Diya Abdo is a second-generation Palestinian refugee born and raised in Jordan and the author of the book, American Refuge: True Stories of the Refugee Experience. The book shares the stories of seven refugees from around the world who begin their American journeys in North Carolina, where Abdo is a Lincoln Financial Professor of English in the Department of English and Creative Writing at Guilford College. On this episode of Policy Outsider, the Institute on Immigrant Integration Research and Policy invited Dr. Abdo to talk about the book, myths about refugees and the refugee experience, and the intertwined cultural and policy changes that can support a more integrated immigrant experience.


  • Diya Abdo, Lincoln Financial Professor of English, Department of English and Creative Writing, Guilford College

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    Transcript was generated using AI software and may contain errors.

    Joel Tirado  00:08

    Welcome to Policy Outsider presented by the Rockefeller Institute of Government. I’m Joel Tirado. Diya Abdo is a second-generation Palestinian refugee born and raised in Jordan, and the author of the book, American Refuge: True Stories of the Refugee Experience, which shares the stories of seven refugees from around the world who begin their American journeys in North Carolina, where Abdo is a Lincoln Financial Professor of English in the Department of English and Creative Writing at Guilford College. On today’s show, Dr. Abdo joins me to talk about the myths about refugees and the refugee experience and the intertwined cultural and policy changes that can support a more integrated immigrant experience. That conversation is up next. Diya, thank you for joining us on the podcast today. Let’s just get started with you telling our listeners a little bit about yourself and how you got to where you are, which is in North Carolina.

    Diya Abdo  01:31

    Yes, I’m in Greensboro, North Carolina, of course. So Hi everybody. My name is Diya Abdo. I am currently a professor of English at Guilford College, which is in Greensboro, North Carolina. But I started out in Jordan where I was born and raised. My family were displaced there. They came as refugees from Palestine in 1967. And I was born nearly 10 years later. The grandchildren that that generation was all born in Jordan, but the generation of my parents and grandparents and uncles and aunts they were all born in Palestine. So I’m a second generation Palestinian refugee born and raised in Jordan. I grew up in Jordan and I came to the US as a graduate student. In 1996, I came to a university in New Jersey to continue my graduate studies in English literature. I had received my bachelor’s degree from Jordan and decided that I really, I’d always known that I wanted to be a professor. At 13 I made the decision, I was going to be a professor. And so clearly I was going to pursue my masters and my PhD. So I studied at a wonderful university in Jordan called Yarmouk University in the north of Jordan, very close to the Syrian border. And then came to the US in ’96. Again, with the intention to concentrate on American literature, so I was I really dedicated Americanist. Robert Frost all the way. And then September 11th happened. And I became very interesting to people, as an Arab and as a Muslim woman. Folks were really wanting to hear more about my experiences as an Arab and my experiences as a Muslim and as a woman. As a woman, right, as an Arab and Muslim woman. So I was invited to a lot of classes, you know, to sort of meetings in the community. And it was then that, you know, I realized a couple of things. First of all, that I didn’t know, I knew about my own experiences as an Arab and Muslim woman. But clearly, I felt like I couldn’t speak to all of those experiences of, you know, woman, Arab Muslim, or went across the globe. And so I started investigating reading more about Arab women about Muslim women and also literature by Arab and Muslim woman. And then I discovered that Arab and Muslim women are amazing writers, and thinkers and leaders. And so I after September 11, I changed my area of focus and my research from Robert Frost, not really Robert Frost, but American poetry, and to Arab women writers in Arab and Islamic feminism’s, and that’s what I ended up doing my dissertation on. And then I came back to Jordan, because that was always the plan to come back to Jordan and teach and it was a wonderful experience. And I taught feminist studies and conversation and writing. So I’m really just a generalist in many ways, but there were lots of wonderful teaching moments and experiences in Jordan. Unfortunately, in my last year in Jordan, the university where I was teaching, that particular university is very conservative, and I had published an article on the use of queer sexualities and political conflict, the university where I was teaching at the time found that to be objectionable, they accused me of being anti-Islamic. And they asked me to resign my position. And I spent the year battling with them and sort of trying to understand where I was being anti-Islamic. And by the end of that year, after a lot of back and forth, they rescinded both the accusation and the request for my resignation, but by that point, I really had decided that I needed to move on. And so I looked for positions in the United States and found the Guilford job, the description for that job, I think it felt like it was a place where I could belong. And I think I was coming out from a very traumatic, painful experiences where I felt like I really didn’t belong at that university. And so this particular job at Guilford College, really spoke to me. And so I came to the US for that position in 2008. And I have been here ever since.

