In After the Last Border (Viking 2020), Jessica Goudeau interweaves the stories of two refugee women — one from Myanmar and one from Syria — with a meticulously researched history of the refugee resettlement movement in the United States. Goudeau has written for The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and Teen Vogue, among other places, and is a former columnist for Catapult. She has a PhD in literature from the University of Texas and has spent more than a decade working with refugees in Austin, Texas.
Goudeau worked on an early version of this book at a 2016 Collegeville workshop, and refined sections at the 2018 In the Thick of It: Explorations of Advanced Topics in Prose Writing workshop with Lauren F. Winner, where she and I were roommates. We rose early, often writing in silence for several hours before exchanging drafts and commenting on each other’s work. With the release of her book last week, I reached out to ask some questions about how it ultimately came together and what she hopes readers will take from this book. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
You’ve been deeply involved with the refugee community in Austin, Texas, for quite some time now. Tell me about how you chose which two women to profile for this book.
When I began writing this book, I wanted to lay down two different stories with two different refugee experiences. I began with Mu Naw (a pseudonym), my friend since 2007. She and I worked together on a nonprofit called Hill Tribers that provided supplemental income to refugee artisans. I had interviewed her a couple of times for the organization’s website and so I knew some things about her story as a Karen refugee from Myanmar. When all the anti-refugee rhetoric began, before the Trump administration came into office, Mu Naw and I had already begun talking about how frustrating it was that people didn’t really understand what it meant to be a refugee, and I asked her if she’d feel comfortable with me sharing her story for publication. When it came time to actually begin the interviews for this book, however, I soon discovered that what I thought had happened when she fled her home country and what had actually happened were two very different things. Unlike 13 years ago when we first met, Mu Naw speaks English fluently. Revisiting the early years of our friendship and her resettlement story during our interviews was really rewarding, as she filled in the details that I couldn’t understand at the time because we didn’t speak the same language.
I met Hasna (also a pseudonym) when I was working on another article and had an instant connection with her. It’s hard to explain what this is like, but I think anyone who has ever lived in a foreign country understands that there can be a resonance that transcends language, and I had that with Hasna from the very first day. Hasna is originally from Syria and speaks Arabic; Amena, who also uses a pseudonym in the book, translated for us. The three of us met in each other’s homes every two weeks for over two years. We took turns hosting the conversations, and sat and ate and drank coffee, and it was one of the richest experiences of my life. I think there’s something really important about the hospitality of being together over food in each other’s homes that changed the dynamic of this book. She became a friend in a way that is really different from any other friendship I have ever had. Together with Amena, the three of us had a really extraordinary flow.
In what ways are their stories characteristic (or not) of the refugee experience?
Refugees who come to the United States around the same time from the same geographic region often have similar experiences; however, I also think it can be dangerous to generalize. I wrote this book understanding that the specific is actually the universal. If I was trying to write a book about “The Refugee Experience,” it would fall flat. But writing one person’s story can pull you into what it means to be a refugee. At the same time, I’m really cognizant that I’m a white writer who has never been a refugee, and I can never understand what a refugee has gone through. I don’t think that any one story can convey the totality of the experience. There’s a great Chimamanda Adichie TED talk about the power of a single story, and I think that’s critical when we think about these issues of representation.
At the end of the day, I wanted to delve into the history of refugee resettlement and tell the stories of two women that I knew in Austin and what they had gone through. So while I think that this book will be familiar to people who have had similar experiences, in other ways it’s going to be incredibly different. This isn’t a book about “The Refugee Experience” but rather a story of Mu Naw and Hasna.
Mu Naw is a Christian, and Hasna is Muslim. How does religion factor into their stories?
I hope that people who read my book understand that they should not feel more sympathetic for Mu Naw as a Christian woman than for Hasna as a Muslim woman. I have seen religious prejudice when it comes to refugee resettlement, and it’s particularly bad coming from churches, frankly, who often want to prioritize Christians in resettlement.
Refugees are people caught up in horrific circumstances, and their faith does not make them any more or less deserving of resettlement than the color of their skin or the region that they’re from, and I think it’s imperative that Christians understand this concept. We can agree or disagree on matters of faith, but in times of crisis, when someone needs safety, it’s the duty of Christians to offer that to everyone regardless of their political affiliation or their religious beliefs. That’s the point of the parable of the Good Samaritan. You help everybody.
When someone needs safety, it’s the duty of Christians to offer that to everyone regardless of their political affiliation or their religious beliefs.
Besides telling these women’s stories, in the book you also offer a concise, carefully researched history of American refugee resettlement from 1880-2018. How can that history inform our understanding of immigration issues today?
Many Americans don’t understand the history of refugee resettlement, either thinking it just came out of nowhere or was something that has always been a part of our country’s history. I certainly learned a lot in my research for this book. Before 1980, refugees were admitted to the United States in an ad hoc series of acts and presidential declarations depending on the foreign policy of the moment. The point of the Federal Refugee Resettlement Program (instituted in 1980 by Jimmy Carter and supported fully by Ronald Reagan in his presidency) was that this process should be well-regulated and evenly run. The new federal program established a regular rhythm so that local resettlement agencies across the United States could count on funding, hire people, make plans, forecast, and be ready to assist refugees arrivals with things like housing, employment services, and other basic social services. Whatever happened with humanitarian crises around the world, the U.S. would now have a system that could help displaced people.
People keep saying, “Things have never been this polarized”— and that’s just not true. We have always been this polarized. We’re just able to see it more because of social media. There has always been this push and pull between newcomers and people who were born here, between who is in power and who is oppressed, between who we welcome and who we don’t, and the shifting bubbles of prejudices. In many ways, the history sections of my book are really a history of public opinion about immigration.
There has always been this push and pull between newcomers and people who were born here … between who we welcome and who we don’t.
What we’re seeing now is a culmination of a conversation that’s been happening for over 200 years in the United States. I’m hoping that we can place refugee resettlement in that larger context and understand why advocates have fought so hard for it over the years — why this program is important and why it deserves to be saved. As I wrote in an adapted piece from my book published by the New York Times, refugee resettlement has been targeted by the Trump administration, which has pushed the entire system to the edge of collapse. If we have any hope of saving this extraordinary program, now is the time to act.
What one thing do you most hope readers take away from this book?
Empathy. Refugees are not a different class of people because they have a different visa category. They are just people, caught up in extraordinary circumstances, who want to find a safe place. I’m hoping that readers can empathize with these stories, and read what happened, and think: “I probably would have made that choice, too,” I want readers to understand that the U.S. resettlement program is the most basic thing we can offer people who need a safe place, and we should fight to sustain it.
Refugees are just people, caught up in extraordinary circumstances, who want to find a safe place.