A conversation about refugees
Refugees granted asylum in the United States arrive through only a handful of cities. They often spend the first night in their new country at a hotel near the airport, where they rest and prepare for the next leg of their journey.
Beginning in 2007, the first person some of these refugees would meet in the United States was Gabriele Stabile, an Italian photographer based in New York. Stabile was interested in documenting the first moments of new refugees’ experiences in the country. In 2010, he enlisted the help of journalist Juliet Linderman to complete the project that became Refugee Hotel, a book of photography and oral histories published last fall by Voice of Witness.
For her part, Linderman, who is currently the River Parishes reporter for The Times-Picayune, traveled to immigrant enclaves across the United States to follow up with some of the men and women Stabile had captured in images during their first American nights. She recorded stories that detail past and present lives—and future dreams—from a former rebel fighter from South Sudan who now lives in Erie, Pennsylvania, a pastor from Burundi who now lives in Mobile, Alabama, and many others. They are stories of hardship, hope, and perseverance told from the perspectives of those who lived them.
Room 220 asked Susan Weishar, the immigration specialist for the Jesuit Social Research Institute at Loyola University New Orleans, to speak with Linderman about her work on Refugee Hotel. Prior to her post at Loyola, Weishar had been the director for 14 years, beginning in 1991, of the immigration and refugee services program of Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans. In that position, Weishar oversaw the resettlement of thousands of refugees, mostly from Southeast Asia and Cuba, using a comprehensive suite of programs that included English language classes, job placement services, health screenings, legal services, and a tutoring and mentoring program for high-risk Vietnamese teens.
The conversation that ensued between Linderman and Weishar, which took place last spring, explores the processes of both documenting and facilitating the strenuous adjustment of refugees in the United States. What follows is an edited transcript.
Susan Weishar: Prior to my time with Catholic Charities, there had been many iterations of the refugee population out of Vietnam to New Orleans. In the summer of 1975—Saigon fell in April that year—the New Orleans archdiocese resettled 1,500 refugees from Vietnam. That group was the seed population in what became a chain of migration from Vietnam to New Orleans that is ongoing even today. In 1975, the city’s archbishop had simply said, “You can come here,” and as a consequence New Orleans ended up becoming the center of Vietnamese Catholicism in the United States. Imagine what it was like in 1975! No refugee program in place, no translators. Schools that had never seen someone from Vietnam. It was really heroic work. Prior to resettling refugees from Vietnam, the Catholic Church in New Orleans had been involved in helping to resettle Cubans fleeing the Castro regime in the 1960s and other refugee populations through the years. But with the influx of refugees from Southeast Asia after the Vietnam War, the New Orleans program grew immensely and became a major component of the work of Catholic Charities for many years.
Juliet Linderman: Were there any services in place to help the process?
SW: At first, no. However, back in the 70’s, refugees were allowed three yeas of cash assistance from the federal government. It’s very different now, since so-called welfare reform in 1986. The agency has developed an array of services, but now there are severe time limitations. The current program’s focus is to get refugees to work immediately. People debate what’s better—some say when refugees had the three-year period there was more time for adjustment, more time to get schooling, to learn the language. Others believe that by going to work right away, you integrate more quickly, you’re more self-sufficient. But I don’t think many Vietnamese refugees actually sat around for three years and did not work.
JL: How did people in New Orleans receive this wave of refugees?
SW: It helped that the Church was behind it. Many, many community members became involved in assisting the new refugees. When I started working at Catholic Charities, many people I met told me, “Oh, I used to volunteer in the refugee program there.” Back in the 70s, the resettlement model was to place refugees in the homes of American families. You would never see that now! There are too many liability issues, and I do not think Americans are as open to that kind of experience.
When working with refugees, I didn’t always have the opportunity to sit down and hear about their experiences from start to finish. That’s one thing that made Refugee Hotel engaging for me—you and Gabriele get to the stories people don’t often hear. The stories that refugees shared with you provide a fascinating perspective on life in this country. Had you done oral histories before?
JL: It was a new thing for me. Gabri and I knew immediately the project had to be oral history. We wanted the narrators to tell their own stories in their own words. The power of oral history comes from having ownership of your experiences and agency over your memories, especially for refugees who’ve been persecuted for who they are, because of how they identify themselves, and because of how they’re identified by other people. Having the ability to tell your own story on your own terms is really important.
Voice of Witness runs a workshop, which I took, and they have a bit of a standard procedure, but a lot of what makes oral history a success is spending time with people and fostering a sense of trust. I think that’s the most important thing about oral history. It’s very different from newspaper reporting, where you solicit information that fits into the thesis that you’ve already figured out.
SW: The Voice of Witness project states that it aims to form partnerships between the people telling their stories and the people transmitting that information to readers. Dave Eggers, who’s one of the founders, reminds us that many of the people who become refugees have escaped with nothing but their stories. How did you get people to open up?