    Joel Tirado  06:00

    I want to say that I’m sorry, that your, your introduction to the, to the United States was in New Jersey, as a New Yorker that say, I’m obliged to, you know, get a dig in on New Jersey that can…

    Diya Abdo  06:15

    Well can I say that, actually, the joke that I always make is the reason I went back to Jordan was because that’s where I landed in New Jersey.  I didn’t get here because I didn’t know what kind of audience you had. But I literally make that joke every time. Every time I tell people, I came to New Jersey, and I say, that’s why I went back. But of course, it was September 11th. But New Jersey didn’t help. And of course, that the other joke that I always make is what’s the best thing about New York, New Jersey and New York is the best. I go to New Jersey only to go to New York.

    Joel Tirado  06:22

    There you go.  We have a a member of our staff who is absolutely an excellent person and a delight. And she is from New Jersey. So she’s given us permission to take our shots at New Jersey.

    Diya Abdo  06:58

    I feel like I have permission as a longtime New Jersey resident, both of my brothers live there in Clifton. I feel like I am a New Jersey native and therefore yes, I agree with you. I have permission to make fun of myself and others who have come to New Jersey.

    Joel Tirado  07:12

    Well, let’s roll with that. So it’s you know, your path is, is very interesting. And I think in American Refuge, your book, which was published in 2019, is that right?

    Diya Abdo  07:26

    In 2022.

    Joel Tirado  07:28

    Oh, okay. Even more recent. You know, the strength of women, in the stories that you share in the book comes through, I mean, it just hits you like a wall. So, you know, tell us how you decided to write this book? How did you end up, you know, with these stories, and feeling like they had to be written down and shared in this way?

