray rubber raft, which was sitting on the black asphalt parking lot behind the Kaiser auditorium in downtown Oakland. We were surrounded by everything that was allegedly modern and clean and part of this stolen Lisjan/Ohlone territory known as Oakland, California, United States.
As the guide took us through the literal experience of “refugees” across mama Earth — destroyed, dismantled and exploited from the empire fueled wars and corporate land grabs in Iraq, Lebanon, Mexico, Tanzania and South Sudan and more — directing us to “pick five things we could take with us with only a ten-second warning, I stood there deciding between a laminated card with a water bottle, passport, or money icons on it. I began to get a pit in the deepest part of my stomach.
I had been here before, so many times. The minutes-to-seconds warnings varied from situation to situation. This was my life as a houseless child.
Beginning at age 11, when I had to decide whether to take my favorite stuffed rabbit, my 6th grade class photo, or one other pair of jeans in the hefty bag we were about to throw out of the third-floor apartment window me and mama were being evicted from, the five-to-ten second warnings began. This was the first eviction we were faced with, our first in a long line of poverty and disability-fueled displacements. Then there were the cars that we were living in that were towed, giving me and my mama two-tofive seconds to grab “everything” before they were hitched onto the tow trucks and driven away, never to be seen again.
We were towed over and over because we were parked overnight in neighborhoods that didn’t want “homeless” people and their hoopties (broke-down cars) on their streets. So we would accumulate “illegal lodging” tickets, which we could never pay until they would tow our home away for good.
And then there were the five-minute warnings of the police and Department of Public works before all of our belongings were going to be thrown in the trash when we were sleeping in doorways, on benches and in parks — but by this time the deciding got easier: There was hardly anything left to decide on.
This is when the numbness of loss set in, this is when the poverty eats you up and you just become the move, the trash, the loss, the end. When the privilege of “belongings” is no longer yours to even consider. When the loss and trauma becomes normalized.
Our poor mama and uncle led liberation school Decolonize Academy, located on the liberated Ohlone Lisjan land us landless peoples at POOR Magazine call Homefulness went on a field trip to report and support for POOR Magazine’s revolutionary journalism class. All of us formerly houseless, currently houseless poverty mama and youth skolaz, whose Black, Brown, unhoused and disabled lives endlessly struggle with eviction, poverty, racism and different forms of oppression, false borders and police terror and community violence, were sadly really natural for us to make this series of horrible crisis decisions, as we rolled through each mock station.
“Imagine you are stateless,” the tour guide called out as she directed us to different sides of a tall erected fence in the installation. “You are an IDP,.. an international displaced person, no nation will claim you, no nation will protect you.”
“You mean like me, like Afro-indigenous peoples here,” sis-star warrior, co-teacher at Decolonize Academy and co-founder of Kiss My Black Arts Tracey Bell-Borden, said to me under her breath. “Our Black and Brown bodies always under attack by the state, never protected, never respected.” Her voice trailed off and we both got quiet.
International displaced person or IDP’s…as I stood behind that fake fence, I thought wouldn’t this be a logical title for Black, Brown and indigenous folks endlessly predated on by the police and the politricksters, peoples like Luis Demetrio Gongora Pat and Amilcar Perez Lopez and Jessica Nelson Williams. And unhoused, criminalized, displaced folks in this stolen indigenous territory ruled over by the land-stealers, banksters and real estate snakes, who thanks to the buying, selling and profiting off of mother Earth have made it impossible to afford the basic human right of safe, affordable housing in most urban cities in the United Snakes. Families like me and my mama who were permanently outside for over ten years of my childhood, and later when I was a single mama with my infant son.
“Now you can only bring two things, and you have two seconds to decide,” as she spoke we all numbly dropped our cards, leaving things we would have needed to live, eat and survive. Not because it made sense or was a good decision, but like so many of our brother and sister international refugees, were being told, we had to leave. Cards with food, coins, tools, and ID’s were dropped numbly by all of us into a barrel and we all shuffled off to the next to last installations.
“This is one of the most important parts of what MSF provides in refugee camps; it’s the clean water and sanitation tent.” Our guide proceeded to show us an extremely simple shower and water station cobbled together with plastic water bottles and canvas that all derived from a large box of imported clean water that MSF brought to all the camps they supported. Again, this was exactly what unhoused folks here need. At every unhoused encampment, folks are criminalized for the sole act of relieving their bodily fluids. Every time a poverty skola is asked directly what they need, we always ask for a porta pottie.
