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People of the Books: Refugees Who Could Be Us

People of the Books: Refugees Who Could Be Us

From People of the Books, a JUF News blog with
reviews, recommendations, and other reasons to read.
By Spertus Institute's Betsy Gomberg.

This picture, by Santi Palacios for Associated Press, is of Syrian refugees waiting near the border in Idomeni in northern Greece. It accompanied a New York Times OpEd by Nicholas Kristof that ran this past Sunday. He titled that piece Refugees Who Could Be Us, a name I’ve borrowed for this post.

In his piece, Kristof reminds readers of well-known refugees who crafted lives of great significance. He says, “Watching the horrific images of Syrian refugees struggling toward safety — or in the case of Aylan Kurdi, 3, drowning on that journey — I think of other refugees. Albert Einstein. Madeleine Albright. The Dalai Lama.”

On a more personal level, he says: “In the aftermath of World War II, my father swam the Danube River to flee Romania and become part of a tide of refugees that nobody much cared about. Fortunately, a family in Portland, Ore., sponsored his way to the United States, making this column possible.”

Kristof argues that we need to see ourselves and our own families in the images of today’s refugees. The need for that empathy — and resulting action — is formidable. According to the United Nations, the current surge in people seeking refuge from war and poverty worldwide presents the worst migration crisis since World War II.

I have to believe that many Jews immediately have the reaction Kristof had when faced with pictures and reports of the current crisis: This is my family. If not me, then my parents or their parents. Almost all of us come from families who have left or been forced from their homes to make new lives in new lands.

In that spirit, HIAS recently shared a video titled Why World Refugee Day is a Jewish Holiday. You can view it here. On the same webpage there’s a link to advocacy work HIAS is doing for Syria refugees. A number of Jewish organizations are raising funds and offering support through the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief. Other agencies providing help are noted in a recent piece in the Forward: Jewish Groups Lead Push to Open Doors for Syrian Refugees.

So how does this all tie to books? For the fifth year in a row, Chicago’s Jewish community will mark Jewish Book Month with One Book | One Community, in which a single book is selected as the focus of discussions and activities throughout the city and suburbs. This year's book is A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka, a darkly comic memoir by debut author Lev Golinkin

A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka

It focuses on his family’s experience as refugees who fled the former Soviet Union, a topic and perspective that has proven to be heartbreaking relevant to today’s headlines. In conjunction with One Book | One Community, Spertus Institute will again spearhead community events and provide resources for book groups and readers. On Sunday, December 6, author Lev Golinkin will make two area appearances, one at North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park and the second at Spertus. You can sign up at to receive program information and be eligible for book giveaways. 


In last month’s post, Coming to America, I shared a number of books by Jewish authors, who, like Golinkin, had fled Soviet Jewish oppression and made new lives with their families in the United States.

For this post — just as HIAS proposes that all refugees’ stories resonate for the Jewish community — I’m proposing that all books about refugee experiences are “Jewish books.”

Here are some, all by young authors, that I recommend.

Recognized with a National Book Award and multiple Pulitzers, Tracy Kidder is one of the most important — and inspirational — non-fiction writers working today. He is perhaps best known for Mountains Beyond Mountains, his book about doctor and activist Paul Farmer’s groundbreaking work in Haiti with the organization Farmer founded, Partners in Health. In Strength in What Remains, Kidder focuses on another extraordinary individual, Deogratias Niyizonkiza, known as Deo, who he meets when Deo is working for Partners in Health. Deo was third-year med student who, in 1994, escapes the slaughter in Rwanda and his native Burundi. With very little money and limited English, he lives in Central Park and works a low-paying job delivering groceries. Kidder follows his story both back — through the horrors he experienced — and forward, when generous sponsors pay for his tuition at Columbia University, he attends medical school at Dartmouth, and he is able to achieve his dream of building a clinic in Burundi.

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier is written by Ishmael Beah, who as a boy gets swept up in Sierra Leone's civil war. About it, author Melissa Fay Green writing for Elle Magazine said, “Beah's memoir is unforgettable testimony that Africa's children — millions of them dying and orphaned…hundreds of thousands of them forced into battle — have eyes to see and voices to tell what has happened. And what voices! How is it possible that 26-year-old Beah, a nonnative English speaker, separated from his family at age 12, taught to maim and kill at 13, can sound such notes of family happiness, of friendship under duress, of quiet horror? No outsider could have written this book, and it's hard to imagine that many insiders could do so with such acute vision, stark language, and tenderness. It is a heart-rending achievement."

Today, Beah, who came to the US when he was seventeen and graduated from Oberlin College in 2004, is a member of the Human Rights Watch Children's Rights Division Advisory Committee.

The New Kids: Big Dreams and Brave Journeys at a High School for Immigrant Teens is journalist Brooke Hauser’s inspiring chronicle of her year following the senior class of Brooklyn’s International High School at Prospect Heights, where all the students are recent immigrants.They come from 45 countries, speak more than 28 languages, and have all dealt with tremendous obstacles. The New York Times called it, “A refreshing reminder of the hurdles newcomers to this country still face and how many defy the odds to overcome them." NPR’s Talk of the Nationsaid, "The stories of these kids are simply astonishing." 

Malala Yousafzai, the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace and certainly one of today’s most well-known teenagers, now lives in Birmingham, England, far away from her native home in the Swat Valley in northwest Pakistan. Her book, I Am Malala, is now in its 28th week on the New York Times bestseller list. About it, the Washington Post said, “It is difficult to imagine a chronicle of a war more moving, apart from perhaps the diary of Anne Frank. With the essential difference that we lost that girl, and by some miracle, we still have this one." 

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Betsy GombergBetsy Gomberg