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I have read a lot of literature about the immigrant and refugee experience for this project. In this section I will introduce some of the books I read.
Welcome to Paradise
By Mahi Binebine
Foremost, this novel is about tragedy. It is also about misfortune, curses, luck, second chances, and perseverance. No one was successful because they tried hard. Yes, they got opportunities through their efforts, but their fate was ultimately determined by luck. In Morroco, Binebine explores many heavy relationships and the hardships that strain them. He also explores what it means to be a refugee: how it makes you feel, act, and think. The women in the novel made tough sacrifices and suffered immense guilt.
Seeing him with his back bent double, folded in on himself, with the air of someone apologizing for existing, it was obvious he’d already slipped into the skin of a refugee. Perhaps we should have done the same and got into training for the future: learn how to become invisible, disappear into a crowd, hug the walls, avoid eye contact, speak only when spoken to, bury our pride and close our hearts to humiliation and insults, throw our switchblades into the gutter, learn to keep in the background, to be nobody: another shadow, a stray dog, a lowly earthworm, or even a cockroach. That’s it, yes, learn to be a cockroach.
Binebine, Pages 106-7
The Girl Who Smiled Beads: a Story of War and What Comes After
Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil
The core of this novel is identity. It is specifically about a Rwandan girl who struggles to reconcile her identity with her surroundings. This book also explores how the relationship between men and women change in challenging circumstances.
Claire refused to let anybody limit her sense of her own possibilities or determine her self-worth. People might think they could take everything from her, that they had taken everything from her. You are a woman. You are a refugee. You cannot go to school. You cannot have a job. You are nothing under our laws. She remained immovable, unswayed. Her eyes, when she boarded the bus, said: Mess with me one more time and I’m going to make it rain fire.
Wamariya and Weil, pages 195-196
The Night Diary
By Veera Hiranandani
This novel is about adapting. The family has to adapt when Pakistan is created and they are forced to flee India. They grow into their new roles, responsibilities, and environments.
My childhood would always have a line drawn through it, the before and the after.
Hiranandani, page 86
Enrique's Journey: The Story of a Boy's Dangerous Odyssey to Reunite with His Mother
By Sonia Nazario
Nazario shares the story of Enrique, a Honduran boy who makes the dangerous journey to the United States to be reunited with his mom that left to provide for him. In doing so, Nazario highlights the cruelty refugees have to face. It is cruel that mothers are forced to leave their children behind. It is cruel that children face heinous crime, sexual abuse, and dangerous environments as they seek to reunite with their mothers. And it is cruel how happiness remains elusive even when they are reunited.
The children show resentment because they were left behind. They remember broken promises to return and accuse their mothers of lying. They complain that their mothers work too hard to give them the attention they have been missing. In extreme cases, they find love and esteem elsewhere, by getting pregnant, marrying early, or joining gangs.
Some are surprised to discover entire new families in the United States—a stepfather, stepbrothers, and stepsisters. Jealousies grow. Stepchildren call the new arrivals mojados, or wet-backs, and, to gain power over their new siblings, threaten to summon U.S. immigration authorities.
The mothers for their part, demand respect for their sacrifice: leaving their children for the children’s sake. Some have been lonely and worked hard to support themselves, to pay off their own smuggling debts and save money to send home. When their children say, “You abandoned me,” they respond by hauling out tall stacks of money transfer receipts.
They think their children are ungrateful and bristle at the independence they show—the same independence that helped their children survive their journeys north. In time, mothers and children discover they hardly know each other.
Nazario, pages 315-316
Between Shades of Gray
By Ruta Sepetys
This novel is about the forced removal and mistreatment of Lithuanians by the Soviets. It tells the story of a family as they are taken to various work camps and try to survive under the terrible conditions. The narrator, a teenage girl, witnesses horrific acts of inhumanity.
Komorov marched over to Mother. He grabbed her by the arm and spit something that resembled an oyster onto her face.
Then he left.
Mother quickly wiped off the slime, as if it didn’t bother her at all. It bothered me. I wanted to roll the hate up into my mouth and spit it back in his face.
