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Refugee Stories That Look You In The Eye

I’m well aware that there is an international refugee crisis currently redefining our world. The United States has, thus far, largely been untouched by it. We talk (or yell) about it and debate what small and symbolic number of refugees we might accept (the preference of the current leadership seems to be zero) but we are not forced to reckon with fleeing people begging at our borders. We know of them, from news reports and photographs, but it seems that most Americans are unmoved by their plight or unwilling to make them a political priority. I’m not exempt from this, and I’m not proud of how little I’ve paid attention to the issue, how little I’ve done. Domestic politics feel increasingly urgent, demanding all our energy. How do you reserve concern for such a vast, swirling storm that is striking so far away from home?

Two recent experiences have managed to penetrate the protective bubble over my brain that resists (because of fear? Guilt?) engaging deeply with the refugee crisis. In my book club, we were assigned to read “Exit West,” Mohsin Hamid’s acclaimed 2017 novel in with Saeed and Nadia, two young residents of an unnamed city in turmoil, embark on a journey to someplace safe, wherever that may be, if such a place exists. They are two of millions circling the globe in search of a welcome mat. Hamid tells the story with something of a fairy tale twist. Though a modern tale, seemingly set in the near future, it sounds like a fable from the past, told in soft, twinkling language.

There are magical doors that transport the couple to Mykonos or London or California and the device both heightens the sense of incomprehensible magic involved in these journeys while also taking focus off the transportation itself and onto the perhaps more emotionally difficult work of resettlement and the maintenance of relationships. Saeed and Nadia begin as lovers and the easy literary route would be for their love to strengthen in the face of hardship. Instead, their connection begins to fray after so many replantings in strange lands, and the quiet revelation of “Exit West” is that ultimately, it is as much about internal and interpersonal relocation as it is about geographic relocation.

Another relationship between two refugees – this time brothers – is the center of “Flight,” the ingenious 45-minute theatrical production by the Scottish company Vox Motus at the McKittrick Hotel in New York City. Told through a rotating series of intricate dioramas and voiceover, “Flight,” based on the book “Hinterland” by Carolyn Brothers, follows Kabir and Aryan from Kabul to Istanbul, Rome, Paris and London as they trek through mountain passes, crouch in cattle cars, and encounter kindness and cruelty along the way. The shifting perspectives and stunning detail of the tableaux keep the narrative visually fresh, but what made the story so captivating was its intimacy. Your watch it alone, in a personal cubicle, with headphones (six or so other people are simultaneously having this experience next to you, but you don’t feel their presence). The story is told for you only, it seems, and while there are no live actors, you feel the responsibility of paying attention.

I became invested in the journey of these brothers, just as I became invested in the journey of Saeed and Nadia, because although they are fake, they feel more real than the subjects of a newspaper profile. They joke and tease each other, repress doubts, experience boredom. A million people can never earn the empathy of one person who looks you in the eyes. Both “Exit West” and “Flight” make you look into the eyes of refugees. Will that spur me to action and absolve me of my shameful indifference? I don’t know yet. But having been looked at, it’s much harder to look away.

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