“Where can we pee?” As she spoke about the urgent need for the sanitation to keep everyone in the camps healthy, my mind jumped to the endless attacks on unhoused, disabled Black elders of Aunti Frances Self-Help Hunger Program just to have and keep one porta pottie in a North Oakland “public” park in a neighborhood they were all from and now were displaced from, due to high-speed land-grabs of all of Oakland and now reside in what my mama Dee used to call the card-board motels. The installation of working and maintained porta potties is one of the things that made the self-determined Here/There encampment in Berkeley so beautiful and logical and insane for the Berkeley politricksters to remove.
And then we were directed to the last “station” which was actually a tent. My heart heavy with me and mama’s own street housing and the extreme and non-stop police harassment and DPW removals (called “sweeps”) of tent encampments from Frisco to Berkeley to Oakland, I walked slowly into this station. All of us sat quietly in front of this, the last story as the tour guide spoke.
“This is the story of a young girl, a teenager, who was an IDP in Rohinga. She showed up at the gate of a refugee camp after having five minutes to flee her village out of her uncle’s back window because she would have been killed after her parents had been killed. When she arrived at the refugee camp, which she ran and walked all the way to with just the clothes on her back, they wouldn’t let her in — so she, having Nowhere else to GO…Nowhere Else to Goooo, Nowhere Else to Go (my mind stuck here, as that is what we houseless, displaced, evicted elders and families always say, feel, face,) slept outside the gate, unsheltered in the mud and rain. For weeks. Until she became seriously ill with cholera and almost died. Then they let her in. Then they let her in… Then they let her in…
“After getting treatment and healing several weeks later, she woke up one morning and decided to try to get her life back together. She had been going to culinary school in her village before her family was murdered and she was forced to flee. So, one morning, after getting all her books and things ready, she got dressed, got her hair fixed, her shoes and socks on and walked toward the door of the tent, and then stopped, paralyzed by fear and trauma and turned around. She could not leave…. paralyzed by fear and trauma, she could not leave.
At this point, my chest tensed up, my head started to pound, my heart started to race and I couldn’t breathe. Tears streamed down my face. I began violently shaking. I couldn’t move in my metal chair. my sun and the other youth skolaz at our small school surrounded me, holding my hand and repeating, “it’s going to be ok Mama Tiny.”
My mama, a torture survivor, whose own teenage immigrant, abused mama had tried to kill her, and who barely survived extreme abuse in foster homes and orphanages, could not leave the house, even when we had no house. I was her sole caregiver. I held her through that torture, that terror, every day as her daughter, until the day she transitioned. It was why she could no longer work after being laid off — “one more little murder of the soul, Lisa,” she would whisper, and then grip my arm and then just sit down. She tried so hard, just like this young warrior, she tried so many times. And yet she could never overcome that terror. She could never leave the car, the doorway, the tent, and then eventually the apartment once we were finally re-housed.
“The MSF offers mental health treatment to folks in the camps as well, we are still working with this young woman, and she is still trying.”
As the tour guide wound down, the stories of 100-year-old evicted elder Iris Canada, who died within two days of being forced from her home, of Elaine Turner, Ron Likkers and so many more elders whose lives are destroyed, whose bodies and lives are abused by the violence of Ellis Act evictions that plagues the land-grabs of the Bay Area and causes so many of us poor and working-class families, elders and folks to become unhoused.
“Have you ever considered the “refugees” right here, right around your installation?” we asked the tour guide at the end of the tour pointing to several tents across the street near the state building.
She didn’t really have anything to say. She nodded her head as we explained the situation of so many people in poverty right here.
As we all walked away slowly, dazed and tearful, I pondered our own state of being IDP’s. The connections between the original peoples’ colonization and genocide. The way that those same settler colonizer laws inform police culture that terrorizes Black and Brown people, that endlessly removes and displaces and criminalizes poor and houseless elders and families from their communities of origin and legislates the so-called public land so it’s never used for the public good. And how this same empire and stolen state supports wealth hoarders and starts and funds wars all across mama Earth so peoples from Yemen to Palestine are always “forced to move.”