My Card, the Number, and Me
Volume 1, Issue 4-5 / March-April 2009
A personal reflection on the ubiquity of the “card number” assigned to every refugee—and the ripple effects it carries for memory, identity, and existence in the camp life.
Who knows me? Who knows my name? It is not bogus to ask. What is the importance—to have a name and to be called by a name? What I am sure of: all my neighbours in the community know my name and use it to call me. My students in primary school know my name, they proudly call me respectfully. Not only that, but they use the respectful phrase “Mwalimu” (teacher). Even my school documents and birth certificate boldly mention my name.
I am not the only one who has a name. All refugees have names—the name given to them when they were born.
Those who left their countries more than seventeen years ago—they came here to the camp with their names. But years have passed since they have been using their name everywhere they go. In the distribution centers they are known by their number.
All of them share a common thing: the card that represents the person. The name represents the person, but it does not matter.
We all share, each of us, the same feelings, fears, and frustrations in addition to six kilos of maize flour for fifteen days.
Once the refugee enters the camp, their name is not of importance. Once he joins the camp life, he should associate his memory with his card number.
When we are called to the UNHCR compound for eligibility, protection, or resettlement, we are called by our number. It is absurd. What especially angers me is when UNHCR used my ration card number to call me. They have my name. I wonder sometimes why they would not use my name, and make me feel human—something that has never cost anybody anything.
One day, I may lose my name and be stuck with my number.
It reminds me of a book I read about World War Two. The Jewish people were given numbers after they were ordered to give up their property. All was taken from them, including their names, and was replaced by a number. Then all happened: after losing family, property, and their names, they were sent to the chamber.
I hate head counts. I feel and fear losing my name; my belonging. I have been counted several times. Several times the card number has changed. All the time, I record and cram, memorize. I should remember my number since I would not be called by name. Once it is lost, it is gone—hard to get another replacement.
Existing in the camp depends on your number, but not on your name or on the status you had before. So I use my memory to keep my number.
Despite my developing memory loss, I must hardly try to remember my card number. In case something happens to it, I fear, and it is requested in one of the UNHCR offices—I must have my number. My number.
These days, I have begun forgetting things. I decided to consult friends and other people. They tell me this is common, and one shared this anecdote. There was a refugee who has been in the camp for years and developed a tendency to forget things. One day, he went to visit the doctor at the hospital. He told the doctor of his problem and described his symptoms. He forgets things. He forgets locking his door; he forgets to put out the candle light; he forget to remember his card number. The doctor interrupts to ask when his symptoms began to occur. “What symptoms?” the man replied, “I don’t remember.” Lastly, the doctor asked his card number. He recalled it and told the doctor at once, because he knew that represented his existence.
This is all common. It is shared among all of us. We refugees are all human. We all share the same fears, frustrations, and six kilos of maize flour for fifteen days.