Personal Stories From the Refugee Experience

Personal Stories From the Refugee Experience

Originally published by The NY TImes

From Refugee to Olympian: My Story of Rescue, Hope, and Triumph
By Yusra Mardini with Josie Le Blond
284 pp. St. Martin’s. $26.99.

In the summer of 2015, a teenage Mardini and her sister, both competitive swimmers, crossed a stretch of the Mediterranean Sea between Turkey and Greece in a tiny, overfull, inflatable dinghy, and as its motor died and choppy waves began to fill it with water, they slipped into the roiling sea and swam alongside, guiding the boat and pointing it forward as it tossed and turned, until after several hours they washed ashore in Greece. And if you can believe it, this dramatic event is by no means the only — or even the most — moving moment in Mardini’s vivid, harrowing account of escape from war-torn Syria to her eventual asylum in Germany and her participation as a member of the refugee Olympic team in the 2016 Summer Games in Rio.

Part coming-of-age story, part sports narrative, part migrant journey, Mardini’s book is cinematic even as it is deeply intimate and rooted in place. We accompany her through her girlhood amid Damascene streets that have since been destroyed by war, to buy booza, a traditional type of ice cream, to go to swimming practice at a sports complex (we later watch a rocket-propelled grenade fall through the ceiling into the pool seconds after she’s emerged from it). We grow to fear her father, sympathize with her mother and unabashedly love her courageous big sister Sara. She shows how war encroaches on their life, making it untenable.

The book is not without flaws. Mardini overuses the kinds of short, staccato sentences found in advertising. She frequently omits specific dates or locations that might anchor the chronology, and sometimes misses opportunities to pull back and give us a bigger picture. The final chapters focusing on her discomfort with media messaging and her experience of fame could be condensed into an epilogue or skipped altogether. But in the end, she offers an exceedingly rare window into middle-class girlhood in the middle of one of the most destructive wars of our time, and an even rarer start-to-finish account of the arduous migrant journey into Europe.

A Refugee’s Memoir of Coming to America
By Mohammed Al Samawi
324 pp. Morrow/HarperCollins. $27.99.


With a feature film already in the works, “The Fox Hunt” is likely to be one of the very few general-interest stories set in and about Yemen. And this is why it is particularly disappointing that the book misses so many opportunities to paint a true picture of this remarkable country and its people. Instead, the driving narrative is a story about the heroism of white Americans.

In the first chapter, Al Samawi, who was trapped in his apartment when war exploded just outside his door, deftly catches newcomers up on the conflict, but then suddenly pivots to a Facebook exchange. The effect is a little jarring, and it’s not the only time the reader will feel disoriented. Throughout the first several chapters, we wade through a convoluted account of defining moments in Al Samawi’s childhood but learn precious little about Yemeni life and society.

The story really begins when Al Samawi reads the Bible for the first time at the urging of an English-language teacher. We see how he begins, on his own, to be a critical thinker, eventually attending an interfaith conference and encountering Jewish Israelis and Americans.

Finally, we reach the action-packed center of his story, his entrapment and eventual rescue from Aden, a port city in the south, where he’s fled after receiving death threats, presumably for his engagement with Jews and Americans. At this point, we are suddenly in a completely different book, a gripping account of terror and escape that plays out over a few weeks.

The book asks us to tacitly accept unexplored descriptions of anti-American and anti-Semitic sloganeering without understanding when and how the country’s education system collapsed as it did, and to blindly applaud interfaith encounters as a viable path to peace. And we end up learning more about Al Samawi’s work from the glowing letters his American friends write about him than from the pages he’s written himself. Nonetheless, he comes across as a sensitive, curious, openhearted man — and meeting such a person from a country as far off the American public’s radar as Yemen is valuable in itself.

A Tale of Syrian Refugees in Greece
By Teresa Thornhill
341 pp. Verso. $26.95.


“Hara Hotel” stands out as an example of how not to write about the refugee experience in southern Europe or about the Syrian civil war and its consequences. Thornhill, a British barrister, decided to visit Greece for just two weeks to produce the initial reporting for the book. She later returned — for nine days. Her limited engagement with her subjects and subject matter is evident throughout.

Thornhill’s book is an often self-involved account of a Westerner’s transient and shallow stroll among people whose lives and histories she fails to grasp. It is a textbook example of “parachuting in,” a practice that has been harshly criticized even when undertaken by seasoned journalists. From the first pages, the contrast with the previous books is stark. Mardini’s memoir opens as she is in the Mediterranean Sea, trying to keep herself and her fellow refugees alive and afloat, and Al Samawi’s opens with him trapped in his apartment, as his food and water supplies are dwindling to nothing, bombs are collapsing buildings along his block and Qaeda militants are executing other northern Yemenis on the street below. Thornhill’s book, on the other hand, opens as she’s watching the news.

Thornhill has written two other books, and her prose is clean and attractive. But her lack of journalistic experience is immediately evident: She centers the story on her own feelings and observations rather than on reportage, eliding and omitting certain crucial historic events.

From the start, Thornhill takes up the limited attention and resources of thinly stretched volunteers, not because she is assisting in their efforts, but because she wants to get the story (which is not even theirs but the refugees’). She goes on to complain about the hardship of staying in a dilapidated motel after spending a day in a refugee tent city and makes vaguely salacious references to the beauty of young Kurdish men. The book does improve when Thornhill tells the story of a man she meets in the camp, but it’s too late. By then the damage has been done.

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