“After the Last Border: Two Families and the Story of Refuge in America,” by Jessica Goudeau, (Viking)
In this book we take a journey into American culture through the eyes of Mu Naw from Myanmar, and Hasna from Syria. Mu Naw arrived in 2007; Hasna in 2016, both as refugees and both unwittingly arriving as America is arguing the depth and breadth of immigration.
Author Jessica Goudeau employs a storytelling tactic called “narrative non-fiction,” derived from immersive reporting but containing scene-setting the author may not have witnessed. For example, one chapter concludes with “Then she snapped the towel once briskly and laid it over the wooden dowel to dry.”
That came not from direct observation but from hundreds of hours of conversations with the two women, both of whom settled in Austin, Texas.
Another potential reader hurdle is that Goudeau agreed to use pseudonyms for the two women she expertly draws out in this book. While the absence of pictures and real names makes it more difficult to mentally and emotionally connect with the two main characters, Goudeau rises to the reporting and writing challenge, showing how seemingly ordinary tasks such as struggling to operate a shower control amplifies loneliness and the loss of everything the refugees once knew.
More importantly, the book raises issues of refugee resettlement that the United States never truly has resolved. We like to think of ourselves as welcoming in the manner symbolized by the Statue of Liberty but the reality is many of our citizens would rather Mu Naw and Hasna stayed home. For them and other would-be refugees tortured or killed in their countries, we offer a collective national shrug – it’s unfortunate but not of consuming interest to Americans bickering these days among ourselves about everything.
We weren’t always that way.
In 1948, the United States agree to accept 400,000 refugees from Europe who were among the 10 million displaced by World War II. Then in 1951, the U.S. signed a United Nations agreement pledging not to send asylum seekers or refugees back to any country in which they face threats to their life or freedom.
And the need now is exponentially greater. As Goudeau notes, the number of refugees worldwide now is almost 71 million.
To Goudeau that number is an atrocity, a stain on our national conscience. Her book may not change national policy implemented by a president reflexively opposed to welcoming refugees, but in bringing the stories of Mu Naw and Hasna to us, the author shows that welcoming them doesn’t just save their lives and their children’s, but that their contribution to the American story ultimately enriches us all.
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