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Weary of another buffet at a conference in Minnesota, I ventured off-campus, entering the interstitial space that exists between an institution of higher learning and a city going about its business. I thought I knew this terrain well, and the standard fare that awaited me (bohemian coffee shop, pizza parlor, brew pub, and pan-Asian take-out), but I was wrong. Almost every establishment, whether it was a bank or a salon, was staffed by Ethiopians, each buttressed by a business specifically catering to Ethiopians. They were all around, mostly groups of men, with music blaring out of storefronts, singing in a language I could not decipher.
I was fascinated. I guess one person came and the rest followed, the friendly student envoy answered when I inquired later that day, her classmate shrugging in agreement. She called them immigrants, but I wondered if refugee was the proper word. It's not as if you can go around casually asking people how they got to this country, so I filed the information away, intending to research the matter when I got home, but upon my return, my own stack of pressing research dominated my time. I had no relationship to the community, no story that resonated with me. The urgency faded.
How do we, as a society, get past this kind arbitrary assignment of identification, and create meaningful connections to others? There are enough divides -- geographical, socioeconomic, cultural, and religious -- to ensure we rarely get close enough, but that is exactly what it takes: A personal connection, the ability to see and hear people's stories in their own words. Voice of Witness, McSweeney's nonprofit oral history imprint, is trying to provide just that.
Refugee Hotel ($25), with photographs by Gabriele Stabile and text by Juliet Linderman, is near perfect in execution. In 2007, Stabile encountered an Ethiopian family in a New York City hotel during their first night in America, and he has been taking photos of families who arrive from Bhutan, Burma, Burundi, Ethiopia, Iraq, and Somalia ever since.
Had I actually researched the Ethiopian community as I had intended, I would have procured some of the factual information in the middle of the book, the text that separates the arrival and settlement. A well-meaning historian might include the kind of anecdotal introduction Linderman offers when she writes about Tsehai Wodajo, age 53: "After High School, Tsehai got a job through a church-affiliated agency, teaching home economics to women in a city called Hossana. During that time, she met and eventually married a man who physically abused her." Linderman includes the various details about the countries of origins and the cities they settle in, as well as that process, but she allows the refugees to present their own stories, with no intervention.
Consider how well Linderman's sentence above introduces the reader to the circumstances under which Tsehai met her husband, and then contrast it with Tsehai's own account:
I was so thrilled to find someone from home living in Hossana! He was teaching at a local high school, and after some time, we got into a relationship. Then I got pregnant without my consent. It was the worst thing that can happen to a girl. My culture values that a girl protects herself until marriage, but it was against my will.... Finally, he wrote me a letter that said if I didn't marry him, he would kill me and my sister.... I didn't want to die. So I married him.
Refugee Hotel is full of stories that pull you in so immediately, and with such force, that the act of reading becomes surreal. Instead of sitting on the couch holding a book, it is as if you are in a movie theater, watching an independent film dominating awards season. It enriches your life in the moment, and leaves an impression so intimate you cannot easily forget it.
There is one flaw that greatly vexed me. I wanted to know what Tsehai looked like, or who the little boy in bed was, and why he was holding a gun. There were more photos than text, but no identifications. Sometimes my familiarity with the narrative allowed me to connect names and faces, but more often, it did not.
In the end, however, this flaw is forgivable. Voice of Witness has produced a beautiful book with compelling stories that thoroughly engages the reader, which makes these people impossible to ignore, to consider too different or altogether separate from our own experiences. There is no other book like Refugee Hotel on your shelf. You should remedy that soon.