    Diya Abdo  08:06

    Yeah. So the first thing that happened that really led me to write this book was that I was asked to write it. So a publisher reached out to me Steerforth Press, the folks who published this book, and they had an imprint, Truth to Power. They were looking for someone to write a book about the refugee experience in America, when I guess they looked around, somehow found me reached out and asked me if I would be interested. And of course, I was interested. It’s not that I wouldn’t have written that book otherwise. But it is really wonderful if you know what to think about the publishing industry and writing to have a publisher come to you and say, Would you write this book. So it wasn’t a book that I had to pitch, which was really helpful. But it was certainly a book that I wanted to write. And the invitation to write it was most welcome. So I want to say a couple of things that really undergird or sort of are the impetus behind how you know what this book is about and how it came to be. I was raised by my grandmother jida, jida is grandmother in Arabic. So my jida, she raised me because my mother was young, and she would, you know, was attending university. And so I spent a lot of time with jida. And I grew up on listening to her stories about Palestine. It’s very clear to me that my grandmother always felt like an outsider in Jordan, that she always felt like she never belonged. She had a constant unrequited yearning for Palestine. And that was something I understood viscerally that she felt out of place, and that she wanted to go back. She died in Jordan, having never returned to Palestine. So it was her dying wish to return. But I think one of the things that I learned very quickly and intimately and consistently was that refugees yearn for home. So that that feeling of that you are out of place that you don’t belong, that if you have left your home that you’re that you are somehow dismembered, cut off, was something I imbibed for many years and there at a very young age from my grandmother. So for me, the refugee experience always meant that you were out of place that you did not ever feel like you belonged. And then the other important thing that really is sort of the impetus behind this book is my experience in America. So when I came back to the US, and I was a professor at Guilford College and teaching literature and poetry, you know, Arab woman writers. In 2015, we were all of us watching what was happening to Syrian refugees. And it was during those years, that I really wanted to do something more material to be more involved and more engaged in supporting refugees, I felt deeply connected to that identity anyway, because of my grandmother, and because of my parents. And so in 2015, I heard Pope Francis call on every parish to host a refugee family, I thought that was such a brilliant idea to call on a small community to do the work of radical hospitality. And I thought, oh, Guilford College where I am should absolutely do that. We’re like a parish or a small city, we have all the things. Why don’t we host refugees on our campus. This makes sense for Guilford College, because Guilford is a Quaker school. And if you know anything about Quakers, that concept of justice and equity and stewardship, using resources in ways that are really, right, and just that align with your values is very much kind of germane and very much part of that Quaker identity. So we started in 2015, thinking about ourselves as a campus that would host refugees. And we began hosting refugees. In January of 2016, we hosted refugee families on Guildford’s campus and support supported them and their resettlement. We’ve hosted families from all over the world. So it was the experiences that I had with those families. And those individuals that were coming to America for the first time, landing at the airport in Greensboro, in a place they’ve never seen before they never even heard of, and then landing on our campus, and building community with us, you know, together. And so it was very clear to me that I, when I was asked to write this book, that it would be about the refugee experience, and also what it meant to be a refugee in America. There are lots of myths that circulate about refugees. And so another really important thing that I wanted to achieve with this book is to bust those myths that we constantly hear those talking points that are very damaging that malign newcomers that misunderstand who they are. But yeah, I mean, I came to write this book, because it’s very much based on my deep connection to the refugee identity, and my understanding of the experiences of refugees in Jordan, and also those who have come to America. I really wanted to write a book that, and I really appreciate what you said, there, Joel, that you were sort of smacked in the face with the resilience. One of the things that we tend to see in literature and writing is that sort of the spectacle of tragedy, right, you gaze upon people’s tragic experiences, they become pathetic creatures, pitiable creatures. And I really wanted to write a book that was grounded in people’s dignity, and people’s agency and people’s resilience. I wanted to write a book that told the story of a person before they became a refugee, because that’s not just who they are. They’re not just a person seeking safety and security. They lived a whole life before that terrible thing happened to them, that caused them to cross the border. So I wanted to write a book that really told the entire story, individually and collectively, and to tell it from the perspective of dignity and agency.

    Joel Tirado  14:18

    I just have to say well done, because, you know, in reading it, I could feel nostalgia for childhoods that I never had. The book is just very evocative in that way. And to your, you know, to your point about your grandmother, and that feeling of being dismembered that you bring up, you know, you open the second chapter and I took a couple notes because this really stood out. To me, you say human bodies on the move, don’t always take their souls with them. And then at the end of that chapter, you say, when when refugees Leave, it is rarely if ever happy. And it is never something they choose to do their bodies finding no other way to survive, split themselves from their souls, wave goodbye to them on the fragile hope that soon they will meet again. And I think that as I was reading through the book, that theme of the soul being separate from the body or separated from the body by this experience, I mean, it just comes through in absolute waves. So, you know, I say all of that to say, that was your intention. And as a reader, that was my experience, it really did, did come through. You know, you mentioned the myths that you wanted to dispel as part of writing this book. Could you share a little bit more about some of those myths and, and how you went about kind of, I guess, attacking those myths through the storytelling?

