BookBrowse Reviews After the Last Border by Jessica Goudeau

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After the Last Border

Two Families and the Story of Refuge in America

by Jessica Goudeau

After the Last Border by Jessica Goudeau X
After the Last Border by Jessica Goudeau
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2020, 368 pages
    Paperback:
    Aug 2021, 368 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Jamie Chornoby
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Two refugees seek safety and peace for their families in the U.S., but the American Dream remains frustratingly out of reach.

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, the number of displaced people around the world is at a record high. Of the nearly 71 million people forcibly displaced in 2018, 25.9 million were refugees fleeing their countries from war, violence or persecution. Despite the global awareness of this issue, the stories of these refugees are often left untold. In After the Last Border, author Jessica Goudeau shares the experiences of two refugee women living in the United States.

Mu Naw is a Christian from Myanmar (formerly Burma). She is Karen (pronounced "kah-REN"), one of the many non-Burmese ethnic minorities persecuted by the state. Born into conflict, she crossed the border into Thailand when she was five years old with others from her village to escape violence. For decades, she lived in refugee camps. With each move, her life splintered, even when she came to the United States as an adult. Mu Naw, her husband, and their two children immigrated with the help of a refugee organization in 2007, leaving behind their entire way of life, including her mother, extended family and community at her former refugee camp.

Hasna is a Muslim from Syria. Most of her life had been happy and peaceful. In a generations-old family home in the city of Daraa, Hasna raised children, collected fine rugs and china, tended to her terrace garden, cooked with the freshest produce, gossiped with her neighbors and listened to her favorite singer, Fairuz, on the radio (see Beyond the Book). That idyllic life was destroyed when civil war broke out after demonstrations affiliated with the Arab Spring incited violent retribution by Bashar al-Assad's regime. For years, Hasna remained in Syria, striving to secure safety for all six of her children before leaving her country. She hoped the atrocities there would result in international mitigation, but when the situation continued to deteriorate and no foreign help came, she fled to Jordan. Approached by a refugee organization and promised a better life and family reunification in the U.S., Hasna and a fraction of her family arrived in early 2016.

In After the Last Border, Jessica Goudeau narrates the lives Mu Naw and Hasna had prior to coming to the United States, then shifts focus to their experiences in Austin, Texas where they both settled. Under different refugee and immigration policies, and from different countries and cultures, their stories are unique. Yet Mu Naw and Hasna share many experiences, struggling to learn a new language, obtain employment opportunities, navigate American culture and process trauma. And on an identity level, they both must reconcile the in-betweenness that accompanies being a refugee when often "their hearts and their bodies are not in the same place."

On a storytelling level, this book is remarkable for honoring the voices of its subjects. The author knew nothing about refugees until she met and befriended Mu Naw just six months after she and her family settled in Austin. As they forged a friendship, Goudeau began engaging in activist work, organizing night ESL classes and helping to form a women's cooperative of artisans. She learned that Mu Naw and other refugees wanted to tell their stories so that the world would not forget what happened to them. Many refugees lack the language capacity and time to do so. Even more worry about the potential hazards of speaking about their experiences after surviving and escaping violence and persecution. Goudeau aims to give Mu Naw and Hasna as much narrative control as possible based on years of interviews while concealing identifying information, relying on skilled translators and writing in third-person to suppress opinion and bias. The result is a humanizing, tragic and heartfelt narrative that seems to capture Mu Naw and Hasna's voices as closely as possible.

In addition to these deeply personal insights into the lives of two contemporary refugees, the author interjects chapters about refugee and immigration policies and practices in the United States. With an emphasis on post-World War II, she explains the essential components of these policies during each presidential administration from Carter to Trump. This information gives a wider context to what Mu Naw and Hasna experience, and it explains why public perception on immigrants and refugees has morphed so drastically in recent years. Few books are able to so clearly and empathetically show the relationship between policy and people.

After the Last Border is an urgent and necessary book, especially for American readers. Powerful and compassionate, these women's stories linger in the mind and provide a greater understanding of the plight of refugees around the world.

Reviewed by Jamie Chornoby

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in August 2020, and has been updated for the September 2021 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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Beyond the Book:
  Fairuz: The Voice of Lebanon

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