In a news cycle that is 24-7, with little time for reflection or thoughtful dialogue, but global circumstances that demand immediate attention, I have found that reading books gives my perspective something weightier against which to base my judgments and reactions; reading books, of course, also makes the issues more complex. Taking the time to explore issues beyond the headlines can create space for dialogue, informed activism, and local support.
While the subject of refugees and immigrants is only one area grasping for attention and compassion, it is one in which I have accumulated a couple of reading recommendations over the years. If you are interested in expanding your perspective on immigration or refugees these are a few books in my usual three categories (Fiction, Non-Fiction, Picture Book) to consider.
But before I share those lists, I have one particular book to highlight. If you are not familiar with Islam or how it is observed outside of the current maelstrom, I found Sabeeha Rehman’s memoir, Threading My Prayer Rug, to be a gracious introduction. Her humorous stories, honest reflections, and bi-cultural perspective challenge narrow stereotypes and introduce readers to one Muslim family’s experience in the United States.
The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri – I wrote about this book a couple years ago here. Through a compelling narrative of identity and loyalty and family, Jhumpa Lahiri focuses on the son of an immigrant family from India. This story takes readers one generation away from the initial immigration and acclimation to the children of immigrants. She emphasizes their challenges and adjustments, distinct from their parents but every bit as important for understanding and creating their identity into adulthood. She weaves history and culture and ambition and tradition for a clear narrative of complex proportions.
What is the What by Dave Eggers – A daring story laced with humor and horror, Eggers writes the biography of Sudanese Lost Boy Valentino Achak Deng. It is non-fiction and fiction. A novel and a memoir. In either and both cases, it is a compelling narrative binding the tragedies and terrors of war with the struggles and frustrations of resettlement.
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (coming out March 7, 2017)- this one and the next book I have not yet read, but they are on my TBR pile. Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist is firmly on my all-time-favorites list, and I have neglected his other writing for too long now. After reading Exit West I look forward to picking up his other works as well. BUT, back to Exit West. I can’t do it worthy credit without reading it so I’ll take a bit from the book blurb at the publisher’s site:
In a country teetering on the brink of civil war, two young people meet—sensual, fiercely independent Nadia and gentle, restrained Saeed. They embark on a furtive love affair, and are soon cloistered in a premature intimacy by the unrest roiling their city. When it explodes, turning familiar streets into a patchwork of checkpoints and bomb blasts, they begin to hear whispers about doors—doors that can whisk people far away, if perilously and for a price. As the violence escalates, Nadia and Saeed decide that they no longer have a choice. Leaving their homeland and their old lives behind, they find a door and step through. . . .
All the elements of a powerful story, told by a masterful storyteller.
The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen (coming out February 7, 2017) – I’m on the waiting list at the library for this one as well. These are a collection of stories exploring the lives of characters lived between their country of birth and their adopted homeland. Here’s a section of the blurb from the Amazon website:
From a young Vietnamese refugee who suffers profound culture shock when he comes to live with two gay men in San Francisco, to a woman whose husband is suffering from dementia and starts to confuse her for a former lover, to a girl living in Ho Chi Minh City whose older half-sister comes back from America having seemingly accomplished everything she never will, the stories are a captivating testament to the dreams and hardships of immigration. The second piece of fiction by a major new voice in American letters, The Refugees is a beautifully written and sharply observed book about the aspirations of those who leave one country for another, and the relationships and desires for self-fulfillment that define our lives.
I am doubly excited about reading this book: an acclaimed new author and a new book to read!
The Middle of Everywhere by Mary Pipher – this book is a relatable account of Pipher’s involvement with the refugee community in her area. Her perspective and observations are useful for better knowing the challenges refugees face, and the book as a whole is a readable memoir. Whereas the next book on the list combines more charts, graphs, numbers, and statistics, Pipher leads with stories and recounts how her perspective changed as she became more involved.
Seeking Refuge: On the Shores of the Global Refugee Crisis by Stephan Bauman, Matthew Soerens, and Dr. Issam Smeir – this book is written from an explicitly Christian worldview, and that is integrated throughout all the chapters. Seeking Refuge is a slim book stuffed with accessible chapters, personal stories, and current research. The combination is informative and compelling. The authors discuss the distinctions in immigrant categories as well as the U.S. government vetting process and include examples of refugee strategies from other countries. Furthermore, the authors provide links to other organizations and a chapter on advocacy at the end. For getting a big-picture grasp of the refugee situation and where it can intersect with personal action, this is a solid starting-point.
Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario – this is journalist Sonia Nazario’s account of an immigrant boy’s illegal efforts to enter the United States and find his mother. My biggest takeaway after reading this book was not a change in policy thinking on immigration but a profound sense of how much I take my living situation for granted. If people are willing to endure such horrors and struggles for the outside chance of making it to the U.S. and then to work menial jobs in shadowy economies, how truly little do I understand all the privileges afforded to my citizenship.
One Green Apple by Eve Bunting – this is the story of Farah, an immigrant from a Muslim country who is learning to adapt in her new culture, language, and school. Bunting tells the story through Farah’s thoughts and observations about what is the same and what is different. When the children go on a school field trip to an apple orchard they each select one apple. In the farmhouse all the apples are put together and squeezed to make apple cider, even Farah’s little green apple blends with the others. Farah shares a laugh with Anna and Jim on the hayride back to school and even ventures to say her first “outside-myself” word. A realistically-illustrated book that encourages empathy and friendship.
My Two Blankets by Irena Kobald – this is the story of a girl named Cartwheel. Her transition to a new home after a war in her country is confusing and lonely. She retreats to her “blanket” of familiarity. Then, a friendly girl at the local park waves. The next time they play together. Slowly, the new friend teaches Cartwheel new words and Cartwheel begins making another “blanket.” In the end she finds that she can be herself in either space. A book ultimately of friendship, but woven with themes of risk, isolation, security, and thoughtfulness. The emphasis in this book is not on the situation driving Cartwheel to a new home, but rather her experience adjusting to the newness and different-ness of the new place. It is also a story about welcoming new friends to the place where we already feel comfortable and call home.
The Color of Home by Mary Hoffman – This book is a bit more explicit in describing the trauma many refugee children overcome; read it first to determine suitability for your audience and to prepare for the questions that can (hopefully) arise. Having said that, it is a powerful book. Hassan is a refugee from Somalia. During one of his school days he paints a picture of his home in Somalia. At first it is bright and cheery and fine. But he is not finished. As the teacher looks on, he paints his uncle and then a gun and bullets and smears red on the house walls. Hassan does not want to show his mother because it would make her sad. The next day an interpreter arrives to walk with Hassan through his day and to talk with his teacher about his picture. In the end, he paints a new picture of his home – using bright colors again – and this time his parents hang it on the wall in their American home. While the story compacts quite a bit of the adjustment process it is a vivid demonstration of horror and healing and of a child’s innocence and sensitivity. It is beautiful and sad and hopeful.
If you have recommended reading in the refugee/immigration category, please include it in the comments. What books have you read that have shaped, influenced, or informed your opinion or perspective on an issue?