I had not heard of the Yazidi population living in my city prior to taking a job as a refugee resettlement case manager. Nor had I known of the significant population of refugees from places such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Burma, and many other countries that called Lincoln, Nebraska their home. But most of all, I did not know the extent to which the Yazidis would demonstrate to me the importance of resisting the norms of political complacency in my quiet town, and how championing for human rights can truly make a difference in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. It was their example that led human rights advocates in Lincoln and other cities across the nation to resist the anti-refugee political rhetoric that began to circulate across the United States following the Paris attacks, demonstrating the crucial opportunity communities have across the U.S. to welcome those who have left all they once knew behind.
The heart of Vaclav Havel’s The Power of the Powerless rests in his argument that individuals ought to view themselves not merely as repeating facets in the mechanism of mass society, but rather, as someone who is searching for the truth in life. Indeed, as Havel describes it, living as if one has no responsibility greater than survival is not only a personal and moral crisis, it is a crisis of society, politics, and livelihood, and only sustains the culture of the lie. It is that brand of lifestyle that encourages and permeates political disenfranchisement. And although Havel was writing this essay decades ago under a post-totalitarian regime, his rhetoric is still relevant in situations such as Syria. Under Bashar Al-Assad’s Ba’athist, Alawite leadership, thousands of disenfranchised Sunnis who were barred from particular universities and coerced to hang up praising pictures of Assad – similar to that of the greengrocer’s poster – simply because it was what they felt they had to do under the circumstances, appropriately responded by resisting the leadership. Unfortunately, the circumstances grew in violence, sending millions fleeing into neighboring countries.
However, resistance does not always take shape in communist states or states run by dictators, and it most certainly does not always result in violent civil wars. In fact, Havel warns the democracies of the West of living within the lie, being too complicit with bureaucratic failures and only satisfied with material goods. Indeed, the Syrians from all walks of life that peacefully gathered in resistance lived out Havel’s call to truly define oneself and to strive for a better community. But Havel’s idea of resistance calls upon all individuals in the world to take part in actively bettering the lives of others. This idea does not always necessitate a gathering in protest or seeking a position in higher politics. Rather, it means people in the very least ought to strive to be better neighbors, better citizens, and better human beings as to live beyond the culture of the lie. Such individual transformations compound change and resistance in communities across the globe, such as the Yazidi movement among the refugees I resettled in August of 2014.
By the summer of 2014, I had been resettling refugees for over a year and a half, during which time I had grown very close to the Yazidi population I was serving. Lincoln boasts the largest population of Yazidis in the U.S., an ethno-religious group from Northern Iraq, with over 1,200 Yazidis calling Lincoln home at present. On August 3rd, 2014, the so-called Islamic State (IS) took over the Sinjar Mountain region in Iraq, the eternal home of a great number of Yazidis living in Iraq at that time. Those that did not face death, capture, or enslavement by IS were forced up the mountain with little food, water, and shelter. Dozens of my clients’ families began calling to report the state of the situation on top of the mountain. Unfortunately, there was little political capital left to encourage most politicians and citizens to take action.
Immediately, Lincoln’s Yazidi population sprang into action and held a vigil in front of our state capitol building and later the governor’s mansion. Attendance was significant and attracted meaningful press articles, but little political attention at first. These individuals were resistors; they resisted to accept the complacency that most politicians and community members alike have when it comes to global human rights crises. There is a misconception, though, that is deeply embedded in the minds of many citizens, that in the midst of the big world, their voice is far too small to have any sort of impact. It is thought that government is too big to change and that politicians only listen to big money and even bigger leverage. Coupled with the intrinsic idea that crises in foreign lands do not affect one’s well-being here and now, complacency becomes almost innate among an apathetic population.
However, the Yazidis believed that the U.S. had a responsibility to provide relief for their stranded family members on top of the mountain. Fortunately, Nebraska Representative Jeff Fortenberry took heed to the Yazidis and met with a designated group of Yazidi leaders within days of the protest. Fortenberry went on to speak on behalf of the Yazidis to not only President Obama, but also to Congress in support of the Relief to Nineveh Plain of Iraq bill, where he condemned the UN for denouncing the persecution of minorities in Iraq and called for immediate relief to individuals stranded on the mountain. Within days, food and supply drops were being made on the mountain, and significant air strikes were mandated to oust the IS militants still surrounding the mountain, arguably saving thousands of lives. In the words of one prominent Yazidi figure in Lincoln, “Without Jeff Fortenberry and fellow protestors, my family would have died on that mountain.”
Undeniably, there are countless human rights crises occurring at this very moment around the globe. For many, it is easy to feel that individual efforts to influence change are a mere drop in the bucket. However, the powerful story of the Yazidis resisting political complacency is a prime example of how a small minority of non-voting eligible refugees as well as local advocates can go so far as to save the lives of thousands of individuals thousands of miles away. Their actions exemplify Havel’s call to not merely be satisfied with material satisfactions and safe livelihoods, but to strive for identity and a sense of responsibility. After all, the individuals involved in advocating had safe homes, steady jobs, and significant material possessions, comparably. Had the Yazidi population and the many community members in Lincoln remained complacent and not resisted against the norm, the voices of those on Sinjar mountain would have gone unheard. It is their example that global citizens should take heed of in the face of human rights crises, and an example that many in the city of Lincoln took to heart when U.S. politicians began announcing their opposition to refugee resettlement in their respective states after the Paris attacks, including Nebraska.
Just as Havel notes in his essay regarding individuals in post-totalitarian societies, the dissidents and resistors that continue to support refugee resettlement in Nebraska and across the U.S. do not merely decide to do so haphazardly. They stand in conflict with the bureaucratic system and feel compelled to make known their opposition. Local vigils, university panels, and community meetings have all been held in an effort to educate and encourage citizens to actively address their political representatives with their grievances and support refugee resettlement. Additionally, I founded a community organization, Lincoln Friends of Refugees, which is designed to create mutually-beneficial relationships between refugees and peer mentors within the community in an effort to strengthen the ties between the diverse populations of Lincoln. As a result of such advocacy and resistant efforts, local and state politicians backed down on not only the anti-refugee resettlement rhetoric, but also dropped LB 966 in the Nebraska State Legislature, which was a bill that would have shut down all state refugee resettlement agencies in 2016.
This essay revealed the enduring relevance that Havel’s The Power of the Powerless still holds in societies across the globe, and in particular, my own community. Havel’s essay forces one to grapple with their own individual existence and identity. Perhaps the most exemplifying aspect of the essay is, indeed, the focus on the individual and their role in society. Under corrupt or unresponsive bureaucratic systems, one has the choice to better society or remain complicit, and to remain complicit is to play an active role in binding together such a system. Citizens would do well in taking to heart the valuable words Havel has, because they are empowering, pragmatic, and encouraging to those that seek to move and promote change in the face of global human rights crises.
About Drew Miller
My name is Drew Miller, and I was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, where I currently attend the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I will graduate with degrees in Political Science and Global Studies on May 6th, 2016. I am a refugee resettlement case manager at Catholic Social Services in Lincoln and have held this position since 2013. After graduation, I will complete a fellowship at the Vaclav Havel Library Foundation in Prague, Czech Republic, after which, I will spend a short time traveling Europe before returning to Lincoln, where I will continue working in refugee resettlement. I have a passion for studying human rights as well as promoting them on the local level. I am the founder and director of Lincoln Friends of Refugees, a volunteer program designed to create mutually beneficial relationships between community members and newly arriving refugees. In the future, I hope to pursue a career in international migration and refugee services.