By Diya Abdo. Steerforth Press / Truth to Power, 2022. 176 pages. $16.95/paperback; $11.99/eBook.
American Refuge contains stories retold by the author of the experiences of people who were compelled to seek refuge outside their own country, and came, finally, to the United States. Each interviewee made clear to the author what they wanted to share with the world and what part of their story they wanted to keep “sacred and secret.”
The author, Diya Abdo, is a member of a Palestinian family descended from Bedouins who, in Abdo’s grandmother’s generation, sought safety outside of Palestine, and so, she has always been well-acquainted with circumstances that beset those who must seek refuge. The Arabic word her people use for refugee, muhajir, means “to abandon,” suggesting that the people have gone away, and gone away for good. In Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where I taught in a school for Southern African refugees in the 1960s, the Swahili word for refugees is wakimbizi, meaning “the people who ran.” They had indeed run: from war in their homelands, from European immigrants who had taken their lands, from destabilization that closed their schools and destroyed their family homes, and from drought and climate upheaval.
In 2015, Abdo reacted to the Syrian refugee crisis with a deep desire to offer “radical hospitality.” Then a professor of English at Guilford College, she pondered the word campus in Arabic, haram, meaning “sanctuary.” Founded by Quakers in 1837, Guilford is located in Greensboro, N.C., a refugee hub. She went to the president of the college and asked that Guilford give one of its houses for the use of refugees. The president of Guilford simply replied, “Yes.”
In that house on the Guilford College campus, many people were cared for and guided through the complications of resettling in the United States. Their stories in this book are from Iraq, Uganda, Burundi, Palestine, Burma, Syria, and all the places each one stayed on the long journey from their homeland to the United States.
Guilford College’s refugee concerns group meets refugees at the airport as they arrive. Abdo writes of overhearing an older Palestinian woman speaking to the Syrian woman they were there to welcome into this country. She said in Arabic, “Do you see how we have been exiled?” Abdo uses this to illustrate that we may suppose that refugees are excited and happy to arrive in their new home, but most will more likely be feeling the grief of exile from their native land and separation from all they had known and loved.
After the long and grueling trip, instead of undergoing rest and recovery, they are confronted with instructions, advice, and documents to sign (including an agreement to repay the International Organization for Migration for the cost of their family’s travel to the United States). Once “settled,” they must learn English, how to get and use transportation, and how to use our grocery stores. They must get all necessary documents such as a Social Security card and a work permit, and then find work or accept the low-paying menial jobs offered to them. They must learn to negotiate medical care; enroll their children in appropriate schools; and more, often with very little support or assistance. The language barrier and the trauma they carry make the barriers they face, as they try to move from surviving to thriving, much harder to scale than for people here; and Americans, too, find our systems challenging.
In her final chapter, Abdo reviews some immigration vocabulary, including what the words were intended to convey but also what they have commonly come to mean. Similarly, she reviews the numbers, such as the extreme rise in number of refugees in the world since 1940, and the various numbers of refugees resettled in the United States in the same period, helping to explain the extent of the damage being done to humanity.
The refugee concerns group that Diya Abdo initiated at Guilford has now become a larger organization called Every Campus a Refuge (ECAR). The Guilford College campus hosted 66 refugees from 2016 to 2021, and 18 new Afghan evacuees arrived in January 2022. ECAR has been adopted by 11 other colleges and universities, including Wake Forest University (Winston-Salem, N.C.); Lafayette College (Easton, Pa.); and Agnes Scott College (Decatur, Ga.). Recently, Russell Sage College (Albany and Troy, N.Y.) and Old Dominion University (Norfolk, Va.) have joined ECAR in response to the urgent need for immediate housing and support for Afghan evacuees. ECAR hopes to engage 10 percent of colleges and universities in the United States in this work during the next three years (see everycampusarefuge.net).
Many Quakers are involved in supporting refugees in our country. Friends can learn from this book what one college has accomplished; how the U.S. government-sponsored refugee resettlement programs fall short in love, kindness, and efficiency; and perhaps be inspired to support another campus in joining ECAR and providing more support for refugees being brought to their area. ECAR could also serve as a model for non-academic institutions to do this work.
Rosalie Dance is a member of Stony Run Meeting in Baltimore, Md., and works with the meeting’s Immigration Working Group.