    Diya Abdo  16:01

    Yeah, absolutely. So one of the myths is that refugees leave, quote, unquote, shithole countries, right? You hear that? Or you, you feel that sense that understanding that refugees must want to come here, because their countries are bad, their countries are horrible, of course, they want to be in America. And of course, that’s not true. Refugees, by definition, are people who are forced to leave. In other words, they never wanted to leave. And in every conversation I’ve ever had with any refugee, you know, you can tell they were forced to leave, it was not a choice, and that they love their countries very, very much. So I wanted to really dedicate that first section of the book, “The Body Leaves Its Soul Behind,” to that soul, right that, that your country your home country is memory rich, right? Soul filled is how I describe it in the book that it’s that’s full of people you love of places you love of memories you cherish of smells you adore, of food you crave right, of relationships you’ve built and longed for. And so I wanted to tell the stories of the life before. And so all of the folks that we encounter in this book, we hear about their childhoods, and they’re as diverse as the people that are in the book. So one of the people in the book is is my mother, and she grew up in Jabal Al-Mukaber, which is one of the mounts of Jerusalem, she came as an older teenager to Jordan. So she lived a very, you know, I would say enough of a life in Palestine to have really been attached to it and miss it deeply as a refugee to Jordan. So it’s about her relationship living in Jabal Al-Mukaber, where everybody in Jabal Al-Mukaber is my family. That’s how big we are out of the Sawahreh, the Sawahreh tribe, hundreds of people, thousands of people living on this mount, which means that every door you knock on is either an aunt or an uncle or a cousin. Every door is open, you can walk into any house and eat what they’re eating, hang out with folks watch TV, and to lose that you know, to come and then live in a refugee camp where nobody knows you where people are trying to kill you. There’s a story in the book that I discovered only after I interviewed my mother, that when they came to Jordan, there were altercations between the Jordanians and the Palestinians that were very violent. And the place where they were living in Jordan, my mother and grandmother and uncle was bombed, that they were almost killed, that their Jordanian landlord, sheltered them, so hid them in his apartment, so that they so that they would be safe. So that’s, that’s what you go to, but what you leave behind is incredible traditions and customs and relationships, beautiful places. So you know, each person you encounter the thing that they that they held dear to them. Ali, for example, who had wonderful experiences as a child in his garden, harvesting the olive trees, playing with the kids in the streets or Cheps being raised by his grandmother and the beautiful stories that she told him to raise him to be a wonderful man. So I really wanted to focus on the life before because so much of what we see of refugees is the life after and that we forget that their experiences a refugee is not who they are what define what defines them. It’s what brought them to this country, but it’s certainly not all who they are. So that’s that’s one of the myths. Did you want me to share others?

    Joel Tirado  19:54

    If you want to certainly that’s, that’s, that’s, that’s great because I did I also wanted to talk to you about some of the some of the folks that you you know, it’s inappropriate to say they use them as a narrative device, because obviously these are, these are people but this the book is propelled through their stories.

    Diya Abdo  20:13


    Joel Tirado  20:14

    And and so you know, you brought up Cheps and of course, your mother and then, and you’ll have to, and our listeners as well fblorgive me on any pronunciations here. But is it Blaise from Burundi?

    Diya Abdo  20:27


    Joel Tirado  20:28

    And Marwa from Iraq and also you brought up, Ali, so I was, I wanted to hear, you know, to hear you speak about these folks in person that you know, having read your writing about them. And I also wanted to hear a little bit too, about where they are now, and how where they are now was supported by your work at Guilford.