JL: I tried to have as few preconceived notions as I could going into the interviews. My role was to make the narrators as comfortable as possible so they could really open up and talk to me about their lives and what was important to them. We’re all human beings. We are inherently social creatures and we want to share and we want to connect with each other. Telling stories is the most fundamental way to do that. But of course, it takes a little time. At first they might provide a sketch of their life. Then, when we sit down again, they might provide a few more details, and then a little bit more texture, and so on. Part of gathering oral history is knowing what points to pursue at a different time. Some people, also, are more open than others.
An interpreter we worked with in Erie was a really great example of this. In passing, she mentioned something about her experience fleeing Burma. She was skittish at first, but ultimately she opened up. It’s not included in the book, but I really bonded with her. When we were done, she started crying. She said, “Nobody’s asked me about that. I haven’t told anybody in the United States about my experiences back in Burma. It makes me feel a lot of pain but it also makes me feel lighter, because I was able to talk about it.”
SW: What surprised you the most about the way the United States goes about resettling refugees into American communities?
JL: For the most part, the program works really well. I was really impressed with the cultural sensitivity that goes into the resettlement process. For example, refugees get a hot meal upon arrival, usually cooked by a member of their cultural community who had arrived first. The process is meticulously planned. You might think sending Bhutanese people to Fargo doesn’t make sense, but it does. The economy in Fargo really supports refugees. It has an abundance of jobs and cheap housing, and there’s a growing Bhutanese community. Agents involved in the process make sure to resettle refugees in places where other people speak the language, so they have translators to help them at first. Of course, they can’t do everything, and there is a time limit to the assistance they receive. That’s difficult, because some of the refugees I spoke with did need more help.
SW: If you had to generalize, who needed more help? What would you say their characteristics might be?
JL: It depends on how old you are. I found the younger people are, the easier it is for them to adapt. It’s easier to learn a language, easier to find a place in a new community. If you’re 16, you go to high school. That might be a little bit traumatizing for some people, but for others it’s an opportunity to feel like they belong somewhere. I think it also really depends on the living situation. In Amarillo, people in the Karen community live really close together in a very concentrated area, whereas the Chin people are much more integrated into the fabric of the town, which includes people born and raised in Texas and people from other parts of the country and the world. It was easier for them to learn English and easier for them to find jobs because of those language skills. What was your experience like?
SW: I agree. Older refugees often have a much more difficult time. Sometimes they are encouraged to come to this country by other family members who perhaps painted a false picture of America—the streets are paved in gold, etc. I also saw difficulty with refugees from Vietnam who had been reeducation camp prisoners. Many of them had been high-ranking officials when they were thrown into these camps, and they had been used to a certain level of prestige. They suffered in these camps for twelve, fifteen years, and when they came to the United States they found that people who had escaped years ago were doing great: they’ve got careers, they’re speaking English, they’re buying their homes. But when the re-education camp survivors come here in their fifties and sixties, they have to completely start over. It was very difficult for their pride. To start over after that trauma, to be at the bottom when so many others you had known before made it out and had become successful, that was really hard.
JL: That’s a really good point. It’s one thing to come to a place to get a job, a house, but then what? Pride and a sense of self, a sense of identity, are so important. Someone in the book had been working as a nuclear engineer and now he’s a part-time mechanic. At first he was really upset about it. Then, when I re-interviewed him months after our first discussion, he had started to understand that he needed to start over and adjust his expectations. But it’s really hard to do that, for any human being.
SW: It’s a drastic change in lifestyle in a negative way for some people. It’s important to acknowledge that. Among the people in your book, there seems to be a common fear that their families are going to be Americanized. Is it fair to say that family plays a very central role in the experience of many of the people you interviewed?
JL: Absolutely, especially since many of the people we interviewed came here with their families and nothing else. It’s difficult, especially for people coming from countries where family and community are very important. American culture is very individualized. People are encouraged to do their own thing, to move up through the ranks. That’s part of the beauty of this place, but many narrators are afraid. They’re afraid of losing a sense of cultural identity. They’re afraid their children are going to learn English and are going to forget their native languages, forget the prayers, forget the customs.
SW: And there’s a fear that the family could be weakened by the individualized American life. But, in many of these refugees’ circumstances, it was tribalism that caused the chaos. Ultimately, what’s a tribe but a big extended family?
JL: It’s definitely a challenge. People struggle to take all the good from American culture but also to maintain a sense of cultural history and understanding of their origins. One narrator came from Iraq and she’s now a caseworker for a resettlement agency. It’s a constant struggle for her because, as an Iraqi, the people she helps expect her to give other Iraqis special treatment. But she says, “No. As an American, my job is important to me. I need to treat everyone equally.”
SW: I love this quote in your book from the king of Bibi, in Somalian Minneapolis: “In this country, in America, who you are is who you are. Like President Barack Obama. He doesn’t have cousins and tribes. He became successful, the new face in America all on his own.” Of course, President Obama would say nobody is successful just on their own, but that’s what many resettled refugees are seeing. It’s the American myth, but there’s a lot of truth to it.
This interview by Susan Weishar is reposted from Press Street: Room 220, a content partner of NolaVie.