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  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 1, No. 1, 2002

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By Steven C. Day

[Steven C. Day is an attorney. This article originally appeared in Pop]


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.

by Mady BourdageSo 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 death struggle.

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, 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 lives.

My sons are safe and well-fed. If only all the world's refugees could feel so sheltered.

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