Sepetys, page 217
By Ayaan Hirsi Ali
In this biography, Ali examines her life with respect to her womanhood and the Islamic traditions of her homeland. She does not accept the mistreatment of women and this shapes her entire life. As she makes her journey in search of equal freedom, rights, and opportunities, she confronts increasing opposition from her family, culture, and new home.
I didn’t know how I would escape or what freedom might mean. But I knew what course my life would take if I went to Canada. I would have a life like my mother’s, and Jawahir’s, and like the life of this woman with whom I was staying in Bonn. I would not have put it this way in those days, but because I was born a woman, I could never become an adult. I would always be a minor, my decisions made for me. I would always be a unit in a vast beehive. I might have a decent life, but I would be dependent—always—on someone treating me well.
I knew that another kind of life was possible. I had read about it, and now I could see it, smell it in the air around me: the kind of life I had always wanted, with a real education, a real job, a real marriage. I wanted to make my own decisions. I wanted to become a person, an individual, with a life of my own.
Ali, page 187
By Hamid Mohsin
Mohsin explores a world that is different from ours with the inclusion of magical doorways. Even with these doorways, our core issues as a society and as individuals remain. Mainly, people still fear those different than them and lash out. Mohsin shows us this world through the lens of the love and loss of love between Nadia and Saeed. At first, their love is passionate, hidden, and a gift. Then, it is a necessity, and they are each other’s only family and sense of intimacy. Finally, they grow apart and become different people. This reflects the experiences refugees must often face; in order to build a new life, they must relinquish a portion of what they valued in the old one.
He was drawn to people from their country, both in the labor camp and online. It seemed to Nadia that the farther they moved from the city of their birth, through space and through time, the more he sought to strengthen his connection to it, tying ropes to the air of an era that for her was ambiguously gone.
Mohsin, page 187
America is Immigrants
By Sara Novic
Illustrated by Alison Kolesar
Novic and Kolesar highlight the achievements and contributions of immigrants who came to America.
Louisa Benson Craig. For most people, competing in beauty pageants and fighting in bloody ethnic wars are mutually exclusive. But for Louisa Benson Craig, they were both acts of rebellion.
Craig was ten when her mother entered her into her first pageant as part of a plan to endear the district commissioner’s wife to her family. It worked; so enraptured was the powerful woman by Craig’s unconventional Jewish-Karen looks that Craig’s father, a rebel, was released from prison.
Though she was part of the Karen ethnic minority that the Burmese government scorned, Craig’s status as a beauty icon won her the favor of many of her future enemies. She was crowned in two Miss Burma pageants and was Burma’s first Miss Universe contestant, but none of it came naturally. High heels and posing, she’d later tell her daughter, the novelist Charmaine Craig, were “a nuisance.”
By the time Craig met her first husband, Brigadier General Lin Htin of the Karen National Liberation Army, he had a bullet in his skull and had already been erroneously declared dead several times. When he disappeared in the jungle and was once again believed to be deceased, the KNLA’s Fifth Brigade looked to his widow for leadership. Craig cut her hair and led the brigade, taking on key roles in several negotiations with enemy generals and always turning down villagers’ offers of women’s clothing.
Novic, page 147
Love Thy Neighbor: A Muslim Doctor's Struggle for Home in Rural America
By Ayaz Virji and Alan Eisenstock
Virji shares his experiences living in America after Trump's election. He exercises extreme patience for the intolerance of those he serves. Along with the help of benevolent members of his community, Virji takes on the difficult task of educating those around him about Islam. He shows people the compassion Muslims bring to the US and the kindness their religion promotes. He also shares the hurt that many Americans give them in return.
“The only reason you care about me is that I have an MD after my name. That’s why I’ve been welcomed into this community. If you could take the brownness or the Muslim-ness out of me and put that part of me on a registry and somehow keep the doctor part of me, you would” .
Virji, page 72
This is What America Looks Like: My Journey from Refugee to Congresswoman
By Ilhan Omar with Rebecca Paley
In her autobiography, Omar accounts growing up as a Somali refugee in the United States. She is unapologetic. Omar owns her experiences and uses them to enhance her service to Americans as a congresswoman.
