In SOMEWHERE IN THE UNKNOWN WORLD; A COLLECTIVE REFUGEE MEMOIR, acclaimed author Kao Kalia Yang compiles the stories of refugees from diverse backgrounds. Whether from Syria, Thailand, Afghanistan, or any of the other countries represented in these 15 harrowing stories of escape, the refugees have one thing in common – outrageous hope and courage. With empathy and compassion, Yang tells the stories of these survivors who ultimately came to Minnesota to build new lives for themselves and future generations:
The story a Syrian woman whose comfortable life on the skirts of Damascus disappeared overnight. “The war came to us in two days’ time. One day we had electricity and running water. The next day these modern conveniences were gone and the schools were closed.”
The story of a family who opened a restaurant on University Avenue in St. Paul that attracted an array of Southeast Asian refugees , resettlement workers, teachers, and friends, serving pho, the national dish of Vietnam. The success of this restaurant allowed the family to send all five of their children to college, and ushered in an age of revitalization along University Avenue. Their son, following college and a career in corporate America as an analyst, opened a Vietnamese Bistro in the same space and in 2020 was nominated for a James Beard Best Chef Midwest Award.
Other stories in the book, tell of the horrors of war, harrowing escapes, years languishing in refugee camps, and families separated by continents. The story of Fong Lee, who as he was escaping Laos across the Mekong River with his wife, three boys, and baby girl, is confronted by two orphans, a six-year-old girl with her three-year-old sister strapped to her back, who begs him to take her sister safely to the other side, away from the violence and the soldiers who are rushing toward the river’s edge. He has no room for them, but promises to come back for them; before he is able to turn around, he hears the cracking of guns from the tree line and the girls are gone. He lives with the memory of their eyes, “round like the moon in the night sky” begging him for help.
A refugee, Yang tells us, is someone who is unable to remain in their home country because of persecution based on their race, religion, nationality, or politics. Every October the president of the United States , in consultation with Congress, sets a cap for the number of refugees we can take in as a country. Each refugee is expected to take out a no-interest loan for his or her flight, and upon arrival each receives a onetime grant of $1125 from the federal government. For ninety days, the refugee is assisted by a sponsoring organization and then they are expected to make it on their own.
She writes that the immigrants and refugees that come to America are often fleeing countries and wars whose history is absent from American consciousness.
“Life will teach you the strength of the human heart, not of its weakness or fragility,” Kao Kalia Yang’s father tells her. It is a lesson that Yang passes on to her children and one that she hopes will fortify the hearts of children everywhere, passed on through the stories in Somewhere in the Unknown World. The book is dedicated to “Refugees from everywhere – men, women, and children whose fates have been held by the interests of nations, whose rights have been contested and denied, whose thirst and hunger go unheeded and unseen.” Through this important work, we see them, Kalia, we see them.
I recommend SOMEWHERE IN THE UNKNOWN WORLD for readers interested in global politics, immigration policy, and those who have loved the poetic voice and masterful storytelling of Kao Kalia Yang in her books THE LATEHOMECOMER and THE SONG POET. This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.