What a Modern-Day Refugee Tragedy Should Make Us Remember newsusface

When the news broke that a boat with the bodies of more than a dozen African refugees washed up on the shores of Tobago, a few miles away from my home, my family believed it was an ominous sign. It was May 2021, only two years after we had left America to escape the racism that made our lives there unlivable. We settled in Tobago, the sister island of Trinidad, a tiny island in the southernmost Caribbean with white sand and aquamarine oceans.

“We are refugees,” I declared when the 2020 George Floyd protests gripped the nation and we watched from afar as the country went up in flames.

I knew that we had narrowly escaped something frightening back in the U.S. Mom, a retired nurse, got to our island safe haven a couple months before its borders were shut down. When the pandemic hit, her former co-workers complained there was no PPE and many of them got sick. We breathed a sigh of relief that mom avoided that fate. But when the bodies washed up on Tobago’s sandy shores, she worried about what it meant for our future in our new found home. The discovery felt portentous.

Days ago, the AP News published an investigative piece titled “Adrift” that told the stories of the men who braved treacherous seas aboard dinghy boats in desperate search of opportunity and a better life, only to meet their demise. I learned they were among thousands who departed Africa for the Canary Islands, by way of the Atlantic. Reports estimate 22,000 survived the trip in 2021.

These men—whose bodies were discovered in Tobago—were among the at least 1,109 who did not. Reading their stories shook me to my core. It revealed that racism was not something that could be escaped with relocation. The systems that perpetuate it are global and are currently threatening us all. While I watched the faces of these young men who tragically and unnecessarily lost their lives, I heard a call to action that I simply can no longer turn away from—one that demands the eradication of systems that perpetuate violence against human beings and our planet.

In 2021, at least seven boats washed up on the shores of the Caribbean and Brazil, regions where the slave trade trafficked millions of enslaved Africans from their homeland to the Americas. My ancestors were among them. For centuries, they toiled and labored in the fields and homes of their European owners while their “free” labor generated the wealth that would fuel the rise of capitalism and modern-day economies.

Many of the leading banks in Europe and the Americas, including JP Morgan Chase, Barclays and Wells Fargo all have ties to the slave trade. In the Caribbean, enslaved Africans were used to produce sugar and rum which generated massive profits for white Europeans that was poured back into the development of other capitalist enterprises. The modern shipping industry was bolstered by the massive profits made from slavery, which helped develop ports, warehouses and transportation companies in the West.

The link between this rise of capitalism and the continued destruction of Black bodies and the planet cannot be overstated.

Our era’s economic boom was made possible because of slave labor. These economic gains laid the bedrock for our modern-day economic systems by fueling the industrial revolution that gave way to mass production, over-consumption and urbanization. The link between this rise of capitalism and the continued destruction of Black bodies and the planet cannot be overstated.

As the slave trade empowered and enriched Europe and Europeans, it decimated Africa, tearing away at the region’s social fabric when even skilled laborers and farmers were torn from their homes and sold into bondage in exchange for guns and alcohol, which fueled wars and violent disputes. In the West, it birthed a systemic racial caste system that continues to wreak havoc on Black lives, relegating us to second-class citizenry.

The moment those tiny boats traversed the waters of the Atlantic, its passengers desperate to escape the Africa that was left in the destructive wake of the global slave trade and rise of capitalism, the past and the present converged. I believe we are now living out the ramifications of allowing a system willing to consume human beings and destroy the very ecosystems upon which we all rely, in exchange for wealth and economic growth.

In 2020, climate change escalated into a “climate crisis,” and by then millions across the globe were reeling from the impact of that shift, including the African men who attempted to escape poverty by sea.

As the AP’s powerful report reveals, among them was a man named Alassane Sow and another named Bayla Niang. Sow’s livestock business was decimated by the impact of climate change and his commerce business destroyed by the political and economic instability of his homeland—a mainstay in many African nations ever since the rise of global capitalism. Niang’s family said he braved the oceans of the Atlantic in search of economic opportunity because of the rampant unemployment that characterizes the economy of his homeland.

I think of those men who washed up on my homeland’s shores in a desperate search for reprieve from the systems that continue to prey on and disregard human life, while threatening to destroy our planet.

A recent study estimates that 85 percent of the world’s population has experienced weather events made worse by the climate crisis. By the end of the century, the climate crisis is expected to cost the US $2 trillion every year and developing nations $1 trillion annually. In the Caribbean, the climate crisis will wipe out $22 billion from the regional economy annually if we do not curb carbon emissions.

The cost of this crisis can also be measured in human life. It is estimated that climate-related disasters like droughts, floods and food shortages have already resulted in the deaths of millions worldwide. The system of capitalism and unfettered economic growth which fuels the climate crisis is decimating the world and literally killing us.

As I stroll the sandy shores of Tobago and marvel at the glistening ocean, I am constantly reminded of the historic significance of this moment and our need to act to finally dismantle the systems that are harming us. I think of my African ancestors, the brutal passage they braved and the grotesque dehumanization and violence they survived so that I could call Tobago my home. I think of those men who washed up on my homeland’s shores in a desperate search for reprieve from the systems that continue to prey on and disregard human life, while threatening to destroy our planet. I think about my family and my children and the kind of world I want them to inherit.

And I prepare myself to meet this moment. I prepare myself for the fight.

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