The Suffering of Displacement

Bethany Stetson, The Unmentionables' Development Team

“Suffering is not increased by numbers. One body can contain all the suffering the world can feel.”
(Graham Greene, The Quiet American)

This sentence was my companion during a time of great tragedy while I was in college. A troubled young man decided it was his right to determine who could live and who could die and opened fire on the small beach town I called home. Grappling with the trauma that followed, it gave me freedom to grieve when I realized it didn’t matter how big, how small, how known, or how unknown this tragedy was for it to be a tragedy. The same tears that flowed from my community flowed from other communities that faced war or accidents that claimed thousands of lives or just one life.

Social media has its vices, but after recently relocating from California to Hawaii, I’ve been thankful to remain connected to my home even with an ocean between us. When I woke up the morning of January 9th, half a day had passed back home, eight hours into a devastating disaster, and my feed was filled with friends and family sharing they were safe and what happened in the early hours of the day.

You see, when the Thomas Fire tore through the coast of California, scarring my hometown of Carpinteria and the surrounding areas, the land was left vulnerable to more tragedy should rain come.

And rain it did.

After drizzling on and off all day, one particularly intense burst of rain after 3 AM on January 9th led to the burned vegetation on the mountains of Montecito, just a few minutes north of Carpinteria, to collapse into a massive mudslide. It flowed directly through the town straight to the ocean, ripping apart homes and taking over 20 lives in its path.

The large loss of life has been attributed to evacuation fatigue; after finally getting back into their homes after the Thomas Fire, many families elected to stay home if they were in the voluntary evacuation zone. They couldn’t have known that the hardest hit area was voluntary, not mandatory.

Displacement is exhausting. Tragedy is exhausting. And no one is immune. Montecito is an affluent town, with big names like Oprah and Ellen DeGeneres calling it home. But disasters, whether natural or manmade, do not care who you are. Blind to status, they take and destroy equally.

As recovery has begun, the greatest needs felt by those in Montecito are shared with displaced people around the world. Yes, immediate felt needs like shelter and food, but also deeper needs like trauma care and healing. As the Unmentionables works to provide dignity through hygiene, we identify ourselves with and honor the experience of any displaced person anywhere. From the islands of Greece to the coast of California, it is true that in one person’s story can be found all the suffering the world can feel.

Kaleigh Heard