Writing about the Refugee Experience

One of the most interesting things about ghostwriting memoirs is when two completely different clients tell me similar stories about their lives. It makes me realize that what I do is, in the end, a kind of sociological survey of America. For instance, I’m working right now on a story about a refugee from a certain war-torn country. Interestingly, his story–though it takes place in a different era, a different war, and a different continent–is astoundingly similar to a book I wrote a couple of years ago, for another successful immigrant who came to America as a penniless refugee. Interviewing these clients, I’ve learned, in intimate detail, how the stress of war either drives people permanently insane or teaches them how to be profoundly focused and successful. I’ve learned how war, poverty, and oppression can destroy families from the inside. I’ve learned how profound injustice, and the deep anger it causes in its victims, can destroy hope and any hope of trust, even among the victims themselves. I’ve also met people who have overcome these incredible obstacles.

 

Through ghostwriting memoirs for these remarkable clients, I’ve learned that immigrants who arrived in this country as refugees really are the hardest working people in the world. After all, their families–numbering often into the high double digits–desperately depend upon them, and the sense of responsibility they care is profound. And nowadays, immigrants who came here with nothing can send home an ipad and Skype with their families living in remote villages where technology doesn’t otherwise exist. So that connection–between immigrants and their families in countries so different they might as well be other planets–is stronger than ever.

To me, my work on this particular book comes at a profound time, in America. What with all this talk, among politicians in the media, about “building a wall,” immigrants are getting a pretty bad rap. I’m not going to pretend to be any kind of expert on the way immigrants as a whole affect the economy or the politics of legal versus illegal immigration, but I will say that I certainly hope the hype doesn’t go so far as to reduce this country’s outreach to refugees around the world. Historically, we have given shelter to many displaced people, and those people have come here and shown us what dedication, hard work, and true community really is. Refugees, and their plight, have been all over the news lately, and I just hope the countries they end up in realize what an incredible honor it is to host these survivors. These are people who have seen the worst humanity has to offer and not given up, but pushed forward. Sure, they are still human beings with flaws, like everyone else, but often, their struggles have forced them, in order to survive, to become the bravest and wisest among us.

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