You are probably the accepting type, the type who grins when you see a sign stating, “You are welcome here” on a store front, but feels grieved that it has to be explicitly stated. You probably want to love everyone equally, because that’s what Jesus did. Maybe you want to follow some of the Bible’s teachings on justice a little more enthusiastically, or accurately.

Or maybe you’re all those things and you have a friend or a family member who wants to LOVE, but just doesn’t understand how.

These books are for you.

I’ve read each one and I felt incredibly grateful to hear the personal stories of immigrants and refugees a little more intimately. One was written by a Congolese refugee, a young woman who I had the privilege to walk alongside for a short time. Another comes from an actress you may have heard of who was separated from her family as a teenager because they were not U.S. citizens. And the third story comes from a former missionary to Cambodia, although the story she writes comes from within America where she lived in a low-income apartment building alongside dozens of refugee families.

Shipwrecked: the unlikely (but true) story of a family rescued by refugees

By Marla Taviano

This story shows the give-and-take (rather than the “Look at me, aren’t I awesome?!”) that happens when you serve other human beings. “They blessed me more than I blessed them” is not a cliche; rather it’s simply closed-mindedness and ignorance that leaves us surprised when vulnerable populations end up blessing us. There are many opportunities to support vulnerable populations (like refugees), but Marla makes it clear; the refugees supported her family in priceless ways as well.

Marla is very intimate with the reader, even allowing us to take a look at journal entries from her personal diary and from some of her daughters. She doesn’t hide her doubts or imperfections. It was easy to see the ways the whole family relied on God’s timing and strength. This was inspiring! Marla and her daughters really missed Cambodia and wanted to return, but they found a way to serve where they presently were and that is where they were blessed.

In the Country We Love: My family divided

By Diane Guerrero

Actually, I didn’t like it for a few chapters. The first chapter sounded like propaganda and Guerrero writes like a teenager trying to sound cool. For some reason I kept reading and I’m so glad I gave it a chance! I truly enjoyed the window into her world. I got used to the tone of her writing eventually; she’d probably be fun to hang out with in person. Her voice doesn’t translate well into the written form, but at least she is genuine.

One minor detail I’ve always struggled with when discussing undocumented immigrants is that they broke the law, and unlawful activity should never be condoned. This story reminds me that the life of another is never so simple that you can boil it down to right and wrong, perfect or flawed. It’s complex and nuanced. Yes, Guerrero’s family was illegal, however they were also taken advantage of, denied specific rights, and ultimately, ripped apart leaving the only U.S. citizen in the family as an orphan. I had to ask myself if there wan’t a better way to implement policies and laws, let alone if there’s room for better laws.

How Dare the Sun Rise

By Sandra Uwiringiyimana

I saved my favorite for last. This book met me in a way the others couldn’t have because the writer’s experience collided with mine. Sandra and I experienced Upstate NY in some of the exact same ways, yet perceived them infinitely differently. This was a huge eye opener for me. I met the author when I was 16 or 17 because she and her family were relocated to my city from a refugee camp in Burundi. The church she speaks of in her book is my church. The pastor, the friends, the schools, the friends were all people and places I knew intimately well. Sandra even mentions my mom as someone who made a small impact on Sandra’s life.

So then why was the story I read so drastically different than anything I’ve ever experienced before? The answer is painfully obvious: The experience of a refugee in America, and the experience of a black girl in America, is not naturally understood by those of us who don’t have those roots. Parallel lives interpret everything so differently.

This story was fascinating and insightful for any Christian who wants to make a difference in the lives of refugees who arrive on U.S. soil. Sandra is honest, bold and raw as she writes. She makes her experiences as a teen girl navigating this alternate world accessible to us. As I read I could see so many shared experiences common to teen girls anywhere. However, she explained how she viewed experiences on the other side that I had also been a part of.

What I Learned About Refugees

It is so easy to be fearful of the unfamiliar. Typically we have no idea what someone has gone through, but we’re scared to get closer and build the type of relationship where it would be appropriate to ask.

