Are the Displaced Entitled to a Haven?

AT first glance, a small trailer parked on the lawn of the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, Mass., looks like the kind of rental van normally hitched to cars for do-it-yourself moves. But a closer inspection reveals that the logo reads not U-Haul but U-HAUS. Inside, visible through an octagonal window, walls have been painted with woodland scenes - trees, animals, birds - as if to suggest that this forest constitutes a home of sorts.

The trailer, one of more than 40 objects in the museum's Sculpture Park, is artist Jeff deCastro's way of symbolizing instability, uprootedness, homelessness. If his creation truly were a portable house instead of an artistic statement, he could find an unlimited market for it these days. Never have more people around the world been on the move or on the run, displaced - by political upheaval and natural disaster - from everything familiar and cherished, desperate for a place to call home, however tempor ary or humble.

Last week the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that the number of refugees around the world has swelled from 30 million three years ago to 43 million today. Dramatic, haunting news photos in recent weeks tell the story of those who have suddenly been forced to join the legions of the dispossessed:

* In Bosnia, an elderly couple, surrounded by suitcases and bulging satchels, rests in a convent after fleeing their village during fighting between Croats and Muslims. Their stoic faces are a study in dignity and resignation.

* In southern Lebanon, a mother and her two children stand on the back of a truck with only a few possessions, waiting anxiously in traffic to travel north, away from Israeli artillery. At about the same time, residents of a settlement in northern Israel were boarding buses to flee south.

* And in Somalia, refugee women, one of them stretched out on the ground in apparent defiance, engage in a standoff with United States soldiers who are trying to clear them from their camp - their makeshift home away from home.

Have homes and homelands ever seemed more precious and fragile, no longer havens or birthrights that can be taken for granted?

No one knows what beloved objects these newly homeless families have grabbed on their way out the door and stuffed into satchels as they wait to start a new life at an unknown address. Small heirlooms, perhaps, whose value may be sentimental rather than monetary? A few toys? A cooking pot or favorite utensil? Whatever the chosen treasures, they must serve as permanent links between the old life and the new.

The cruel and invidious distinction between "natives" and "foreigners" seems to be more pervasive than at any time since World War II. It is no time to be a displaced person or even a simple wanderer looking for a better home.

The estimates are that 1 million to 2 million refugees a year are filtering illegally into Western Europe, and in response the welcome mats have been rudely discarded, if they ever existed. The Austrians are manning their frontier against Hungarians. The Germans are sending Poles back to Poland. The Greeks are rounding up and expelling Albanians.

On the East Coast of the United States, the Haitians, pointing their fragile boats toward Florida, have been turned back. On the West Coast, Gov. Pete Wilson (R) has just declared a kind of war by announcing that California's quality of life and economic recovery are "under siege" from illegal immigration. He estimates that almost 1 out of 15 residents in his state is an illegal immigrant.

But in the United States especially, blocking the open door seems an unnatural act. The words of Emma Lazarus ring with a sad irony in the 1990s: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses.... Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me." Finally, the words become a rebuke.

The fact is, hospitality to the stranger at the gate is one of the most universal and ancient of civilized codes. For the moment, the ideal may have bumped into the complications of economic crises, ethnic prejudices, and overpopulation.

But that only makes it more urgent that these problems be resolved. For the one certainty is this: The ideal of the world as a generous and hospitable community will not go away.

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