Refugee Hotel (Voice of Witness)
US: Dec 2012
“I’d like to take my kids to see the life I used to live, but I’m really, really scared. I’m scared of that country, and I am scared that my kids will forget Somalia”
– Bashir Absher, fled Somalia then settled in Minnesota (97).
“We miss our traditions, and it’s quite hard to recreate them here in Fargo”
– Prem Khatiwada, fled Bhutan then settled in North Dakota (137).
“The first night, I was full of fear, and I was so lonely. I had never seen a hotel or stayed in one before, and I didn’t know what it was”
– Ehney Hser, fled Thailand then settled in Virginia (111).
Evoking a strong sense of fear, loneliness, and displacement, the above citations are just three of the stories drawn from Refugee Hotel (Voice of Witness) a collaborative effort by photographer Gabriele Stabile and editor Juliet Linderman. A groundbreaking collection of stunning photography and poignant narrative, Stabile and Linderman set out to document the experiences and aspirations of refugees from around the world. What this project accomplishes is visibility: often refugees flee in silence and arrive unnoticed. Thus, this project serves not only as a tool acknowledging the refugees’ existences but also their contributions to society. As Stabile and Linderman intended the “oral histories and images in Refugee Hotel, challenge the general, entrenched assumptions that refugee populations are part of one homogenous mass” (taken from the introduction, no page specified).
Funded partially from grants, publishing advances, and even a Kickstarter campaign, Stabile and Linderman traveled to five points of entry in the United States; New York, Newark, Chicago, Miami and Los Angeles. The majority of these photographs document the refugees’ first night in the cheap hotels located on the outskirts of the airports they arrived in. These hotels serve as transitional spaces, essentially a bedded waiting area between their histories and their expectations.
A particularly stirring example is found near the beginning of the book. This photo shows a man stepping into the hallway from his hotel room. The only lights illuminating the scene are the dim hallway lights and the garish exit sign. He is dressed in a white undershirt and pants, with his arm angled so his hand rests at the base of his neck. He seems bothered or even quizzical; as if the reader is posing a threat or offering the assistance he seeks. This image is on the right side of the book, while the left side is a simple black page. As a result we gaze on this man and bear witness to his seclusion.
Yet as the reader moves through the photos we notice an incongruity. The images eventually transition to the depictions of Noel Sunzu’s life in Mobile, Alabama, where he has become an influential minister. This changeover serves as the proof that some of the optimism and hopefulness also expressed in the narratives and images are obtainable.
The writing delivers the oral histories and moves the reader to the present lives of the refugees. To accomplish this, Stabile and Linderman traveled to areas such as Charlottesville, Virginia, Fargo, North Dakota, Minneapolis, Minnesota, Amarillo, Texas, Erie, Pennsylvania etc. Here the subjects relate the trials of assimilation, the difficulty in defining national identity, and the balancing of cultural conditions informing the refugees’ heritage and current lives.
One of the themes threading through the writing is an emphasis on restructuring communities, especially creating bonds with former advisories. Abdihakim Br, formerly of Somalia now living in Minnesota, remembers “when the civil war happened, everyone started identifying themselves with a tribe – ‘I’m this, I’m that.’ But ultimately, there was killing. In America, I have dear friends who come from different clans – how could I ever think of killing them?” (94). In spite of their diverse backgrounds, each narrator has their own story thereby making it nearly impossible to reduce their unique experiences into a singular trope.
Also through the histories, readers become acquainted with some of the resources, organizations, and employment opportunities made available to newly arrived refugees. For example, organizations such as the Catholic Social Service Refugee Resettlement Program “welcomed roughly 6,400 refugees to Alabama” (121). Or the Refugee Services of Texas which “makes sure that the client is picked up from the airport; given a clean, safe, and affordable place to live, signs up for ESL classes; and is enrolled in employment assistance programs” (83).
Throughout the book, the photographs are never labeled, thus the subjects are not identifiable. I found myself wanting to connect the narratives to the images. Without knowing the names of the people represented I could not discern who they were or what set them apart. This seems puzzling as the anonymity of the subjects’ restates the inscrutability this book tries to prevent. On one hand, perhaps this forces readers to contend with the larger quieted and unspecified conversations shaping refugee culture. On the other hand, this re-silences the voices of the refugees.
Also, the book is shaped by a lilt of romanticism that tends to curtail the hardships refugees might face once they are settled. It’s important to note that it is the refugees, rather than the authors, who express this idealism. This is clearly shaped by the prospects of safety and sanctuary. Nevertheless, this does not create an excuse to ignore recent hardships that equally shape one’s standpoint. Some parts of the book seem sugarcoated and over emphasize an unproblematic and incontestable patriotism, which in actuality is not always unsullied.
Regardless, Refugee Hotel serves as an effective counter-narrative to the more commonplace racist and prejudicial opinions on immigration and the future of this country. Refugee Hotel accomplishes an important task: the demonstration that the population of the United States is not a singular identity but rather a multiplicity of backgrounds, ethnicities, and histories, oftentimes created by bravery and resilience. These refugees are fleeing dissimilar yet equally dangerous situations: political upheaval, corruption, persecution, poverty, and even likely death. However, to greater or lesser degree they all share a variation of the belief in the “assurance that you’re going to be safe to start a new life” (116).