June 20th is World Refugee Day, a day when we’re supposed to pause for a moment to contemplate the plight of displaced peoples around the globe, driven from their homes by war, persecution, economic devastation, disease and environmental destruction. But often the moments that our political and social institutions reserve for refugees and asylum seekers are fraught with haunting silence, their stories suppressed or distorted by legal strictures and language barriers.
Literature can help liberate the refugee’s story from silence. Max Shmookler reflects in this essay on his work as a refugee advocate, and the resonance between his clients’ lives and the experiences of exiled author Joseph Brodsky, who through his writing struggled to find a voice of dignity long after he had crossed a border to a new life.
Yousef* had a camel trader’s sense of direction, cultivated on long desert treks between Chad, Sudan and southern Egypt. As his case manager at a program for survivors of torture, I was ostensibly his guide through the urban geography of New York City (as well as his de facto interpreter and cultural liaison). Yet it was often Yousef who led us to our destination. At crowded intersections, he would gently point us in the right direction with a nod or a flick of his wrist. “Are you sure?” I would ask at first, baffled at how a recently arrived asylum seeker could know the streets of New York so well. But he would just smile modestly and allow our punctual arrival to speak for itself. These moments gave me a glimpse into his prior life in Chad, as a respected businessman, the head of a growing family, a prominent member of his community. I saw in him the easy confidence of someone who is accustomed to dispensing advice and charity, not receiving it. But other times, such as when I saw him struggling to fill out his name in the neat boxes on a hospital insurance form, I was struck by how much things had changed for him.
The contours of this loss were most visible in the stories that Yousef strung together on our way from one appointment to the next, from doctor to lawyer to therapist and back. He told me of his years working in the Sahara, how he fell in love with his first wife, the habits and personalities of his friends in his home, N’Djamena, the Chadian capital. His vignettes blended Quranic allegory, folk adages, and references to the Sudanese music and Egyptian soap operas I first encountered during my years studying Arabic in Cairo. In these moments, I felt as if the world had capsized and I was the guest in his country, in his house, and not the other way around.
Of all the professionals seeking to help him, it was Yousef’s psychotherapist who understood the restorative power of narrative best. With me serving as the English-Arabic interpreter, she encouraged Yousef to acknowledge his loss by expressing the emotional incoherence that had come to define his life. In weekly therapy sessions, the story of his persecution tumbled out, twisted and non-linear, with vivid, disturbing memories. At times he cried, great silvery tears streaking his cheeks. He reflected on his “good luck” to have escaped and marveled at his new (and tenuous) life in the United States. “My wife can’t understand it,” he once said. “She thinks I’ve taken up with another woman, that I have a job and I’m living in a beautiful house with a new family. She… she has no idea that I sleep on my friend’s floor. That in America, I eat one meal a day.”
These therapy sessions were one of the few spaces where Yousef could express his outrage and sorrow and acknowledge the weakness he saw in his choice to “abandon” (his word) his family to protect himself. What Yousef revealed in therapy convinced me of his credibility—a central aspect of his asylum claim—not so much because of the detail, consistency, or plausibility of his account, but because of the hardship he endured to flee persecution and resettle in the U.S.
Interpreting for him as his attorney prepared his testimony for court, however, I found a very different portrait emerging. His deep ambivalence about leaving his family and fleeing his country was reduced to an urgent, singular plea for protection. “I am afraid to return to Chad” was the only statement about his emotional state in the entire document. His periods of imprisonment were presented in a clear chronology, with dates and numbered paragraphs. The only biographical element is in the first few paragraphs, which state his name, date of birth, educational level, and the names and ethnic affiliations of his parents, wife and children. His hardship in the U.S. was given no mention whatsoever.
In this testimony, I did not recognize the complex person I had come to know—and trust—over the course of many months. Without the vivid stories of home, the philosophical tangents and Qur’anic musings, the painful struggle to remain in abject, humiliating poverty, his testimony was indistinguishable from the hundreds of others I have read. The court’s expectation that testimony be consistent, chronological, and focused on incidents of persecution rendered Yousef a flat, one-dimensional character, and made him seem—at least to me—like a less credible narrator. In Yousef’s case and many others, the narrowing effect of testimony made me wonder if there was a better way to tell these stories, one that brings immigration officials closer to the “truth,” and restores a sense of dignity to those who suffered.