    Diya Abdo  21:00

    Sure. So I think one of the things that I want to tackle first, is your question about narrative or your comment about narrative and the how those folk stories came to be. One of the important things is the process for me of how this book came about. So all of these individuals I’ve known for years, all of them Blaise, Um Fihmi, Ali, Marwa, my mother, really, these are all folks, I’ve known for many years before I was asked to write this book. And so when I was asked to write this book, I thought, okay, well, there are folks whose stories I know, I know intimately, because they shared with shared them with me as a friend or as a daughter. But they’re not mine to share. I don’t have consent, right. So I actually reached out to folks and asked them, whether they’d like to share their story and the stories in the book, or the folk stories that the folks who wanted to share their stories. And I interviewed them formally and officially for the purposes of this book. In other words, I didn’t rely on my memory of their stories. So I conducted official interviews that were recorded. I asked generic questions, because I wanted to avoid retraumatizing folks. So I would ask questions like, tell me about your childhood, or tell me about America, or tell me about a man or tell me about, you know, your life in Jordan, you know, just you whatever people wanted to share. And it was really interesting to me in that process of interviewing them, that Blaise or Cheps, for example, would say, Diya, I know you know, this, but you can’t say it in the book, which really illustrated for me the power of consent and control over one’s narrative. So even though I knew that particular information, they didn’t want me to share that information. And so the book is really a reflection of what information they wanted to share it and everything that they wanted to be kept secret and secret to themselves. I did. Another interesting piece about that interview process is, like I said, my mother, I think because she felt validated by that formal interview process shared things with me that she had never shared before. I never knew as a child, or as an adult, that some of these experiences that my mother had as a refugee in Jordan. So they were all revealed to me in this interview process, which I found found. So interested in that interview process in itself is fascinating, because it allowed me to see how consent matters, how much it matters. And then also how much the the framing of an interview allows folks to share a story that they feel maybe was not important enough to share.

    Joel Tirado  23:37

    Yeah. And interesting. Another wrinkle that to that whole thing that you bring up in the book is that you mentioned speaking to people, and they start giving you their official narrative that they’ve told time and time again. Can you talk a little bit about that?  I don’t know if there’s any, I don’t know if there’s any story that I told that 13 that I would tell the same way now. No less, you know, a story of, of obviously, as, as traumatic circumstances.

    Diya Abdo  23:53

    Yes, absolutely. And in fact, I think that segues really nicely to the second myth that I wanted to bust, which is that refugees aren’t carefully vetted. Right. So one of the reasons that every campus of refuge got on the map to begin with in 2015, was because one of our house representatives in North Carolina heard about our initiative to host a Syrian refugee family on our campus. He went publicly on Fox News asking our college president to rescind that offer, because that Syrian family could be terrorists. And so we started receiving emails from concerned parents. How do I know that my son or daughter is safe on campus? Thankfully, there weren’t many and thankfully, we were able to field the navigate those concerns. But that myth that refugees are not carefully vetted needs to be really unraveled. And there needs to be a lot more awareness about the exhaustive and exhausting process that refugees go through. So for example, it took 17 years for Blaise’s case to be processed. Seventeen years. Blaise became a refugee when he was 13. He came to America when he was 30. So 17 years where he had to tell his story over and over and over again. Part of that vetting process is that the first time you tell your story to an official, your origin story, the story that that shows why you became a refugee, it must never