[Steven C. Day is an attorney. This article originally appeared
3.06.02 | It's getting late and the motel is finally quieting
down. The banging doors and loud conversations in the hallway have
stopped. Both kids are asleep, thank God. You forget just how
convenient your own home is, how well suited you've made it to your
needs. This is all the more true when you have small children. We have our house baby-proofed
to within an inch of its life, which means that the boys can safely roam almost at will. There's
also plenty of room for the golden retriever and the three geriatric cats. It's comfortable. It's home.
The Light of Day
Or it was. We moved out a few days ago. Testing turned up mold in
our house -- the really scary kind of mold. As anyone who has had a mold problem will tell you, the
answers you get from the "pros" are infuriatingly vague and uncertain: "Yes, it can cause health
problems, sometimes serious ones; no, there's no way to know how great your particular risk is."
But one thing everyone agrees on is that when you have very young kids it's best to play it safe.
The motel is really quite pleasant. We have a suite with a small
kitchen and two bedrooms. But with both kids throwing up on a regular basis (it's probably just the
flu, but it could be from the mold)
and suffering from near terminal cabin fever, it's been an incredible
hassle. Since our room is, of course, not fully baby-proofed, we spend most of our "home"
time dragging the boys off various potential death traps. Meanwhile, the golden retriever and the geriatric
cats sit in kennels at the vet's office.
The environmental team expects to begin tearing out walls in our
house within the next few days. The clean-up process is likely to take a couple of weeks, including
retesting. The cost will be staggering, of course. And getting reimbursement from our homeowners insurance
company looks iffy at best.
here I sit in the dim light of the motel room trying like the Devil
to enjoy feeling sorry for myself. But somehow I can't do it. I
just keep thinking about how lucky I am.
Webster's defines "refugee" to include "one who
flees to a place of safety." If we take that literally,
then I guess for the moment I'm a refugee of sorts, albeit a damn
fortunate one. Most refugees, after all, don't live in comfortable two-bedroom suites, with clean running
water, ample food and the availability of top-flight medical care.
To most refugees, my current digs would seem like Shangri-la.
Normally I'm not this philosophical when it comes to personal
misfortune. I've never bought into the old parable that says: "I complained that I had no shoes, until
I met a man who had no feet." I'm perfectly capable of feeling sorry for myself even when other people
have things much worse. But this time it's different. I think it has to do with being a parent. Having
seen how disruptive it is to family life to be forcibly relocated to even a gilded sanctuary, I have
an increased sense of just how horrible it must be for parents living in the Third World.
Miserably poor and utterly powerless, battered by forces beyond
their control -- war, civil strife, hunger, disease, natural disaster -- they try to protect their families
in the only way they can, by striking out into the unknown. Often
they have no idea where they will go, or who, if anyone, will take
them in. What for me is an inconvenience is to them is a life and
Worldwide there are nearly 22 million people who fall under the
mandate of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. If you add those who are internally displaced,
the actual number of people who have been forced to flee their homes is closer to 50 million.
Many live in overcrowded refugee camps that offer inadequate food and shelter, poor sanitation, and
little if any health care.
And the problem of Third World poverty and hunger extends, of
course, far beyond the issue of refugees. The numbers are chilling:
According to the donation site JustGive.org, every 3.6 seconds someone
dies of hunger and three times out of four it's a child under age
5. That's a total of 24,000 preventable deaths each day -- 18,000
of which are young children.
The United States gives less per capita in foreign aid than any
other industrialized country. And even that overstates our case.
A full third of American foreign aid payments go to just two countries,
Israel and Egypt, with another third spent for support of U.S. products
abroad. Only a tiny percentage of the money finds its way to the nations most in need.
During a recent panel discussion at the World Economic Forum,
the unlikely pair of Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and Irish rock star Bono joined in urging wealthy
countries, especially the United States, to increase humanitarian
spending in the Third World. "If the U.S. doesn't do it, it
is not going to happen," Gates said. "The U.S. is the
laggard." Sadly, the Bush Administration's representative at the conference, Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill,
quickly dismissed proposals for increased foreign aid spending. The U.S. has given "trillions
of dollars in aid over the years with precious little to show for it," he insisted.
O'Neill suggested that the Bush administration will work to help
the world's poor in other ways, namely by encouraging structural
changes in the economies of poor countries. The administration's
goal is "to create a situation so that people become engines
of economic progress and not just objects of our pity," O'Neill
said. Translation: The administration will provide no meaningful
increase in aid spending, but will push poor nations to adopt economic
policies that are user-friendly to American corporate interests.
I hate the fact that Paul O'Neill speaks for the United States
on this subject. I firmly believe that his words do not fairly represent what is in the hearts of Americans.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), came closer when he rose from the audience
at the panel discussion to say: "If we are going to be the
wealthiest country on earth, we have a moral obligation that we
are not doing." There is evidence that the American people are prepared to respond. A poll taken last
year by the University of Maryland found that nearly 70 percent of Americans would be willing to pay
increased taxes to cut world hunger. We have it in our power to
make such a difference -- to end so much misery and to save so many
My sons are safe and well-fed. If only all the world's refugees
could feel so sheltered.