Driven from their homes by war and persecution, refugees from such countries as Somalia, Burundi, Bhutan, Iraq, Ethiopia, and Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) have been, with great hope and some difficulty, relocating to the United States for years. According to the Department of Homeland Security, more than 56,000 refugees were admitted to this country in 2011. For many, their first experience of America is a night at an airport hotel.
Back in 2007, photographer Gabriele Stabile, himself a transplant from Italy, undertook to document that first frightening and confusing night. For four years, he visited airports in New York, Newark, Chicago, Miami, and Los Angeles, and reached out to the refugees he met there. “Refugee Hotel,” a book by Stabile and journalist Juliet Linderman, is an up-close, sometimes raw evocation of the refugee experience here, published by McSweeney’s Books as part of its Voice of Witness nonprofit wing focused on social justice issues.
The book has three parts: Stabile’s hotel photographs; oral histories from interviews Linderman conducted and edited with some of Stabile’s subjects once they had settled into homes in places such as Amarillo, Texas, and Fargo, N.D.; and Stabile’s follow-up photos of their lives in the States.
It’s a small book, a paperback in a horizontal format. The photographs are printed on a black matte paper, which makes them feel all the more shadowy, threatening, and dreamlike in the first section, featuring grainy color shots. The almost claustrophobic format of these images emphasizes the chaos of a refugee’s first hours in a strange land.
In these brisk pictures, we see tired faces in half-light, the rush of movement through the windows of a van, the occasional bright shock of America beaming over a television screen. With glaring lights, hazy reflections, and deep dark, everything appears fleeting and hallucinatory. Fear and astonishment are palpable: One family, captured in reflection in a bathroom mirror, seems to marvel over the miracle of a bathtub. Others linger in the hotel hallways, nervous that they’ll be forgotten if they stay in their rooms.
The photos of some of the country’s newest residents, mostly in black and white, are crisper, steadier, more often filled with light. Several follow small Burmese children at what appears to be a wedding, playing with balloons. The crazy speed of arrival has slowed to a delectation of the present moment.
The oral histories, while packed with stories of devastation and hope, are problematic reading. It’s vital to let the refugees tell their own heroic tales. But oral histories are hard to craft into compelling writing, and that may be especially true when those stories are told by nonnative speakers. Despite dramatic and sometimes horrific details, such as fleeing from murderous soldiers or being trapped for hours in the trunk of a car, the stories share an unremarkable cadence that makes them all begin to blur together. The text is more source material than it is literature.
Despite that, the photos and the gist of the oral histories grittily portray the lives of African, Asian, and Middle Eastern refugees. Stabile and Linderman did a valiant reporting job tracking down men and women from the airport hotel photos, sometimes years later, to interview, and each of the more than 20 oral histories begins with a name and a meandering list of places along the path that refugee took from, say, Baghdad to Charlottesville, Va. But the authors choose not to identify the people in the photos. I found myself longing to put names to faces. Isn’t that the point of a book such as this? To say that these men and women are not lost, they are not anonymous, and each deserves our attention?