change. In all the interviews, it must never change. Blaise describes it as someone would come in, like, you know, every, every time he would have an interview, someone would come in. And there it is that first time he told the story, it’s written down. And they’re checking again, that your your story now five years later aligns with that story that you told when you were 13. So the vetting process is not just oh, you know, biometrics and screenings and looking into your background, it’s all of that. But it’s also that psychological, almost like a prosecution, right? And I’m going to make sure that you’re telling the truth. And if you trip up in any way, shape or form, then I have the power to deny you refugee status.  Exactly, exactly. And so that’s why that origin story is, dear, but also incredibly painful. But it’s a story that, you know, sort of refugees remember the most right? In other words, when I tell who I am, this is the story that I’m going to tell. So, you know, in the book, I talked about how when I visited Um Fihmi, this is the matriarch of the Syrian family that we hosted on our campus, the first Syrian family. And I went to visit just in the way that Arabs do, you know, I showed up, we’re gonna have tea in the house, they were staying in the house, in the woods, in Guilford College. And I showed up for tea. And I just asked a very basic question. It was, you know, a question that anybody would ask, which is, how are you doing? And that question precipitated this launch, into sort of this description of how they left Syria, why they left Syria, what happened to them on the way, and it became very clear to me that, that relationships are always going to be really colored by that dynamic, right? That they’re here on our campus. We’re providing services, they benefit from those services. And so who they are, and what they’ve gone through is something that they need to tell us about. But I found that to be true over and over again, that the refugees really hold close that story of how and why they became refugees. And it’s a story that is always ready to be told, when it needs to be told. So that that myth that refugees are not carefully vetted is absolutely a myth and needs to be, we need a lot more education and awareness around the process that refugees go through to become resettled. Another myth that I’m trying to undermine in the book is that refugees resettle it all. So one of the people that we meet, is Ree Ree, and Ree Ree is born in a refugee camp in Thailand, when she leaves, they leave a lot of people behind who are still there. I don’t know that people know this. But it’s important to know that there are 36 million eligible people for resettlement 36 million eligible refugees for resettlement, less than 1% of them will ever resettle. So the majority 99% of refugees will live in refugee camps or in you know, displacement, forced displacement, their children, their grandchildren for generations will live in displacement rather than in resettlement. Another myth is that refugees receive a lot of resources when they get here. So I’ve heard that phrase like, oh, refugees get the whole red carpet rolled out for them, or they come here and they are a drain on our economy or so another myth that I wanted to sort of bust is that life and resettlement can be very challenging, that when refugees arrive, they actually receive very limited resources of $1,200, they have to pay back the plane ticket that brings them here, they have to find a job and be independent 90 days after they arrive. And that life here for them can be incredibly. They feel a lot of homesickness, and a lot of sadness. And so, you know, this idea that refugees have to be grateful for their life here. They are very grateful, by the way folks are so grateful for the opportunities that their children get to have now that they’re here. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t miss their home that they don’t yearn for their country, that they don’t long for their families. And because of that, they experience depression, homesickness, loneliness, isolation. So we see that in Um Fahmi’s experience, for example, right now she lives in Buffalo. They migrated from Greensboro to Buffalo, and every time I talk to her, I talked to Um Fahmi quite a bit. Every time I talk to her, she’s sad for her children who are left behind. She wants to see them. She wants them to come here. She wants to be with them.

