In After the Last Border (Viking, Apr.), journalist Goudeau profiles two refugees as they attempt to resettle in the U.S.
You’ve known Mu Naw, the woman from Myanmar featured in the book, for more than a decade. How did you meet?
I met her at a festival; I was there to translate for Spanish speakers. She and I just hit it off and formed one of those languageless friendships. Then in 2015, when rhetoric around this topic started to shift, I wondered if maybe people just didn’t realize what it means to be a refugee. I was working as a writing teacher at the time, and I felt like writing about this was something I could do to help.
Why did you choose to focus on Mu Naw and Syrian refugee Hasna al-Salam, in particular?
I don’t think I could’ve written this book if these weren’t the women I identified with. It’s such an intimate relationship we had to have. I felt like a sketch artist—they told me what happened and I tried to reproduce it. Their stories were wildly different, and the fact that they unfolded at different times—I hoped the reader would get a sense of how much has changed in just a few years.
Hasna’s resettlement plans were disrupted by the Trump administration’s travel ban. How’s she doing?
She was stunned. She remains in a state of disbelief that this is where her life ended up. Not much has changed. She and her husband remain two of the most vulnerable refugees I’ve seen. Her family members in Canada and in Europe are not doing great. They’re all desperately treading water.
What do you hope people take away from the book?
I really want readers to understand that refugees are just people. What’s happening in Iran and Iraq right now, for example—we’re so keen to dehumanize people so we can live with something like that. A lot of Americans think, “That’s something happening over there. It’s all so chaotic.” They don’t really understand. But I know and care for people from Iraq. Bombs fall over there and people I know are affected. If you meet anybody from there, you realize that these are just people trying to live their lives.
What can readers who are sensitive to the plight of refugees in America do to help?
One thing we can do is share stories like Mu Naw’s and Hasna’s with those who don’t understand what it means to be a refugee. I was hoping this would be the type of book I could give to my relatives and say, “This is what this situation is really like for people.” That’s something we can do—share their stories.