Above: After the Last Border. By Jessica Goudeau, Viking. $27, 368 pages.
In 2017, the Trump administration’s Muslim ban effectively set U.S. immigration and refugee resettlement policy back more than 100 years. Trump’s reactionary policy evoked the dark days of the Chinese Exclusion Act, signed in 1882 by President Chester A. Arthur, whose aim was to prohibit all Chinese nationals from entering the country. And in the midst of this rekindled far-right fear of refugees and immigrants, Austin-area activist and writer Jessica Goudeau has bravely researched and written After the Last Border. Goudeau’s book is a much-needed nonfiction corrective to the increasingly popular fiction that refugees and immigrants are economically and culturally burdensome to the American way of life.
The book is a bracingly empathetic portrait of two refugee women’s struggles toward resettlement in the Texas capital: Mu Naw, a Christian who fled the genocide in Myanmar, and Hasna, who barely escaped Assad’s bombs in Syria. After years of struggling to survive in their home countries and elsewhere, these women and their loved ones find themselves adjusting to resettlement in Austin in wildly different political climates. The book is especially ambitious in its dual function as an informative 100-year history of refugee resettlement in America and also a swift-paced narrative-driven work of nonfiction. Goudeau’s history-of-refuge sections show that U.S. refugee resettlement policy has always shifted with the political winds of change.
Even though both of these women were eventually granted the “golden ticket” to asylum in America, Mu Naw and her family were lucky to experience resettlement at the tail end of the George W. Bush administration in 2007, when U.S. policies were surprisingly liberal (or perhaps “compassionately conservative”). Conversely, Hasna was a Syrian trying to secure resettlement for her family in 2016 and 2017, during an extremely unwelcoming time for asylum-seekers, especially Muslims. As Goudeau’s research indicates, in 2018 countries like Turkey were accepting over 1 million Syrian refugees; that same year the United States took in a total of 62 Syrians.
Because of Mu Naw’s Christian faith and non-Burmese ethnicity, she was a natural enemy of the Buddhist government in Myanmar. In fact, the book opens with 5-year-old Mu Naw and her bickering parents making a desperate dash for the Thai border. Right away we get a disturbing sense of the near-impossible feat of maintaining close family ties as refugees: “Mu Naw does not know it yet, but her family has already shattered. Like broken glass in a frame, the cracks spread, deepen, divide, but the glass stays in place.” We then closely follow Mu Naw and her family as they endure the daily indignities of life in a ramshackle Thai refugee camp while holding out for the dream-like possibility of asylum in America.
In Hasna’s parallel narrative, Goudeau drops the reader smack in the middle of the Syrian civil war, where Hasna and her immediate family are bombed and looted out of hearth and home (her husband, Jebreel, is severely crippled by a missile that lands on their house). They initially flee to Jordan, where Hasna and her family are treated as second-class citizens and considered a drain on Jordanian economic resources. Luckily, Hasna and her husband do eventually make it to America before Trump’s Muslim ban kicks in—but her children aren’t so lucky. In the post-World War II era, family reunification remained an unchallenged humanitarian feature of U.S. foreign policy with consistently bipartisan political support. But because of the Trump administration’s xenophobic obsession with ending family-based “chain migration” to the United States, Hasna and Jebreel for now can only experience virtual family reunification, through phone calls and social media.
After the Last Border is the result of years of extended interviews with Mu Naw and Hasna. So, it’s no surprise that Goudeau is able to draw such a masterfully detailed portrait of the refugee experience. In fact, much of the book is unexpectedly novelistic in the way it deftly combines physical description and psychological depth: “Mu Naw was lost in a swirl of memory. Her mind drifted through images of her mother. Her face in the dim light spilling from the doorway of her hut on the night when Mu Naw showed up after years apart.”
We’re given a fly-on-the-wall perspective not only of the threats of violence that drove Mu Naw and Hasna from their native countries but also their uphill struggles for survival in Texas: the back-breaking manual labor jobs, crushing poverty, cultural differences, language barriers, and the administrative red tape refugees endure just to eke out a life in America. Mu Naw, for all her hardship, is among the lucky few. She has her family around her in Texas and is eventually able to enjoy a semi-normal home life. But Hasna is less fortunate. She’s forced to cope with the harsh reality of Trump’s draconian refugee resettlement policy and what this means for her foreseeable future: a stressful, uncertain, hopelessly distanced relationship with her sons and daughters.
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