Why you should care

Newspapers provide images of a crisis, but books give us “vicarious experience.”

More than 11 million Syrians have fled their homes since 2011. While the Syrian refugee situation is perhaps the most visible of the crises, war and famine are driving people away in Afghanistan and Central Africa as well. We all know that refugees face tremendous challenges, but how can we get beyond stereotypes and sound bites to truly understand their lives?

Here are five recent books that are a good place to start if you’re looking for the human faces behind this hot-button issue. As Helen Thorpe, the author of The Newcomers, puts it, “Books are a path to empathy. We live inside our own circumstances, and it can be hard to understand the fate of another human being whose life is very different. Newspapers offer headlines and television offers images, but only books give us vicarious experience.”

The Boat People by Sharon Bala

Five hundred Sri Lankans, half of them suspected Tamil Tigers, are on a boat headed for Vancouver Island. Authorities take the passengers into custody and begin hearings to decide who stays in Canada and who gets deported. Readers experience these months of uncertainty through the wrenching story of Mahindan and his 6-year-old son, Sellian, while chapters from the perspective of a lawyer and judge — themselves from immigrant backgrounds — add perspective. Bala’s debut novel is based on a real-life 2009 crisis. Gripping and compassionate, it lends nuance to North America’s political rhetoric of building strong borders, being tough on terrorism and maintaining national identity.

Tears of Salt: A Doctor’s Story by Pietro Bartolo

Bartolo has treated hundreds of thousands of refugees as director of the only medical clinic on Lampedusa. Situated between Italy and Tunisia, the island is the first port of call for boats traveling from Africa to Europe. Many patients bear marks of mistreatment on their bodies: They’ve sold their organs, survived torture or become pregnant through rape. The son of a fisherman, Bartolo returned to Lampedusa after completing his medical studies. Mediterraneo journalist Lidia Tilotta helped Bartolo arrange his memories from 25 years of medical practice into brisk vignettes that skip around in time, giving intimate slices of life.

Curfews, torture, rape, imprisonment for peaceful protest: These excerpted interviews don’t make for easy reading.

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

The eight stories in Pulitzer-winning Nguyen’s semiautobiographical collection are set between Vietnam and the United States and show how a sense of displacement can haunt Asian-Americans decades later. In “The Other Man,” 18-year-old Liem embraces his sexuality in 1970s San Francisco. “War Years” and “Fatherland” reflect on all that’s left behind in the move to a new country. The standout is “Black-Eyed Women,” an excellent ghost story featuring the return of a brother who died fleeing Vietnam 25 years ago. How to recover what is lost and how to atone for mistakes: These are key questions in these deeply affecting tales about the lasting consequences of war.

We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices From Syria by Wendy Pearlman

From 2012–2016 Pearlman, a Northwestern University associate political science professor, spoke with 300 displaced Syrians in their temporary homes, everywhere from Germany to Jordan. Curfews, torture, rape, imprisonment for peaceful protest: These excerpted interviews don’t make for easy reading. The book’s eight sections mirror the stages of the revolutionary process, from “Authoritarianism” to “Flight.” Similar to Svetlana Alexievich’s work in post-Soviet Russia, this is urgent oral history. As Pearlman says, “Atrocities are happening right now, on our watch. The very least we can do is pay attention. And there’s no better way to do that than to listen to the voices of refugees themselves.”

The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship, and Hope in an American Classroom by Helen Thorpe

A journalist who’s previously profiled women soldiers and Mexican girlhood in the United States, Thorpe spent 2015–16 with 22 immigrant teenagers at Denver’s South High School. Whether from Iraq, Burma or Congo, they’d all escaped traumatic situations and extreme poverty to join Eddie Williams’ English Language Acquisition class. Over one school year, the students found common ground in their struggles with the language and the weather, as well as their confusion at American customs. Thorpe is a sympathetic, learned observer, explaining how refugee resettlement works and delving into individual teens’ life stories.

An American transplant to England, Rebecca Foster is a proofreader, writer and blogger. Her book reviews have appeared in print and online, including The Times Literary Supplement and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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