Truth, however, is elusive even in the best of circumstances—and asylum seekers are, by definition, not in the best of circumstances. Some asylum seekers lie, sometimes to escape poverty or lack of opportunity in their home country, frequently without realizing that their malingering casts doubts on the bona fide claims of their fellow countrymen. A larger percentage, I suspect, embellish their already meritorious stories out of fear that their real story would not be tragic enough to evoke the sympathies of a jaded immigration official. The bureaucratic requirements have engendered a culture of competition among some asylum seekers to out-suffer one another. Some pay a hefty price to professional story peddlers, who supplement affidavits with a stock of standard stories of persecution and “coach” immigrants on how to appear more vulnerable and, in the logic of the asylum system, more deserving of protection.
The overwhelming majority of asylum seekers are bona fide victims, however, who contrary to stereotypes are not “gaming the system.” Yet even for genuine survivors like Yousef, victimhood is rarely their sole, or even their primary, identity—until, that is, they apply for asylum. To demonstrate past persecution, attorneys emphasize victimhood by concentrating on the details of abuse, sometimes downplaying or even disregarding aspects of an asylum seeker’s life that suggest resilience and strength. Medical experts poke and prod at clients’ scars, and psychologists inquire about the common symptoms of traumatic stress. By the time of their immigration hearing, many asylum seekers have been taught—both explicitly and implicitly—the value of victimhood.
I’ve observed that for some—though by no means all—asylum seekers, maintaining the appearance of vulnerability over a long period of time has a psychological impact, discouraging initiative and reinforcing relationships of dependence on the social service provider. As happened with Yousef, their narratives of courage, loss, and remarkable luck lose much of what makes them compelling and unique. As victims, they evoke pity rather than empathy, as generic affidavits blur into one long formulaic sob story. This leaves me wondering how asylum officers, who adjudicate hundreds of cases a year, wade through the layers of representation—by lawyers, interpreters, and asylum seekers themselves—to try to uncover what really happened.
The asylum process raises questions of determining truth without corroborating evidence. Very few asylum seekers can produce an arrest warrant, a police report, or any other documentation of who they are or what they went through. Their attorneys are not able to call their persecutors to the stand for cross examination, nor are they able to request witness statements from their families and friends back home without jeopardizing their safety. A minority of asylum seekers are “fortunate” enough to have the truth of their persecution written on their bodies, in the form of scars from, for instance, cigarette burns or whipping, but even then their stories are still hard to prove definitively.
In the absence of corroborating evidence, adjudication depends heavily upon assessments of credibility. This is no easy task. Immigration officials often expect a straightforward account of profoundly convoluted events. They’re required to divine the truth of events that happened half a world away, often conveyed through an interpreter by a traumatized narrator, who fears being deported if they can’t convince the authorities. Asylum seekers who contradict themselves, change their story, speak in vague or incomprehensible ways, or even evince “too much” or “too little” emotion on the stand may compromise their credibility in the eyes of an unsympathetic immigration judge.
The asylum officer who initially adjudicated Yousef’s claim found him to be lacking in credibility, not because of discrepancies in the account of persecution, but because the officer found it “implausible, although not altogether impossible, that the applicant would have named his business bureau de courtage.” In other words, the asylum officer thought Yousef was lying about the name of his business, and this alone was enough to undermine Yousef’s credibility as a witness. His case was provisionally denied at the interview stage (some asylum seekers are approved at this stage) and referred to immigration court, where he spent the next three years fighting to stay in the United States.
Around the same time I was working with Yousef, I began to work with another asylum seeker, Sahar. She was a petite woman with a wistful smile and a quiet seriousness about her, as if she were concentrating very hard on something others could not see. The first time we spoke, she fixed her gaze on my shoes, her voice almost inaudible, her sentences clipped. As her story emerged I began to understand why. She had come from a large town on the dry plains of Kordofan in central Sudan, living a comfortable life as an educated woman working in a government research lab. Yet when the Darfur conflict broke out, the government began to round up people suspected of supporting the rebellious ethnic groups in the West. Sahar’s husband was arrested in one of the sweeps. Months later, when he was brought home briefly, she helped him escape from police custody. She herself was arrested as a result, brutally tortured and raped by the same security forces who arrested her husband. After months in a detention center, she persuaded a disaffected guard to smuggle her to freedom. “He helped me escape in the middle of the night,” I remember her saying in her quiet way as we were writing her testimony with her attorney. “I knew he would not be able to return to the prison, that he would have to flee just like I would. But when I tried to thank him,” and here she raised her gaze to meet mine, “I didn’t have the words.”
As with many survivors of sexual violence, Sahar had great difficulty disclosing the details of events she considered humiliating and shameful. Exhibiting common symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, her hands would go numb, her breathing constrict, and her stomach turn violently, as if she were reliving the terror of her torture. Other symptoms of PTSD—avoidance, hyperarousal, and emotional numbing—frequently affect the indicators on which immigration officials rely to assess credibility. Moreover, trauma often distorts a witness’s recall of emotional events.
