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

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?

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

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