The Sound of Music and the Marginalized

Displaced people have a reputation of being primarily non-Western. It is easy in the United States to see them as foreign and other.

Then Katrina happens. New Orleans and other Gulf towns get flushed out by the storm and cities from Houston to Boston start taking in the refugees, offering beds and canned food and tuition. Suddenly we are the displaced people, our streets ruined, our cafes closed. We become generous with our time and money, and angry at the corruption and inefficiencies that limit recovery.

But it didn’t stop there. When tragedy struck elsewhere, we sent money as far as Indonesia and Haiti, holding telethons and concerts and making terrible music videos on the victims’ behalf.

But as the Pakistan floods began, journalists and aid groups remarked on the noticeably low rate of giving, even from typically generous Western countries. Was it because Pakistan is part of a very unpopular American war? Are the givers racist towards the Pakistani people?

What many reporters suggested, and what is probably more accurate, is a sickness from donor exhaustion, a tiredness of the many problems of the world, a sense of disconnectedness from the affected people.

At the end of The Sound of Music, the Von Trapp family hides out from the Nazis in a convent. Little Gretl, the youngest, asks Maria if they can sing to give themselves courage. Liesl, the oldest, realizes that her sweetheart has begun fighting for the Third Reich.

They are a beautiful, young, white family, speaking – at least in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical – in perfect English, and running from men who look like Ken dolls. They steal our hearts.

But every day across the globe, children ask their mothers what they can do to stop feeling scared, and women are betrayed by the very men who have claimed to love them. Like the Von Trapps hiking dreamily over the Alps, they pack their bags and flee murder, political coups, hunger, and yes floods.

Why do we give to some of them? Or better, why do we not give? Do we really love the smelly, sick, tired and cold people who look worse for wear and have only bones for bodies? Or do we love the idea of strong, beautiful, well-dressed families who look like us climbing mountains to make their escape (families which, by the way, don’t exist)? Or do we just feel survivors’ guilt?

We could learn and unlearn a lot from the Von Trapps, with their white skin, pretty clothes and beautiful voices. For one, that displacement can happen anywhere to anyone, from Indonesia and Pakistan to Austria and Iowa and New Orleans.

We would be wise not to pass up on helping any Gretls we can, understanding that it is sheer Providence that we are not crossing the Alps in fear right now, and knowing that, if it was us, we would have a very different opinion on donor exhaustion and what “able to give” should mean.

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