Raised by men, they instilled in her the power women possess; women were not devalued in her family, they were uplifted. Omar still struggles with the male dominance present in Somali and American culture, but helps people grow by never backing down. She builds a connection with the reader by showing them that it is okay that life is hard. She has complicated relationships, struggles with over working herself, and experiences backlash for her lifestyle choices, BUT she is still a great person.
As I was walking out, he said, “I have been racking my brain to figure out what’s different about you and I got it.”
“My hijab?” I said sarcastically.
“No, it’s that you somehow walk in like you’re a man.”
“A white man.”
“Yes, a white man.”
Constantly being underestimated has always been helpful to me. It was really hard for him to imagine that a ninety-pound refugee hijabi could be confident enough to walk into a leadership role of a caucus whose most important incumbent she defeated. What did he expect? For me to walk around with an inferiority complex? I didn’t feel inferior to anyone in the state house. Having been elected by the people, I had just as much right as anyone else to be there.
Omar, pages 234-235
By Ibi Zoboi
In this book, Zoboi writes about a Haitian teenage girl—Fabiola Toussaint. Fabiola leaves Haiti with her mother to start a new life in the United States with relatives in Detroit. Her mother is detained, and Fabiola must survive without her mother and navigate the new relationships with family members that she only knows through phone conversations. While living with her aunt and cousins, she discovers that there is hardship in America, and it exists in a different form than what she was used to in Haiti.
My cousins are laughing and talking among themselves in the living room. Again, there is loud music, but it comes from the TV. I don’t want to be a burden to me, but I have no idea what to do in this kitchen. Suddenly, I feel so alone in this house. I am surrounded by family, but none of them really knows me or understands what happened to me today. My heart begins to ache for my mother. How could my aunt just leave me here in the kitchen—is this how you treat family in America? There is no celebration for my arrival, no meal is cooked, no neighbors are invited to welcome me, not even a glass of cool water is on the table for me to drink after such a long trip.
Zoboi, page 20
How Dare the Sun Rise
By Sandra Uwiringiyimana and Abigail Pesta
In this autobiography, Uwiringiyimana describes her childhood. This includes surviving a massacre, fleeing her home, and resettling in America. She deeply misses her homeland and the good memories she holds, but she cannot forget the violence that was inflicted on her family and the murder of her little sister. Uwiringiyimana also struggles to adapt to life in America. Racism, ignorance, culture, beauty standards, mental health, friends, fitting in, education, and family dynamics are all challenges that she faces. One challenge—that people around her do not know and do not seem to care about the atrocities affecting innocent people—provokes incredible action. Even though Uwiringiyimana is figuring out how to address her personnel trauma and mental health, she works to bring awareness and spark action in Americans.
My parents sheltered me from many of the civil war images that surfaced on TV. I didn’t really understand war, because my parents did such a good job protecting me from it. I did understand the need to be safe. I did not understand why people would want to target us. Some days, I would eavesdrop on conversations among my parents and other adults. I would hear them talking about war that was either going on at the time or that was about to start. That’s how I knew if we were likely to flee soon. Sometimes I caught a glimpse of my father opening a closet that he kept locked at all times, and for a good reason—that were several guns in there. I didn’t understand why Dad owned guns; he was not a soldier, and I had never seen him shoot anything. I know now that he wanted to protect us from war, but at the time, I figured he was keeping them for an uncle in the military.
Uwiringiyimana, pages 31-32
House Without Walls
By Ching Yeung Russell
With inspiration from real stories told to her by Vietnamese refugees, Russell tells the story of a young girl and her brother. Lam and Dee Dee take multiple dangerous boat journeys, survive harsh conditions in refugee camps, and eventually are reunited with their father in the United States. While experiencing this tumultuous time in their lives, Lam and Dee Dee are taken care of by an immensely kind family who treated them as their own, even when tragedy struck them again and again.
I assure him that
we are so lucky that
we have had them on this journey.
I assure him that
they have not just been a noble man and woman;
they have been just like parents to us.
Russell, page 304