First Nights in America: What Arriving as a Refugee Looks Like

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An Italian photographer and an American journalist tell the stories in haunting images of displaced people as they resettle in the U.S.

For four years, Italian-born Gabriele Stabile photographed refugees in airports across the nation on the nights they first arrived on American soil. They came from Somalia and Ethiopia, from Burundi and Bhutan, from Iraq, from Burma. They were fleeing war, rape, torture. Their destinations were mysterious places called Alabama, North Dakota, and Texas. But before they settled into their new homes, entered their first megamalls, or celebrated their first Fourth of Julys, they met Stabile and his camera.

Their faces -- bewildered, vulnerable, joyous -- passed before his lens, and then disappeared from him forever. Or so he thought. In 2010, he met Juliet Linderman, now a reporter at the New Orleans Times-Picayune, who suggested the two track down Stabile's subjects and gather their stories. A project was born.

The result is Refugee Hotel, a photography and oral-history book released this week by Voice of Witness and published by McSweeney's. The stories are raw and the images are complex. The authors avoid trying to portray an overall "refugee experience" shared by the approximately 64,000 displaced people who enter the U.S. and Canada each year. Instead, the book is a kaleidoscope of voices and imagery that celebrates the individuality of each new American.

Gabriele, you showed up at airports and began photographing people during their first few moments in the country. This was perhaps the most vulnerable point of their lives. Did people reject you?

Gabriele: Actually, rarely. In my private life, I'm quite shy. I don't have many friends in this business. But when I work, I don't know what happens. I have a switch that I somehow operate, and I'm super open and I get genuinely interested by my fellow man. People respond to that.

The first contact was always through the camera. I like to find beauty. Some journalists would probably throw a brick through my window when they hear me say that. But for me, it's through that aesthetic value that the content shows up -- the way the body is hit by light, or a little way people carry themselves. Something arranges in your sight. All else blurs and you want to be with that person. When that happened, I would just go there and say, "Hello, where are you from?"

Sometimes I had to force a little bit. The new arrivals get to the hotel and the person from the International Organization for Migration shows them the ropes -- how to switch on and off the A/C, what a bathtub is. They get scared. And I would maybe help them through that.

And through that, I would build a little relationship. The night is long, and the IOM doesn't spend the night there, but I would spend the night at the hotel. So they would ask me where to get coffee or where to buy cigarettes or how to make a phone call. Most of them arrive and they don't know anyone. So I'm probably the first friendly face that they meet on their road to this big uncertainty.

Sometimes the best stories are the hardest ones to capture. People evade you; they shut you out. Did you face those kinds of challenges when you tried to follow up with these people?

Juliet: So many individuals cancelled on me, or didn't show up, or showed up once or twice and then went off the grid. We started with the people from Gabri's photos. It took us a few months at the beginning to track them down. We worked closely with resettlement agencies, and the International Office on Migration, to try and figure out where they went after leaving the hotels where Gabri photographed them.

But once we were able to make contact and spend some time with them, they tended to act as community liaisons for us. For example, in Charlottesville, our initial contact was a family of Karen refugees who were among the first to settle there. They offered to take me to a Saturday religious service. There, I was able to meet a handful of other Karen refugees.

There was a lot of trial and error, fits and starts and dead ends, and really delightful surprises, as in all reporting trips. I will say, though, trust was a unique challenge. So many of these narrators had lived in fear for a very long time, persecuted because of their religion, their heritage, what they looked like, the tribes they were born into. And there is so much pain in their stories -- not only the pain of remembering violence and human rights violations in their countries of origin, but the pain of knowing that they'll never be able to go home again.

Some people don't want to recall those memories. But others -- so many of these strong, courageous, resilient individuals and families -- did open up to me. I think it just took a little time.

Unlike some of the behemoth hardcover photo books on sale at the MoMA, Refugee Hotel is softcover and quite small. Why?

Gabriele: I never wanted to do a book for a photography crowd. Robert Frank didn't do The Americans for photographers. To me, it's an intimate story. You want to keep the book close to you. If you do a big book, then to really look at it, you have to hold it far away. We wanted to have something that you could approach very easily.

Refugees tend to live a life that's sort of on the margins. Of course, it's difficult to tell who's a refugee in New York, because we're all refugees in a city like this. But in a town like Mobile or Amarillo or Fargo or even Charlottesville, refugees live separately, often in neighborhoods that are on the borders. And we wanted to do something to contradict that feeling of separation--something that people could really get in touch with.

Juliet: We never meant to tell any sort of universal story, or be so bold as to attempt to encompass "the refugee experience." Refugee Hotel is about people, and intimate stories full of the quiet details that we are all made of. Having a small book that you can hold, that you can carry with you, that doesn't overwhelm or intimidate -- that's what we wanted.

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Julie Turkewitz is a New York-based journalist. She also writes for the New York Times.

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