What does it mean to swap one life for another and move continents with little notice? How do the long-lasting effects of separation shape family bonds? How does growing up in several different countries shape refugee children’s conceptions of how the world works?

According to writer Viet Thanh Nguyen, popular narratives fail to capture these salient aspects of refugees’ lives. Instead, refugees stories’ are “invisible” until they are “hypervisible…forgotten by those who are not refugees until they turn into a menace.” The Displaced: Refugee Authors on Refugee Lives, an anthology of vignettes and personal essays by refugee authors offers answers to these questions, centering the voices of refugees. In the introduction, Nguyen, the editor of the book, hopes for change. He hopes that the voices of refugees catalyze the creation of new possibilities and serve as the impetus for readers to both alter their worldviews and champion the creation of policy that harbors humanity at its core. 

Through their stories, the writers show that the journeys of refugees comprise more than just geographical movements. The often circuitous routes that they take can result in both heightened awareness of the cultural systems of each home country but also difficulties in synthesizing their identities and recentering themselves in a new country. The trauma, conflict, and separation imbued within these journeys shapes familial relationships. In “13 Ways of Being an Immigrant,” Porochista Khakpour intersects her immigrant upbringing and values with formative experiences in her youth, recalling distressing incidents she endured after her move to the United States. In “The Parent Who Stays,” Reyna Grande depicts how her father’s early move to the United States prior to the rest of the family led to fractured relationships that were never resolved and trauma that has persisted for years, a topic that holds renewed importance in new ways as family separation policies under the Trump administration persist after two years. 

The writers also question how the construction of the category of “refugee.” In “Refugees and Exiles,”  Marina Lewycka explains how certain media narratives term individuals driven from their home through conflict or war as opportunistic “economic migrants” or deem their accounts of suffering as exaggerated or false. She also describes how descendants of mid 20th century immigrants and refugees feel differently about present day refugees, separating modern-day refugees’ struggles from their own. Grande speaks of how despite these categories, refugees of different circumstances share trauma, both in their past countries, and within their journeys, propelling them to migrate, despite dire circumstances.

In his introduction, Nguyen declares that “the refugee camp belongs to the same inhuman family as the internment camp, the concentration camp, the death camp. The camp is the place where we keep those who we do not see as fully being human.” He argues that inaction in itself is injustice, that legality and morality do not always overlap. Through learning about refugees’ shared struggles, we learn about experiences that are uniquely shared by refugees but also about how their experiences with forming and reforming their identities, dealing with specters of complex familial relationships, and attempts to take control of their current circumstances mirror our own. Through centering their voices and incorporating their stories into humane policy, we can imagine and build a better future. 

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