A refugee, according to the UN Refugee Agency, is someone who is unable to return to their native country in fear of persecution. Reasons for this persecution include: race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion. An example of a refugee would be a Polish man who fled to America or neighbouring European countries to escape the Holocaust during World War II. The man, having affiliation with a particular religion that was being persecuted, cannot return home to his native country out of fear and hence is regarded as a refugee.
This term has a different meaning in We Refugees, a literary piece written by Hannah Arendt. She states that a refugee is someone who seeks refuge due to a crime committed or erratic opinion held. Arendt uses this definition to show the innocence of the Jews. She states[tome_reference id=”429″ biblio-id=”426″] that the Jews had to seek refuge despite committing no criminal acts or having any radical opinions[/tome_reference]. The Jews, therefor, needed a revised definition of the term ‘refugee’. According to Arendt this definition will have to be better suited to their situation. Henceforth, [tome_reference id=”430″ biblio-id=”426″]a refugee is someone in a new country with no way of helping themselves and seeks aid from Refugee Committees[/tome_reference]. For Arendt, this meaning erases the negative connotations of the term for the Jews. Instead, it gives the impression that they fled on their own accord and not because of war. For this reason Arendt rarely uses the word ‘refugees’. Rather, she refers to herself and the Jews as ‘optimists’. Ardent acknowledges a certain hostility associated with the term. She explains that the title reminds the Jews of the true reason why they had to flee their homes.
I admire Arendt’s explanation of the term and how it holds more meaning to the Jews than a simple title. She explains that for the Jews being regular immigrants helps them in forgetting the war. At, first I regarded this as a way of erasing their identity. However, the title ‘refugee’ associates the Jews with their past. It also places them in a category separate from the citizens of that foreign country. This allows for them to feel ostracised. This interpretation allowed me to understand why being seen as a refugee was daunting for the Jews. And had me questioning if other refugees felt the same way.
Ardent, Hannah. “We Refugees.” Altogether Elsewhere: Writers on Exile, edited by Marc Robinson, Faber & Faber, 1994, pp. 110–116.