The Refugee Experience

Even as I write the title I know it’s inadequate.  I’m preparing to write about the refugee experience from my woefully narrow vantage point.  It is something no human can fully comprehend unless you’ve lived it.  That point itself underlies the purpose of this post.  It’s not about comprehending fully, it’s about learning and growing empathy toward a people and their experience. It’s about connecting more deeply with those who have lived a thousand years beyond my own, because they’re here.  They made it.  And now, more than ever, they need us.  They need us to let them share their voice because, damn, do they have a story to tell.

James Mollison is a photo journalist I recently learned about through his book, Where Children Sleep.  In this particular text James takes pictures of 56 children (and their sleeping quarters) from all over the world, including a brief overview of their life.  It is riveting and eye-opening and stereotype-breaking.  He did similar work with refugees for a photo series in Time Magazine titled, “What Refugees Carry With Them”.


Refugee 1Refugee 2Refugee 3Refugee 4

Choices.  One can only imagine what was left behind, if anything.  See?  Incomprehensible.


Inside Out and Back Again

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai is a book in verse that follows her life for a single year–the year the Vietnam War forced her family from their home in Saigon.  They would first land in Guam and ultimately Alabama. Fatherless and frightened, Ha spends her time in Alabama trying to assimilate to a culture that wants nothing of her.  On her darkest days, she sits in her classroom listening to horrors of the Vietnam War being told in her history lessons, longing to go back. The horrors of the Vietnam War pale in comparison to the horrors she is facing here.  And what do they know about Vietnam anyway? They don’t know the beauty, the papaya trees.  They don’t talk about Tet or her dad.  Is he alive?  Is he still there?

Ha, too, must make choices as she prepares to leave her native country.


Into each pack:

one pair of pants,

one pair of shorts,

three pairs of underwear,

two shirts,


toothbrush and paste,


ten palms of rice grains,

three clumps of cooked rice,

one choice.


I choose my doll,

once lent to a neighbor

who left it outside,

where mice bit

her left cheek

and right thumb.


I love her more

for her scars.

More choices.  Choices many of us will likely never have to make.  What would we carry?  Or better yet, what could we carry that privilege has afforded us?  Cash, credit cards, cell phones with chargers, fine jewelry to be pawned if needed, clothes, shoes, high school diplomas and college degrees, our whiteness.

I could travel looking like Mohammed in the last picture, looking as if I had nothing, when in truth I’d have more than I’ll ever need.  All the items listed above can be worn or fit in pockets.  My whiteness gives me access and my culture has prioritized smallness.  The things I could carry fit in the palm of my hand.  More importantly, I have favorable odds of surviving.  White privilege.

As I sit with the word “choices” I consider mine.  What would I carry in addition to what the world has already given me that I have not earned?  I land on only option, so it’s not a choice at all.  Rather it’s a responsibility.


I’ll carry my voice,

once kept silent toward my neighbor

out of ignorance

and fear.


It cracked once,


“That’s not right!”

Then closed quickly,

surprised and embarrassed.


Later, the whispers,

“Thank you for speaking up.

Keep going.”

I do. I will.  I will not stop.

In the words of Jimmy Baca from NCTE, “The only way to fight ignorance is with knowledge.  There’s a destructive ignorance and a benign one.  We have to address the benign one–it’s unintended and connects people to reading and writing.”

I would add, “It helps us find our voice, and in turn, our way in this complex world.”


Fists up.  Voices up.  Let’s go.



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