Originally Published in The New York Times
Mimi Swartz - August 4, 2020
AFTER THE LAST BORDER
Two Families and the Story of Refuge in America
By Jessica Goudeau
Many of us think we can imagine the life of an immigrant to the United States — the isolation, the loneliness, the small triumphs and lacerating defeats of trying to find one’s way in a new world. Such stories are the staples of newspaper and TV news features, so much so that telling them in fresh ways seems almost impossible.
But now comes Jessica Goudeau, who brings the 21st-century American immigrant experience to life anew. Her “After the Last Border: Two Families and the Story of Refuge in America” is simply brilliant, both in its granular storytelling and its enormous compassion. This book should be required reading for anyone trying to understand the challenges of getting to and surviving in the United States in the Trump era, and it would make an excellent, subversive gift for those who believe that closing our borders is the best way to keep America strong.
“After the Last Border” is really three books in one. There is the story of Mu Naw, a refugee from Myanmar who comes with her family to Austin, Texas, in 2007 after spending most of her life in a Thai camp, and that of Hasna al-Salam, who arrives nine years later, escaping from the horror and violence of modern-day Syria. (Their names are pseudonyms, as both women have family members in their countries of origin who could be endangered were their names made public.) Then, interspersed between gripping chapters about narrow escapes, seemingly impossible language barriers, excruciating paperwork, child rearing in a radically different culture and marriages that sometimes reach the breaking point, there are chapters that recount the twists and turns of American immigration policy from 1880 to the present day.
“After the Last Border” offers a crash course in how shifts in public attitudes and, in turn, United States policy have helped and hindered people desperate to escape the poverty or violence in their homelands. As Goudeau explains, “Americans’ national fight for identity — the wrangling about who we once were, how we will define ourselves for each generation, and who we want to become — is the single greatest determiner of who we accept for resettlement.”
What makes this book so different from other works that tell similar stories is the talent and doggedness of Goudeau, who spent years working with refugees in Austin, and brings an insider’s authority to the page. But she also clearly grasps that nonfiction narratives like these rise and fall on the small details that reveal a character’s humanity; Goudeau understands the metaphorical power of a beloved courtyard where family gatherings will never occur again, and the fear inspired by the sideways glance of a newly minted government soldier who may or may not be a friend on any given day.
Goudeau spent two years eliciting Mu Naw’s story, which begins with her family’s desperate flight from Myanmar after a married aunt puts their lives in danger when she refuses the attentions of a general in the army. Her family is Karen, an ethnic minority that the Burmese government has systematically persecuted. “Thick wet grass rises higher than her chubby thighs and she lifts her legs as if she is marching, almost jumping to keep up with the frantic adults,” Goudeau writes of what becomes Mu Naw’s first border crossing, into one of the Thai refugee camps that will become her home for the next 18 years. Here, she will be abandoned by her mother, fall in love and begin to raise a family before landing at the Austin airport in native dress.
The Austin she encounters is far from the slacker and software paradise of Barton Springs and South by Southwest. It’s a virtually anonymous, anywhere American city of sorry apartment complexes and strip centers and semi-available public transportation. Mu Naw and her family begin their life sweltering in their new apartment, taking cold showers because they couldn’t follow a caseworker’s instructions about using the thermostat. Mu Naw did not know how to turn on the stove (which turns out to be broken), and went out searching for food on the busy city streets as if still foraging in the jungle, finally finding an open convenience store.
Goudeau makes one of the most ubiquitous locales in American life appear, through the eyes of Mu Naw, wholly novel: “There were stacks and rows of things that neither of them had ever seen, entire aisles full of things that Mu Naw’s eyes slid past because she did not understand them. She smelled coffee that had been left too long on the burner, unwashed bodies and smoke, the metallic scent of air-conditioning, the sweet smell of cakes. She wanted cake.”
Mu Naw has the mythic qualities so beloved by better-established Americans: grit, determination, the ability to see obstacles as molehills rather than mountains. She devotes herself to learning English; she is entrepreneurial. There is little to no doubt in the reader’s mind that despite hardships she and her family will wind up succeeding in this new America.
The future is less certain for Hasna al-Salam, who had so much more to lose. She came from Daraa, a Syrian city she loved, and lived in a home where al-Salam children had been raised for decades. The courtyard was the center of the family’s indoor-outdoor life — they took their meals there, and Hasna relished not only the sweet aroma of jasmine blooming in a pot but the quiet coffee she took each morning, alone, after her children left for school and her husband for work: “Her days were full with neighbors … slipping back and forth to one another’s homes when the men were at work, cooking or shopping or lingering over coffee.” But as the cruelty of the Assad regime became increasingly apparent, Hasna’s world began to crumble, little by little: “She no longer assumed that she could live out a normal life and avoid what was happening in her country — eventually, the politics in Syria would come for them all.” With a horror most Americans cannot imagine, they did, scattering Hasna’s family like dried leaves and leaving her beloved home in rubble.
The differences between the immigrant experiences of Mu Naw and Hasna are defined by culture, geography, social status and character, of course, but United States policy also plays a part. Mu Naw arrives during the presidency of George W. Bush, when immigration laws were substantially more generous than now. By contrast, Hasna and her scattered family find themselves trapped in endless delays and nonsensical program shifts that should make readers cringe with shame.
“Refugee resettlement is a bellwether of our country’s moral center,” Goudeau writes. “How we respond to the greatest humanitarian crises of our time reveals our nation’s soul.” Reading “After the Last Border” will make you wish that more Americans would take a critical look at themselves and ask whether we are who we want to be, or whether we have lost our allegiance to the dreams that still inspire so many to try to reach our shores.