Lesson #390: Protracted Refugees

I was reading an article, recently, about how the UN’s daily food allotment for roughly 450,000 African refugees is 850 calories. That’s not a lot. It’s about a third of what the average American consumes on a daily basis.

This got me to thinking about how long that’s sustainable. Obviously, that’s an untenable situation — because math, science, and common sense say so — and something will have to give, but I was curious about the length of time the average refugee is dependent on UN food resources.

According the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, a protracted refugee situation is one in which 25,000 or more people from the same country seek refugee status in another country (or countries) for a period of at least five years. Of the 15 million refugees worldwide, roughly two-thirds are living in protracted situations. But here’s the thing…in 1993, the average length of protracted refugee situations was nine years; by the end of 2003, it was 17 years. Seventeen years. That’s very literally half my life. 17 years stuck in a foreign country, often without the resources or recourse to find employment, or housing, or access to education. I’ve spent more than 17 years of my life being educated by actual institutions. Seventeen years of being stuck in a place with few, if any, options to move, work, and learn is just unfathomable to me.

Anyway, there’s a challenge that exists to go a single day on 850 calories. It’s honestly not that bad if you do it right…I did it for a week and wasn’t any the worse for wear as a result. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it still sucks. But it’s not that bad if you can eat a variety of things. For me, it was a lot of chicken, fresh vegetables, hard boiled eggs, beans, and a lot of spices. No bread or pasta — which aren’t things I eat a lot of anyway, so that wasn’t a huge challenge — no crackers, no pecan butter, no cheese, (mostly) no chocolate, no juice or pop — also fine because apart from limeade, I rarely drink either — and definitely no booze.* Basically no drinks other than water and one glass of chocolate milk a day.** But refugees don’t have access to grocery stores/farmer’s market and fresh fruits and veggies and eggs and lean meats. They have access to lentils, rice, and a spoonful of salt. Every day. If I’d had to do a week of that, there’s barely a sliver of a chance I’d have succeeded — in no small part because unless you put it in jambalaya, I’m not really very keen on rice. I’d encourage you to give the challenge a go, though. If nothing else, it was really interesting to pay that close attention to what I was eating.

For more on protracted refugee situations, including which nationalities are listed among the displaced, see the state department’s website, here. Or Oxford University’s Refugee Studies Centre’s website, here.

*I find I drink more frequently during the summer — because, as I’ve already noted, everyone knows beer consumed outdoors tastes better than beer consumed indoors and everyone enjoys being out in good weather — but giving it up for the football match was the harder aspect. Beer and football go together and always have. I gave up drinking for five weeks between the end of the Premier League season and the start of the World Cup, and that was fine. I went and hung out on patios for happy hours and to friends’ barbeques and whatnot…no problem. I spend one Sunday 8:30am match not drinking with my footie mates, and it’s two hours of agony. Even with a 4-0 victory for Spurs.

**Because secretly, I’m eight.

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Lesson #374: The Time Zaire Lost 9-0 at the World Cup

Apologies for the delay in getting this up. After a month of binging on football, — because that’s really what the World Cup is…a month-long football bender — I took a few days to detox by reading books, catching up with some friends I all but abandoned, running non-pressing errands I’d been putting off, and generally being away from the computer. 

I was sat at the bar in the Irish pub down the street from my house, where I spent all my pub-watching time, for the Brazil/Germany semifinal. I was cheering for Germany, in part because I had them winning it all in my bracket, in part because of Manuel Neuer,* but mostly — because England didn’t even get out of their group (but Costa Rica did…oh, World Cup, your sense of humour!) and Diego Forlan’s flowing locks’ advancement past Colombia were hindered by age and Luis Suarez’s appetite for Italian — because Michael Ballack has long been my footballing God, even if he did play for Chelsea.**

Anyway, among the other regulars at this bar is a guy my Spurs friends and I met in May during the Champions League final. He’s been interesting to hang out with because he’s from Tanzania and is the only person I’ve ever met who can talk about the history of African football.*** So there we are, Guinness in hand, watching Germany crush Brazil. Five goals in, I decided to look up the worst routs in World Cup history. Among them, my new friend mentioned, I’d find a 1974 match in which Yugoslavia defeated Zaire 9-0.**** And then my friend started telling me this insane story (that isn’t all that insane when you consider sub-Saharan Africa’s history of post-colonial despots, but that’s a whole separate issue):

In 1973, Zaire became the first sub-Saharan African team to qualify for the 1974 World Cup. Hooray! So off they went to West Germany. After a 2-0 loss to Scotland, the Leopards learned that the wages they were expecting to see for their effort was being, shall we say, reallocated. Directly into the pockets of an incredibly corrupt Zaire government (that embezzled somewhere between $4 and $15 billion over the course of Mobutu’s 30-year rule). Now, as you can imagine, the players were not especially thrilled by this and decided not to play the following match against Yugoslavia. They were eventually convinced to play the match, but, as you can probably deduce from the scoreline, they didn’t put a whole hell of a lot of effort into it. They also went a man down in the 22nd minute.

Anyway, at the time, the country was run by a guy called Mobutu Sese Seke, who was, by all accounts, not a nice man. Funnily enough, though, he was installed as President with support from both Belgium (who had been Zaire’s colonial overlords) and the United States. Mobutu’s solution to opposition was the beloved trifecta of psychotic rulers since the dawn of man: kidnapping, torture, and execution. And he was not particularly pleased by a 9-0 humiliation. So he did what any tyrannical dictator would do in this situation; he sent his presidential guards to threaten the players. They were told that if they lost 4-0 to Brazil in their final match of the group stage, they would not be allowed to return home. In the end, Zaire lost 3-0 and its players returned home without further incident, but Mobutu had a policy that kept the members of the Leopards from pursuing football careers outside of Zaire.

If you’re interested, the scoresheet is here. You can read more about this madness here, here, and here.

*Neuer appears in conversation between me and a friend in the Texas capital on at least a weekly basis. He’s also the subject of the biggest fight The Swede and I ever had. I was mad at him because for an engineer he was being impossibly idealistic, and he was mad at me because for a student of revolutions, I was being impossibly pragmatic. In the end, we nearly got kicked out of a bar in Berlin.

**During the 2008 Champions League final, a friend looked at me before Ballack took his penalty and said, “you know he’s just standing there thinking, ‘of course it’s going in; I’m Michael fucking Ballack!'”, which is still the best ascription of emotion I’ve ever heard.

***The only Africans I’ve ever really known on a regular basis were when I lived in an Eastern European capital, and they had some seriously disturbing stories about how they’d ended up there; we didn’t talk much about football.

****The record is a goal difference of 9. Two separate 9-0 matches — Hungary vs. South Korea in 1954, Yugoslavia vs. Zaire in 1974 — and one 10-1 match — Hungary vs. El Salvador in 1982.