If ever there was a good time to burrow into a collection of essays by refugee writers from around the world, it was now. And by “good” I mean timely and relevant.
The world’s attention has been focused lately on Syria and Myanmar, but people in Afghanistan and several African nations are among millions who also have been driven from their homes by political unrest and ongoing violence. Closer to home, we’ve been saturated with coverage of Mexican and Central American migrants surging to the southern border, hoping for a chance at a better life in the United States.
If you’re looking for a way to better understand this global crisis, there may be no better way than through the individual voices of men and women who, along with their families, have survived it and become prominent writers, each and every one.
Published in 2018, “The Displaced” is a slim book of 17 essays edited by Viet Thanh Nguyen, who was just a child when his family fled Saigon in 1975 and later won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2016 for his debut novel “The Sympathizer.”
The writers hail from all over — Afghanistann, Bosnia, Mexico, Germany, Hungary, Vietnam, Zimbabwe and more — and their stories range from World War II and the Vietnam War to more recent experiences.
The essays are poignant and illuminating. Written at a high level, they provide multiple perspectives on what it means to be displaced.
To abandon your home and leave behind the people you love. To deal with the hardships and indignities of life in a refugee camp. To adapt to a new home in a land where the language, food and customs are foreign to you. To start a new life as an outsider, no matter whether it is somewhere in Europe or Asia, Canada or the United States.
In his introduction to the book, Nguyen says the world faces an enormous humanitarian crisis. Of 65.6 million people that the United Nations classifies as displaced people, some 40.3 million are internally displaced people, forced to move within their on countries; 22.5 million are refugees, fleeing unrest in their countries; and 2.8 million are asylum seekers.
The 22.5 million refugees are the highest number ever recorded, seeking to escape persecution and conflict. Yet, the U.S. and other countries, from the United Kingdom to Germany, have been reducing the number of refugees allowed to settle each year.
In the face of such trends, “The Displaced” gives voice to individual stories of persistence in the face of traumas most of us will never know. The essayists reflect on moments of uncertainty, resilience and identity.
“These displaced persons are mostly unwanted where they fled from; unwatned where they are, in refugee camps; and unwatned where they want to go,” Nguyen writes, “They have fled under arduous condtions; they have lost friends, family members, homes, and countries; they are detained in refugee camps in often subhuman conditions with no clear end to the stay and no definitive exit; they are often threatened with deportation to their countries of origin; and they will likely be unremembered, which is where the works of writers becomes important, especially writers who are refugees or have been refugees — if such a distinction can be drawn.”
It’s hard to single out the best of the best among these essays, but I found these two as particularly clarifying and insightful.
— In “The Parent Who Stays,” Reyna Grande recalls the time, at age 9 1/2, when her father hired a smuggler to take her and her siblings from their home in Mexico to join him in the United States, where he had moved 8 years earlier to try to find work. With her head infested with lice and belly swollen with tapeworm, Reyna wore a tattered dress, broken sandals held together with wire, and had dusty feet, the dirt caked under her toenails, when she found herself at the border and became an “illegal” human being by crossing into the U.S. without permission.
Now an award-winning novelist and inspirational speaker, Grande writes: “We couldn’t come here as ‘real’ refugees. Poverty no matter how extreme, doesn’t meet any of the criteria for asylum. The term ‘economic refugee,’ a negative term here and in Europe, doesn’t encourage compassion in the receiving country, either socially or politically.
“Yet, what all displaced people have most in common, regardless of here we come from, regardless if we are ‘official’ refugees or ‘illegal’ immigrants, is our trauma. The trauma that propels us to this land, and the traumatic experiences that await us.”
It’s poverty, as well as gang violence and political instability, that is driving thousands and thousands of people to leave their villages in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and other countries for the U.S., only to be held up the border an demonized by far too many Americans.
— In “The Ungrateful Refugee,” Dina Nayeri, puts her finger on why so many Americans seem to resent foreigners, even when they learn English, throw away their headscarf, convert to Christianity, get a college education and settle into a solid job. The answer lies in resentment — the perception that the refugee is taking away something that should rightfully belong to a native-born American — and an expectation that the refugee should be eternally grateful for the opportunity to start anew in the U.S. rather than mourn what was lost in her homeland.
Dina was 10 when she and her Iranian family were accepted by the U.S. and sent to Oklahoma, just as the first Gulf War began. The first thing she heard from her classmates was a strange “ching-chong” intended to mock her accent. She spoke Farsi and, obviously, wasn’t Chinese. But she realized then these children were so ignorant of the world outside America that they evidently had met one foreigner before, who came from Southeast Asia.
Now a novelist with degrees from Harvard and the Iowa Writers Workshop, Nayeri is troubled by the way in which people, even those on the left, make the case for refugees by pointing to photographs of happy refugees turned good citizens and listing their contributions, as if that is the price of existing in the same country, on the same earth. Rather than cite those positives that letting in refugees is a good thing, isn’t it more fair to accept that most refugees, like most Americans, are average people? Why do we expect “sugary success stories” instead of a bunch or ordinary people, sometimes bitter and confused, she asks.
“Isn’t glorifying the refugees who thrive according to Western standards just another way to endorse this same gratitude politics?” Nayeri writes. “Isn’t it akin to holding up the most acquiescent to examples of what a refugee should be, instead of offering each person the same options that are granted to the native-born citizen? Is the life of the happy mediocrity a privilege reserved for those who never stray from home?”
This is the kind of writing to touches my head and my heart. By delving into one person’s story at a time, it deepens my understanding of differing circumstances around the globe that have forced millions to flee for their lives. At the same time, it illuminates the common experiences, difficulties and aspirations of those who have been displaced.
Want to help refugees in the Portland area?
Consider volunteering or donating to IRCO, the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization.
Want to know more about individual stories?
Read and listen to people from all around the world, now living in Oregon, at The Immigrant Story. This is a nonprofit started by my friend Sankar Raman, a retired Intel engineer who’s originally from India.
You can start with this episode featuring Divine Irambona, a refugee from Tanzania.