There were many stories in Sandra’s book that I never imagined she would experience so differently than I did. I made a few simple assumptions when I first met her and her family. They weren’t negative or harmful on their own, but they made me feel like I had a vague idea of what she went through and where she came from. And I didn’t actually have a clue. Since I thought I knew, I didn’t seek to know more because of fear and discomfort.

  • Many refugees are placed in living conditions that are significantly less desirable than the ones they came from. (Hint: The cause is not always poverty! War can drive out a financially stable family!) Yet they come here and make do without complaint.
  • Displaced people are all around us and there are lots of opportunities to serve if you look.
  • Refugees and immigrants have their own ways of serving us, and welcoming us. Marla gave a lot of great examples; she was on the receiving end of those gifts.
  • We (i.e. Americans) ask a lot of stupid questions that only highlight our ignorance. A little research and a willingness to say, “I’m sorry I’m not better informed” might be a better place to start.

What I Learned About Immigrants

  • Immigrants that overstay their welcome in the U.S.A. are taken advantage of by those who know they’re vulnerable. For example, Diane tells the story of all the money her parents paid to a lawyer who would help them get legal papers to start the citizenship process. It was a fake lawyer who disappeared after faithful monthly payments.
  • Some immigrants that enter the country legally try (with all their strength) to obtain citizenship legally, but are faced with hurdle after hurdle (i.e. fake lawyers). They are easy targets of abuse and exploitation.
  • Minor citizens (under 18) of the U.S. are at risk of being separated from their families at any time, with no warning, and (at least in Diane’s case) may not have any assistance from the government in the form of social work or child welfare. Children could be effectively orphaned and left in vulnerable situations by their parents deportations.

Don’t believe me?

That’s ok. I’m a skeptic too. I don’t believe everything I hear, especially when it conflicts with my emotional response or long-standing beliefs/opinions. I’m not asking for you to take my word for anything. I am hoping you’ll do a little research of your own. I’m hoping you’ll learn from my mistake of assuming I knew the basic story and it’s implications, when I DIDN’T (regarding Sandra’s story).

I try to remember that every complicated political platform has thousands of stories unheard and unseen. They are complex and can’t be cut into a few even sections with clean edges. As a Christian, I follow Jesus’ example and he always focused on the person first. So in our conversations on policy, do we understand how specific laws will affect specific people? Do we know anyone who is affected by those laws? Have we ever asked someone potentially affected about their thoughts on the issue?

I checked out this guide on Immigrant and Refugee Civil Rights by the Georgetown University Law Library and, although it was fascinating, I quickly realized that it’s insanely complicated. If I was trying to live in this country, I’d have no idea where to start. If I somehow managed that, I’d probably still be doing something wrong. It’ stressful even to imagine figuring it out as an immigrant.

Have you read any memoirs by someone very different than you lately? What’s a political topic that you feel quite strongly about? How often do you read the opposing perspective?

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Refugees and Immigrants; 3 Books to read to hear their stories; Provocative Joy

8 comments on “Refugees and Immigrants: Hearing Their Stories”

  1. I’m really glad that you’re spreading this incredibly important message. I’m not religious, but I used to be a devout Christian; and I get SO frustrated with people who seem to build their lives around their Christianity, but let politics get in the way of the kind of compassion that is a vital tenet of Christianity. I hope that your message gets through to at least one person (hopefully more)–it could honestly save lives!

    • Hi Robin, Thanks for the encouragement! I hope I can always be humble enough to choose compassion over policy… it can be hard, but I agree that it should be a defining trait of true Christians.

    • That sounds fun! Kids can bring everyone together. Where did you get connected with this group? Sounds like a great opportunity to meet new people.

  2. Thank you so much for these great books, this hits close to me as I loved as a refugee in Congo for a long period following the 1994 genocide. thanks for sharing.
    Denise @myowntotell

    • Wow, Denise… Thank you for commenting. You should definitely check out Sandra’s book, How Dare the Sun Rise!

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