So Sahar’s story came out in confusing fragments, much of it long after filing her original asylum petition. At her hearing, the government attorney made the common argument that this incremental disclosure was not a natural consequence of severe trauma, but an increasingly desperate attempt on Sahar’s part to embellish her claim and avoid deportation.
After years of delays in the backlogged courts and two hearings in which she was required to provide extensive details of her torture, Sahar was finally granted asylum, which allowed her to reunite with her son in the U.S., and eventually become a U.S. citizen. But her vindication came only after she was re-traumatized by straining to fit her story to the standards of her judges.
Frustrated by the narrowing effect of testimony writing, I began to seek a new language to talk about my experiences with my clients. I gravitated towards literary accounts by and about forced migrants, both fictional and autobiographical. Thecomplex emotions, contradictory experiences, fragmented memories, and disrupted chronologies I found in literature offered a more truthful rendering of traumatic experience.
To create a space outside of the workplace where new approaches to asylum could be explored, I started an interdisciplinary discussion group, called Rethinking Refuge, for practitioners working with forced migrants in the greater New York area. In the group’s explorations of asylum literature, Joseph Brodsky’s biographical essay “In a Room and a Half” has stood out as a compelling alternative to the language of testimony (without, that is, sacrificing believability). Brodsky was a dissident Soviet poet, and later Nobel Laureate, who sought asylum in the United States as a young man. “In a Room and a Half,” written many years after he fled the Soviet Union, weaves together his somber reflections on his adolescence in St. Petersburg, his exile, and the passing of his parents, left behind in Russia. Throughout, he reports on the minor discomforts (“by the volume of the fart, you can tell who occupies the toilet”) and gross indignities (“The neighbors were good neighbors…Save one, they didn’t inform to the police; that was a good percentage for a communal apartment”) of Soviet life.
Yet it is what Brodsky chooses not to say that has made a lasting impression on me. He is silent about his underground poetry (deemed “pornographic” and “anti-Soviet” by the authorities) and the suffering he endured as a result. He avoids entirely the subject of his public trial and the sentence of five years hard labor that followed, and mentions his arrest only parenthetically. Brodsky’s rueful tone conveys the emotional impact of his persecution without explicitly declaring victimhood. In contrast to his dignified silence, the average asylum seeker is required to lay bare their persecution in the courtroom before an audience of strangers.
While “In a Room and a Half” was written for a literary audience, not an immigration judge, it serves as an alternative type of testimony, one in which complexity and even contradiction do not undermine credibility. Brodsky concentrates on the legally “irrelevant” stories about his youth, his family, and his country of birth. What emerges is a dynamic portrait of a middle-aged man reflecting on his life, colored by the subtle shades of loss and sadness that accompany exile. It sounds, resoundingly, like snippets of my conversations with Yousef. None of this belongs, strictly speaking, in asylum testimony. Brodsky gives voice to a different, richer, type of truth, one that articulates the messy realities that we citizens, whose lives and choices are not scrutinized, tend to call “life.”
One day, as Yousef led me to a hospital where he was scheduled to see a doctor, we happened upon one of his favorite topics: the Quran. With his characteristic penchant for the philosophical, Yousef asked me: “Do you know why human beings are called insan in the Quran?” When I shook my head, he explained: “We are called insan because we forget.” For a student of Arabic etymology, the observation was an instant delight: Yousef was suggesting that the Arabic words for “human” (insan) and “forgetting” (nisyan) share a common root. I only discovered much later, after consulting a dictionary, that he was wrong. Yet at the time, a philosophical insight followed the linguistic one: we humans forget, which allows us to rebuild our lives anew. In the years since working with Yousef, I’ve come to see the deep tension between asylum seekers’ desire to forget and the demand of the government for them to remember.
Yousef and I walked quietly for some time, privately weighing his choice to “abandon” his wife and children in order to protect himself. For him, this choice revealed some awful truth about his masculinity, his integrity, and his country. It was something he wished to forget. Yet the court needed to know the exact dimensions of his pain. Reading Brodsky, I began to see that a truly humane asylum system would welcome a more literary style of testimony, one that honors asylum seekers’ desire to forget, to lapse into more subtle forms of testimony, such as poetry and song, or to abandon some memories to silence. Perhaps the testimony in the courtroom should be more like a therapy session, in which people like Yousef and Sahar are encouraged to remember only in order to move on, and one day, to forget.
*Identities have been concealed to protect subjects’ confidentiality.
Max Shmookler works at the Human Rights Clinic at HealthRight International, and is a founding member of Rethinking Refuge, a group devoted to creative, critical thinking about issues in forced migration. To learn more, contact rethinking [dot] refuge [at] gmail [dot] com.