    Joel Tirado  30:10

    Yeah. So are you finding that, for the folks who came here and by the way that that figure of 36 million and less than 1% are resettled. That was not one that I knew. And that’s a lot to take in. So thank you for sharing that. Are you finding that the folks who came to Guilford, have they stayed connected? Is it mostly to you or to other folks on campus? What does some of those relationships look like? This is more personal curiosity.

    Diya Abdo  30:55

    Yeah, yeah, of course. And we can talk about where the folks in the book are today. So every campus of refuge, the way it operates at Guilford, and other universities, because what we also managed to do is kind of mobilize other colleges and universities to do this. So there are other colleges and universities across the country, who now follow the every campus a refuge model, where you host the refugee family on your campus for a period of time. You provide them with support and access to your college facilities and amenities. And then also a community of support. And that looks like faculty, staff, students and community members who walk alongside this family, and really support them in their resettlement and integration efforts in the local community. So every campus refuge has existed at Guilford for 10 years. And when we first started, I was very much sort of a hands on volunteer. So for the first few years, all of the folks in this book were folks we welcomed at the airport. So we went to the airport with signs and, you know, balloons, and I think love and hospitality in our hearts, and then worked with them or accompany them while they were on our campus either by visiting, or supporting them in making appointments or filling out forms, looking for jobs. As the program evolved over the years, and I got pulled away to support other universities and colleges doing this, the folks who are doing the on the ground work are now sort of the next generation. They’re the current coordinators and the current volunteers. So I maintain the relationships with the refugees that came to Guilford for the first four or five years of the program. And I still meet and visit with the families that we host now we’re currently hosting a family on our campus. So we tend to host one or two families a year, one after the other. So I tend to you know, whenever I can meet those folks and connect with those folks, but the first few years, I was really doing also a lot of the hands on work, so driving people to appointments or you know, helping with shopping or things like that. So the folks that we meet in this book are all folks that I would consider friends, they’re you know, we have a close relationship to this day. Marwa and Ali live in my neighborhood. I see Marwa almost every other day, we certainly talk on WhatsApp every day. So that’s really lovely. I would say in Marwa and Ali’s case, they own a home. I think it’s very challenging for refugees to transition to home ownership. You know, very quickly, or within a few years of their arrival, but Ali credits this to the opportunity they had to sort of breathe when they arrived on campus to have that time. Ali works at Tyson, which is a place that many refugees end up working. But because he’s an artist and a calligraphist artist, he also is creating artwork by commission. And I think ECAR and other organizations help with connecting him with folks who are interested in his artwork or opportunities for exhibiting and selling his artwork, which supplements his income. Blaise is still in Greensboro. Blaise is a singer and a songwriter. And so he, I think performs at events definitely performs at ECAR events when we have them. He is also an interpreter. And currently, Blaise is working on an ECAR project called Salt, which is an oral history of ECAR chapters. So one of the things that Blaise did was interview refugees who are hosted by other campuses to learn from their experiences. And we hear similar things from those refugees as well that they form really deep connections and relationships with the folks on campus that become part of their family and part of their community. Ree Ree arrived as a refugee but not through ECAR. But she volunteered with ECAR and she was one of the students who actually minored in every campus of refuge. So at Guilford College, students can minor in hosting in supporting refugees in this way they get credit for hosting refugees on affiliate campuses and supporting them and their resettlement, which is great. It really allows us to institutionalize and formalize that effort so that students are doing kind of like a study abroad at home. Ree Ree is now the director of Transplanting Traditions, which is a nonprofit here in North Carolina that supports refugee farmers and reconnecting them to the land and the produce that they would have farmed in their in their countries, back home. Cheps is working as a forklift driver, and so very excited about that. He’s been working towards that. And my mother is living her best life. She just came back from a cruise actually, so

    Joel Tirado  35:55

    Oh, fantastic. That’s really, that’s really wonderful to hear that, you know, I’m sure each each of them have their own enduring challenges. But that know, especially with, in the case of Marwa and now Ali, that the space that was given by their initial arrival here, that they credit that to at least some of their ability to, you know, take one of those financial steps to establish some stability. Now, um, you mentioned artwork. I have to say the, the cover of the book is beautiful. Can you just quickly, tell us about that?

