IN THE ROOM WHERE IT HAPPENS by Susan Kuklin
Back in the early sixties, I was given a most wonderful gift. It was a book, of course, called The Family of Man, created by Edward Steichen. The turning of pages and pages of evocative photographs roused my curiosity. The diverse group of people revealed in the photographs seemed very far away from my sleepy little neighborhood in West Philadelphia. I wondered how I could even get to meet, let alone know, such people.
The answer to this question was found in the pages of The Family of Man. Photographers, I realized, were able to encounter diverse peoples because they put themselves in the right place at the right time. Before taking the first pix, the photographer had to be in the room where it happens. And although it wasn’t until way after college that I became a professional photographer, I started traveling around town with my uncle’s borrowed Leica camera slung over my shoulder, looking, searching, seeing. Interesting faces were everywhere. All I had to do was look.
Fast forward to the present. My previous book, We Are Here to Stay: Voices of Undocumented Young Adults, was written as an homage to my grandparents. They, like so many others before and after them, came to this country searching for safety. But the story was not over with the publication of this book. More needed to be said. A second book, In Search of Safety: Voices of Refugees, began floating about in my head. Little did I know that this second book, In Search of Safety: Voices of Refugees would be a shadow blueprint for surviving today’s world turned upside down.
Several contacts who had so generously helped me with We Are Here to Stay, immediately got on board with the idea of a follow-up study. I dug into books and articles that dealt with the refugee issues. It soon became clear that each profile in the new book had to have three parts: early life in one’s birth country, the wait to come to America, and adapting to differences, yet maintaining one’s culture, once in the U.S. Fiction and nonfiction took me deeper into the cultures of various ethnic groups. Books such as, NoViolet Bulawago‘s We Need New Names, Charmaine Craig’s Miss Burma, and Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, to name three, filled my imagination with leitmotifs and particulars that I could use during the interview, writing, and editing processes. Wonderful! All the background legwork done. Now it was clear sailing. All I needed were volunteers to participate in the project. Snap!
Many of the refugee organizations I called were too overwhelmed to even speak with me. A few took the time to explain various issues that kept them from talking to the press: the refugees were too traumatized to talk publicly, the refugees did not speak English, the refugees were so busy learning an American lifestyle. Some refugees, the parents mostly, agreed to talk to me, but their teenage children were not so forthcoming. Other refugees agreed to be interviewed because they felt an obligation to their host families, not because they wanted their voices heard. Reluctant participants cannot participate whole-heartedly in a book. The relationship between the author and the participants must be based on trust. Otherwise, there would not be the introspection, honesty, and intimacy needed to bring the person to the page. A year-and-a-half went by with no luck. Not one committed refugee came forward.
Long story short, my sister-in-law, Bonnie Kuklin Horwich, who lives in Nebraska, stepped up with her own who-do-you-know, who-do-you-know, and put me in touch with Lutheran Family Services in Omaha, a highly respected organization that helps resettle immigrants from all over the world. After speaking with Lacey Studnicka, the program development officer, I hopped on a plane to see her.
Once I met Lacey, I knew that the book was going to happen – and, that it was going to happen in Nebraska. During this meeting, she mentioned that a refugee family from Afghanistan was arriving in Omaha in a few hours. Did I want to join her and the group of volunteers at the airport? This is exactly what “being in the room where it happens” is all about. Yes. Yes. YES! Bonnie and I drove to the airport to meet my first refugee family: Fraidoon, an Afghani interpreter for the U.S. military, his wife, Homa, and their two children. Lacey was already there with gaggle of happy, smiling volunteers, balloons, and flowers. Someone yelled, “HERE THEY COME!” Out walked Fraidoon carrying his sleeping daughter Leema. Homa and their son Fradin were right behind him. I burst into tears. I’m tearing up now at the memory.
Throughout the day, from leaving the airport to arriving at their new home, I was able to cover the family from behind the protective lens of my camera. But every time I went up to talk to Fraidoon, I was so filled with unanticipated emotion that I became totally tongued tied and I started bawling. (Later, we laughed about this.)
The room where it happens for In Search of Safety is the state of Nebraska. Along with Fraidoon, I met with Nathan, an ethnic Karen who was born and raised in a refugee camp in Thailand because his family were persecuted in their native Myanmar. He is currently working two jobs and is a student at the University of Nebraska. Nyarout, from South Sudan, was in her classroom when war broke out. Her brother risked his own life to save her when the school was about to be swallowed up in a civil war. They lived in a refugee camp for years not knowing if their parents were dead or alive. Dieudonné, born in Burundi, escaped ethnic genocide and grew up in a camp in Tanzania. And Shireen, a Yazidi woman from Northern Iraq, was enslaved and tortured by ISIS. Her story of survival is nothing short of a miracle, revealing an irrepressible spirit to survive.
All five refugees lived through harrowing and traumatic situations. Today, they not only thrive but also provide enriching additional texture to the culture of their adopted state. Nyarout, Nathan, and Homa are awesome cooks. Dieudonné has given Omaha a spectacular choir. And Shireen is becoming a public speaker alongside other survivors of genocide.
So here we are – I hope you’re all social distancing – making it happen separately together in our own homes. How does this relate to In Search of Safety? Everyone in the book found ways to wait it out, live through, outlast horrific situations not of their own making. I’m so grateful to Fraidoon, Nathan, Nyarout, Shireen, and Dieudonné for agreeing to participate in this book. Their search for safety, like/unlike today’s search, will inspire us to survive and thrive.
Be well. Be careful. Be loving.
A sample chapter of In Search of Safety can be found on my website at: http://www.susankuklin.net/young-adult-books/in-search-of-safety-voices-of-refugees/
Susan Kuklin is the award-winning author and photographer of more than thirty books for children and young adults that address social issues and culture, including No Choirboy: Murder, Violence, and Teenagers on Death Row; Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out, a Stonewall Honor Book; and We Are Here to Stay: Voices of Undocumented Young Adults. Her photographs have appeared in documentary films and in Time magazine, Newsweek, and the New York Times. Susan Kuklin lives in New York City.