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Coming Home: The Complexities of the Immigrant Experience

The book provides a diverse group of refugees with a platform to speak about their lives.

(Image: McSweeney's Books)

Refugee Hotel seeks to challenge “entrenched assumptions that refugee populations are part of one homogeneous mass.” Eleanor Bader writes that by avoiding the overtly political in favor of stories about individual casualties, the book illustrates why non-violent tactics must resolve all disputes and tensions.

Refugee Hotel, Photographs by Gabriele Stabile, Text by Juliet Linderman, Part of the Voices of Witness series of McSweeney’s Books, 2012, 296 pages.

According to Refugee Hotel, between 2001 and 2010, the International Organization for Migration resettled more than 810,000 people needing a haven from war and ethnic tensions. Many have ended up in the United States and live in cities selected by immigration authorities, among them Mobile, Alabama; Fargo, North Dakota; Charlottesville, Virginia; Erie, Pennsylvania; Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Amarillo, Texas. Their stories, collected and published by The Refugee Hotel Project – an oral history and photography collaboration that began in 2007 – briefly document the experiences of women and men from seven countries, Bhutan, Burundi, Burma, Ethiopia, Iraq, Somalia and Sudan, as they struggle to find respite in the US.

While many of the book’s photos are dark and hard to interpret – a key at the back of the text is an inadequate substitute for descriptive captions – the narratives are riveting, heartbreaking and, at times, shocking. Throughout, human resilience is showcased and serves as a humbling reminder of how much suffering and inhumanity continues to exist.

One of the book’s subjects, Maha Al-Baghdady, now lives in Erie. Although she was born to a wealthy Baghdad family and completed college, her life was upended by the first Gulf War in 1991. Still, her class privilege initially afforded her some protection and when the fighting in Baghdad escalated, she moved to her family’s farm in Baquba. Months later, she returned to Baghdad to give birth to her first child, a son. Afterwards she moved to Kirkuk, but the war followed her. “The sectarian uprisings – a Shia revolution in the south and a Kurdish revolution in the north – spread across the country, creeping closer and closer to Kirkuk,” Juliet Linderman writes. “One night, Maha saw her neighbors brutally murdered by Kurdish militia.” The next day, Al-Baghdady and her son returned to Baghdad but could no longer escape the violence. Nonetheless, she remained there until she gave birth to a second child.

“At the time,” Linderman continues, “Maha’s husband, an engineer, was working as an electrical mechanic for the Iraqi government. On January 23, 1994, he came home and insisted that Maha take the children and leave Iraq immediately, without telling anyone where she was going. He gave no explanation, only that her life was in danger.” Al-Baghdady fled to Jordan; her husband joined her several months later. Although the pair eventually separated, she and her children remained in Amman for 15 years.

It was safe, she continues, but far from ideal. Iraqi children, for example, were barred from attending Jordanian public schools, so Al-Baghdady’s family had to pay for private instruction. What’s more, she was paid less than her Jordanian peers. “If a Jordanian makes 1000 dinars [$1400],” she told Linderman, “I would get 500 [$700]. I couldn’t drive a car; I couldn’t buy a house…. I just wanted to get out.”

Desire to leave, of course, does not necessarily translate into ability to leave, and it took several tries before Al-Baghdady got the go-ahead to immigrate to the US in 2009. Now settled, she admits that Erie has been less welcoming than she’d imagined. “When I first arrived,” she recalls, “I met an old lady shopping in the store and her daughter asked me what language I spoke, and I told her ‘Arabic.’ She was angry with me…. I can’t blame a woman who lost her husband or son or brother in Iraq – who meets me in her country and sees that I’m healthy and working and my kids are going to school – for hating me.”

Still, it stings and Al-Baghdady reports feeling a soul-crushing sadness in her new locale. “I have no home,” she says. At the same time, she concedes that “When I walk down the streets [in Erie] nobody can stop me and put me in jail just because they want to. My daughter goes out with her friends and I’m not worried about her.” Would she return to Iraq if that was an option? Linderman asks. “I have nobody left,” she concludes. “Even if I went back I would feel lonely and homesick.”

The rootlessness that Al-Baghdady describes is a recurrent theme in Refugee Hotel. Seventy-one-year-old Abdullahi Musa now lives in Minneapolis, but his life journey has taken him from Ethiopia to Nairobi, Amsterdam and New York City.

His migration harkens back to the 1970s when a brutal military dictatorship took hold of his birthplace. “After that,” he reports, “students in [Ethiopia’s] cities started to demand a democratic system and the fighting and protests came. Then, the provisional government took over in the late 1980s. I left Ethiopia in 1998 because of the political situation. Everyone was afraid.”

He and four of his five children escaped to Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp. Although the UN High Commission for Refugees distributed food to the camp’s residents, Musa recalls that “it was only enough to survive, not to live.” Luckily, his eldest son, then living in Minnesota, was able to send Musa enough money to enable him to rent an apartment in Nairobi. He and his children remained there for six months. A subsequent visa allowed them to leave Africa for the US in May, 1999.

Like Al-Baghdady, Musa initially found the transition difficult. “When I first came to the US I thought only Americans lived in America,” he begins. Still, he told himself that he was coming home. His narrative describes his resolute faith that he would adjust and grow to love his new life. His discovery that other African refugees lived nearby, he says, was an enormous boon. “Somali, Oromo, Amhara, Tigray – every clan is here and I do not feel strange,” he continues. Being settled among people with similar histories prodded Musa to become a mentor to the youth of his community, “I advise the young ones to keep their culture, respect their people,” he says. At the same time, he recognizes that offspring raised in the US rarely have the same worldview as people reared elsewhere.

Sadia Adem, Musa’s 42-year-old wife, offers a succinct analysis: “My babies will never be 100 percent like us…. They have to learn our culture because they grow up knowing American culture.”

Cultural dissonance, of course, is a fact of immigrant life, regardless of one’s country of origin. Prem Khatiwada, a 29-year-old Nepali refugee from Bhutan who now lives in Fargo, explains that “It’s quite hard to recreate our traditions. For example, every 11th day of moonlight people fast, but some days we miss it because it’s not culturally ingrained here, and the American calendar doesn’t show it. In Bhutan, the biggest festival is seven days long. Every office, every shop, everything is closed…. A problem I face is working during the festivals. It’s hard to balance living like an American and my Nepali and Bhutanese traditions.”

Mixed emotions are frequently voiced in Refugee Hotel. In fact, almost every interviewee expresses relief and gratitude alongside resentment and anger. Some are matter-of-fact while others are emotional, yet regardless of personal style, the book provides a diverse group of refugees with a platform to speak about their lives. “The men and women expressed so many common hopes and dreams,” Linderman writes, “to live free from fear, to have a place to call home, to experience the luxury of planning for the future, to feel secure in their culture and traditions and to be identified by their contributions to society rather than the circumstances under which they were forced into exile.”

It certainly doesn’t sound like an unreasonable wish list.

In an introduction to the volume, Linderman and Stabile write that Refugee Hotel seeks to challenge “entrenched assumptions that refugee populations are part of one homogeneous mass.” They’ve done that and more. By avoiding the overtly political in favor of stories about individual casualties, the text illustrates why swords must be beaten into plowshares and non-violent tactics must become the standard for resolving all disputes and tensions.

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