On a bright day that I saw only through the filtered doorway of my home, a middle-aged man arrived at our house. He said, “Your son has fifteen minutes before we go.” He brought me a change of clothes: a pair of blue jeans, walking shoes, and a T-shirt. He said to take nothing. -- From Somewhere In The Unknown World
So begins a young man’s fateful journey from Afghanistan to Minnesota. Young Afghanzada worked as a bookkeeper for the U.S. International Development Agency, hoping to do some good for his war-stricken people. But when the Taliban found out, they repeatedly threatened him until he did the only thing he could think of to survive.
He paid $25,000 to a trafficker to sneak him out of his country. He had inquired first about getting a Special Immigrant Visa through the U.S. State Department. He was qualified as an employee of the U.S. government. However, there was a three-year wait, and he didn’t have that long.
A Collective Refugee Memoir
Somewhere in the Unknown World is a collection of stories written by Kao Kalia Yang on behalf of fourteen refugees. Yang, herself a refugee of Laos, is the author of The Latehomecomer and The Song Poet, which chronicle her family’s stories.
While traveling across the country to speak about her work, she met other refugees and resettlement workers. She discovered that the isolating loneliness so many of them felt was a shared experience. Many asked her to tell their stories.
At first, she was reticent to do so. However, over the last few years, she witnessed an America questioning its long history of refugee resettlement, an America that began to increasingly cast its vulnerable immigrants and incoming refugees to the margins of society.
She felt compelled to share something about the refugee lives around her, to show, as she describes in her prologue, “our shared understanding of war and hunger for peace, our vulnerabilities, and strengths, and to offer our powerful truths to a country I love.”
Minnesota and Refugees
Although the refugees in this memoir come from all over the world (Bosnia, Liberia, Syria, Burma, Iraq, Kandahar, and more), the thread that binds their stories together is that they all settled in Minnesota, where Yang also lives.
Before reading Somewhere in the Unknown World, I never realized that Minnesota has the highest number of refugees per capita of any state. In the words of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, “We have a rich history of welcoming refugees because Minnesotans believe in treating all people with respect, dignity, and compassion.”
The Law Center further notes that “After their first years of adjustment, refugee incomes rise rapidly, and so do their contributions to taxes and the economy. Refugees pay back the cost of the airfare for coming to the U.S.”
Back in the 1980s, Minnesota’s University Avenue had become a skid row, lined with church thrift stores, boarded businesses, prostitutes, and bloody, discarded needles. Now, however, University is a busy commercial district with Halal and Mexican butchers and grocery stores catering to new arrivals from Ethiopia, Bosnia, Iraq, and China. In sum, the stateless have revived a dying strip of America, even as they carry a heavy burden of economic and human loss.
Heartbreaking but Inspirational
The stories are compelling. There are accounts of what it is like to lose your home and sometimes your family and start from scratch in a foreign country. This is essential reading but also heartbreaking. We learn what it means to be stateless and have one's fate left up to government agencies and bureaucracy.
“I was not a criminal, and yet I was being treated like one. I started getting angry, too. Who is responsible for my situation? What had I done? What makes them better than me, the ones asking the questions, the ones with the power to make me shake and quiver?” – From Somewhere in the Unknown World
We see America in its extremes of wealth and poverty from an immigrant’s view.
“I saw homeless people with their bags and shopping carts beside them. I saw broken concrete and uneven sidewalks. I thought, I’ve made a mistake. How can America go into the world and speak of humanity, of peace and prosperity, when there are so many within its own borders looking for help, searching for meaning, worth, a chance at a good life?” – From Somewhere in the Unknown World
Some stories are inspirational in the way the refugees begin to craft new lives, although the measure of their success is sometimes heartbreaking in its own way.
In Afghanzada’s case, after being allowed to settle in Minnesota, he secures a full-time job as an office manager at a community college then works nights and weekends as a Lyft driver to support his family in Afghanistan.
“It brings me pride. Because of me, my family is middle class; they have food to eat, my baby brother can go to school…Someone in America sees them clearly and loves them completely.” – From Somewhere in the Unknown World
Most of the stories plunge us into the thick of the action, the culminating event that causes the protagonist to conclude that he or she has no choice but to flee.
My one critique is that I wish there were a paragraph or two at the start or end of each tale providing a summary of the historical events surrounding each person’s story. Places and events are referenced that I recognize from headlines, but I often don’t recall the details. I would appreciate a bit more background.
Somewhere in the Unknown World provides a candid and intimate view of the consequences of war and the unfathomable decisions required in these circumstances. It teaches empathy and allows us a glimpse into lives most of us would never otherwise be exposed to. I recommend it as thought-provoking non-fiction.