Refugees: what do they go through to switch countries?
If you’ve been following my recent poems, you probably know I’m curious about this already as I’ve been exploring, through poetry, my father’s teenage move from the Middle East to the East Coast of the United States. Over the holidays, I had the chance to mentor a young woman who had partly “grown up” in a refugee camp, and again I considered the severity of such a move.
And more recently still, I’ve been looking at and reading a new book called Refugee Hotel, published by McSweeney’s. Photographer Gabriele Stabile began his study of refugee experiences with an Ethiopian family that arrived in New York in 2007. He captured their first night, and became fascinated with the subject. Stabile and reporter Juliet Linderman have created a visual flipbook, with oral histories, of what resettlement is like.
Many refugees’ first night in a new country is in a hotel by the airport. Not pretty, not soft. Stabile’s subjects have left behind their homes in Burundi, Iraq, Burma, Somalia, Bhutan and Ethiopia. How do they feel? How would you feel?
Here’s what Sudanese refugee Felix Lohitai says at the start of his oral history: “There is some confusion as to when I was born. 1964 was my year of birth, but refugees coming here don’t have birth certificates because everything is lost. Everyone now says the first of January is our date of birth…”
What would it be like to be pushed into a new place, to try to assimiliate when everything is different? If you know someone (a relative, perhaps) that emigrated to this country, try (through your writing) to capture his or her tentativeness, the fear, maybe even the determination.
Write a persona piece (in the voice of the refugee) about anyone, real or imagined, and their first days and weeks in a new community.