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Refugees On Stolen Land


In Need of Community Dialogue as South Asians Living on Indigenous Land
By Omme-Salma Rahemtullah |
NOVEMBER 19, 2021
Communication between the US State Department and the US embassy in Uganda about accepting Ugandans into the United States.
The news of the fall of Kabul in August of this year has raised questions surrounding the fate of displaced Afghans. Given the immediate danger that Afghans currently face, some of them will be coming to the US not as official refugees, but as parolees. Under the US Immigration and Nationality Act, parole is a tool that allows certain individuals to enter and stay in the US without a visa for urgent humanitarian reasons and/or that their entrance would be of “significant public benefit.” It was this same process that was used to facilitate the evacuations of Hungarians after the revolution in 1957 and to get Iraqi interpreters into the US in 2007. It was also the process used to admit 1500 Ugandan Asians into the US in 1972, after the entire Asian population of the East African county were given 3 months to leave by then dictator Idi Amin.

As a SAADA archival fellow I have been speaking with Ugandan Asian parolees about their exodus from Uganda, their Indian ancestry, and their lives in America. The resounding feeling amongst the people I spoke with was of gratitude that they were able to come to the US and rebuild their lives, and that the next generation was able to benefit from the education and opportunities this country could provide them. That sentiment in no way discounted the country they came from. Their love for and memories of Uganda are still present, Idi Amin and his regime notwithstanding, along with a powerful diasporic longing.

Born in Tanzania and raised in Toronto, Canada, I am a recent arrival to the US myself. As my SAADA fellowship comes to a close, I’ve been thinking about the various historical movements to Turtle Island, and the issues of living within the ongoing structures of settler colonialism on stolen land built by stolen people. Settler colonialism is a form of colonialism that seeks to replace the original population of a territory with a new society of people. In North America this process began with the ‘explorations’ of Christopher Columbus in 1492. The American settler project is premised on the logic of eliminating the Indigenous inhabitants of this land and having that land worked by enslaved Africans, to the political and economic benefit of white settlers. As subsequent migrants to America, what is our relationship to the settler colonial triad of settler-native-slave? Are we settlers of color – or even settler-refugees?

The use of the word ‘settler’ might be jarring when applied to refugees or parolees who had no choice but to leave their country. Though ‘settler’ is a relational term, premised on the understanding that not all people of color in this country have the same backgrounds, migratory routes, power, money and access. And though we are colonial subjects ourselves, in the case of Ugandan Asians, having been displaced from our homelands by British empire building in East Africa and racialized as subjects here in America, we still occupy and live on stolen Indigenous land.

During my interviews with the Ugandan Asians that found refuge in the US, a portion of time was spent talking through the bureaucratic processes of coming to the US, from lining up at the various Western embassies in Kampala, Uganda, to the ordeal of applying for passports and visas and enduring the long process of eventually being granted citizenship in the US. Missing from our conversations, and my reflections later, was how this process, by design, upholds the settler state. The very figure of the Ugandan or Afghan refugee/parolee and their participation in the apparatus of the state legitimizes the continued occupation of Indigenous land. Though refugees or economic immigrants are not directly responsible for the foundations of the American settler state, we nonetheless benefit from policies of Indigenous dispossession.
A collage of newspaper articles of Ugandan arrivals
This conflicted history owes much to the fantasy of Western benevolence and humanitarianism invoked through refugee resettlement, and directs attention away from the American nation-state’s displacement of Indigenous nations. The images of stateless Ugandan Asians fleeing a post-colonial state built by imperial expansion, or of Afghan interpreters who worked alongside the US military now in life-threatening danger from the Taliban, create much goodwill (granted of course that these Afghans seeking refuge are a direct result of US imperialism in the region). However, historical and present-day slavery and theft of land are not part of these calculations. Jodi Byrd, citizen of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma and Associate Professor of English at Cornell University warns us that the “project of liberal democracy, no matter how inclusive it becomes, will remain a lost cause...until the ongoing colonisations of Indigenous peoples around the world are recognised and redressed.”1

Even though Ugandan Asians were fleeing a dictatorial regime, their/our presence in East Africa can also be seen as one of complicities with colonialism. Though the states of East Africa were not setter-colonial projects, as in the case of South Africa, Ugandan Asians benefited from the British colonial bureaucracy that intentionally created a triarchy of racial power. Business licenses, bank loans, schooling and housing were codified along racial lines that gave Asians a clear advantage over Native Ugandans, but one that was not, of course, as privileged as the white British rulers themselves. Through the encouragement and support of Indian migration to East Africa, the British effectively created a colonial structure that placed a Brown buffer between them and Black Africans.2

This history further complicates the ways we think about settler colonial complicities of Ugandan Asian settlers in the US, as well as other Indian diasporic migrant settlers from all corners of the British empire and South Asia –-myself included. This raises questions for settlers of color, or settler-refugees, the primary one being: what does it mean to live and benefit from the settler state? Personally, as a South Asian invested in documenting our histories on this land, it is unclear how I can do that while also centering Indigenous decolonization? How do we work in solidarity with Indigenous and Black storytellers who are working on documenting histories of settler colonialism, but also of resistance and decolonization? How can we foreground those stories at SAADA? When we collect stories from South Asians here, are we asking them if they know about the colonial histories of the lands we live on? When we talk about the ultimate American success stories of homeownership or small business ownership, for example, are we also making clear that these houses and businesses are stolen Native land? Do we recognize the ongoing oppression of Black people via the prison industrial complex and our participation within it? What can we do to work outside of it as employers or teachers or business owners? When we seek migrant justice, are our movements in conversation with Indigenous struggles, so that our calls against the Muslim Ban for example, become calls for “No Ban on Stolen Land?”

I do not have the answers, but I want for us South Asians in the US to be able to build a conversation where we can stand in solidarity with movements for decolonization, that is the repatriation of land to sovereign Native tribes and nations and the abolition of slavery in its contemporary forms. As peoples from South Asia and its diasporas, we are very intimately connected to anti-colonial struggles (and in fact in many cases uphold colonial regimes), but that is not the same thing as decolonial struggles where we are now in the US. The mission of SAADA is to empower our voices and claim our place in the history of this nation; these are struggles for social justice, not decolonization. As an invested stakeholder in SAADA, I invite us all to engage in a dialogue on thinking about how we can make this amazing organization and collection ally with decolonial struggles on Turtle Island.

It has been very helpful to reflect on the writings of Indigenous Studies and Settler Studies scholars through my SAADA Archival Creators Fellowship project. These reflections come from reading the works of Jodi A. Byrd, Eve Tuck, K. Wayne Yang, Shaista Patel, Evy Lê Espiritu Gandhi, Terence Lilly Little Water and one of my dearest friends in the world Nishant Upadhyay.

1. Byrd, JodiA., (2009), “‘In the City of Blinding Lights’: Indigeneity, Cultural Studies and the Errants of Colonial Nostalgia,” Cultural Studies Review, Vol 15., No 2 (Critical Indigenous Theory)
2. A small number of Indian indentured labourers were brought to East Africa by the British to build a railroad from the interior of Uganda to the Kenyan coast in the 1890s, but the majority of these workers went back to India after the completion of the railroad. The British then encouraged merchants and landless Indians from Gujarat to build shops along the railway to serve the British empire’s needs.

Omme-Salma Rahemtullah is a recent transplant to the American South - Columbia, South Carolina. Born in Tanzania and raised in Toronto, Omme's work as a community programmer and academic has explored questions of identity, race and belonging. The Archival Creators Fellowship Program is made possible with a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.