Documenting the Refugee Experience

Mar 7, 2013 1:17pm

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Newly arrived refugees in the United States experience a much different welcome than that of immigrants. Rather than choosing to leave, they flee crises like famine, war and political prosecution in their own countries in search of a better life here. Arriving traumatized and exhausted, the first day of their American existence is often fraught with bewilderment and searing uncertainty as they take temporary shelter in a low budget airport hotel or hostel.

These are the subjects of “Refugee Hotel,” an engaging  new book of photography and interviews by Gabriele Stabile and Juliet Linderman. Stabile, an Italian-born photographer who is based in New York, aimed his lens at five U.S. airports to document the first point of entry for many refugees: Newark, JFK, Miami, Chicago’s O’Hare and Los Angeles International.

“Most of us can’t really imagine what kind of situation these people arrive here from,” says Stabile, whose work has appeared in the New Yorker magazine, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. “For us to be able to document what it’s like for refugees on the very first day of their existence here appealed to us on such a human level.”

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The book weaves a contemporary oral history from the refugees themselves who arrive from countries as far afield as Burma, Iraq and South Sudan among others. The authors track the refugee experience all the way to their destinations in the U.S. – from Mobile, Ala., and Minneapolis, to Fargo, N.D.

“In their narratives, they describe their first days in the U.S., the lives they’ve left behind, and the communities they have since created,” the publisher says.

The project also represents a fair amount of investigative journalism. Relief and development organization such as the International Rescue Committee (IRC) aided the project by tracking down the refugees and assisting the authors in navigating the complexities of the refugee experience.

In addition to being an advocacy for those uprooted or affected by conflict and oppression, the IRC, on the ground in 42 countries, focuses on emergency relief, rehabilitation, and protection of human rights around the globe. The group is often a critical network of first responders and humanitarian relief workers in a crisis.

Voice of Witness, a non-profit organization co-founded by the writer Dave Eggers, publishes the “Refugee Hotel.” The book  is part of a series of works depicting human rights crises around the world through the stories of those who experience them, the publisher says.

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