    Diya Abdo  36:35

    Sure. So the cover of the book is Lady Liberty, with Arabic calligraphy, and it was designed and created by Ali. Ali Al-Khasrachi, who’s from Iraq, and he was hosted on our campus with Marwa, his wife and their three children, now they have four. And so when I was asked to write the book, I knew immediately that I wanted Ali to design the cover. And so I asked Ali to design the cover, and the result is Lady Liberty. So if if you probably can’t see, because you’re listening to us, but please look up the cover. Yeah, sure. Maybe Joel will share a link to the book so that you can see it. But it’s Lady Liberty with sort of red Arabic word in calligraphy in the middle. And the Arabic word is laji, which means refugee. And I love love that design. I think it’s incredibly meaningful and symbolic, in the sense that for many refugees, and certainly for me, the promise of America is shining, right? That, that America, the promise of America is well, the promise of America is hospitality. Right, that’s, I believe that wholly and fully that that is not only the promise, but the premise of America, right that, you know, give me your your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, so that the promise of America, Lady Liberty represents that kind of welcome and hospitality. But that’s intension with the refugee experience that is invisible unless you know the word laji in Arabic. When I talk to youth about the book and about the cover, they have really interesting interpretations of it. And, and one I really love, so I’m going to share, which is that refugees become part of the fabric of America. So they’re indistinguishable from America. It’s made up of newcomers, it’s made up of immigrants of refugees, forcibly displaced individuals, of every, you know, everybody, and so that that image of Lady Liberty intertwined with the word refugee is representative of how important and how enmeshed the newcomer experience is in the American landscape. Well, that interpretation definitely comes through. I mean, it really is, it really is a stunning piece. And yes, we will definitely link to that in the episode description so folks can check it out for themselves. And real props to Ali for that really beautifully done. We are, we are sort of getting to the end here of this conversation. So I just want to leave a little bit of time, you know, one of the things I wanted to ask you about was what are the cultural changes that need to happen to make America a more welcoming place for refugees? I think, in some respects, you’ve, you know, by touching on those myths that you brought up, you know, that’s that’s part of it is addressing those myths and changing people’s understanding and perspective on the refugee experience. Is there is there anything else that really jumps out on on the cultural front, as an as really needing to change? Yeah, I think for me, the most important thing is expanding where resettlement happens in this country. So expanding welcome. If you look at it map of where refugee resettlement agencies are, which is how typically refugees are being resettled in the US under the United States Refugee Admissions Program. Resettlement agencies receive ashore refugee cases. Now because there’s a different program under USRAP called Welcome Core where five individuals can directly sponsor refugees, I think a great development. Refugees can be resettled everywhere in anywhere in this country. But I would still, I still think it’s important that there is an expansion of where resettlement happens. So if you look at that map, there are large swaths of this country where refugees are not resettling, Where there are no resettlement agencies. And that’s because there might not be local capacity or but the idea is to create intersectional, sort of across the board infrastructure support, so that in the places where there are employment opportunities in the places where there is affordable housing, where they where they are looking for a growth in community, that will resettling there as well. So expanding culturally capacity across the US, so that they’re, I think, wonderful locations, wonderful places, states, cities, towns, that I think would be wonderfully suitable for refugee resettlement. I think ensuring that we build their capacity to be a location for resettlement is important. So that’s one, one change. And I’d like to see an expansion of where resettlement happens in this country.

    Joel Tirado  41:41

    Yeah, and that gets at the second part of that question, which is, what are the policy changes that would need to happen? And I think, you know, your answer to the first part is that the cultural and the policy are inextricably intertwined. And it’s exposure and experience to these folks that really can drive a lot of change. And you can almost see it as a as a feedback loop as those myths become dispelled. And you have experience. You would, you could see driving change further. But but I’ll still tee up to you if there are if you have other thoughts on on significant policy changes beyond what you just brought up. We’d love to hear those.

    Diya Abdo  42:31

    Yeah, absolutely. So I think one of the things that we’ve we’ve heard from the folks that we’ve supported, is that expectation to be self sufficient 90 days after you arrive. So the expectation under USRAP is that 90 days after arrival, refugees are to be financially independent, they need to be financially self sufficient, which is incredibly challenging. Really, what that means is that folks have to accept the first job that they’re offered. And there isn’t much time to take enough space to learn English, let’s say like, maybe all you need is to learn English to be able to get that better job, or that job that’s commensurate with your skills and your expertise. And so increasing that timeframe, would be incredibly helpful, really necessary. So that folks we settled successfully, because resettlement and integration aren’t just about financial success. In this case, I don’t think that people necessarily are financially successful, they get jobs, and maybe they’re able to pay their rent. But integration really is about lots of other things. It’s about feeling like you belong, it’s being able to have access to opportunities, being able to have access to resources, take advantage of certain resources. But if you’re expected to just find a job and become financially independent 90 days after you arrive, you’re not going to spend a lot of time doing all the other things that allow you to integrate successfully. So I think it’s just setting setting people up for a less than successful resettlement and integration experience, which doesn’t benefit anybody. Because when newcomers are successful, the community is successful. And when they’re not, then that hurts the community. And so really, I mean, this is just thinking holistically about it. You know, the whole community success is ensuring that people have the space and time to be able to adjust to life here before we expect them to start standing on their own twofeet completely.

    Joel Tirado  44:30

    Yeah, yeah. Well, Diya, thank you so much. It’s been a real pleasure to talk to you and all the stories that that you’ve shared, both in the book and with us on the show. So thank you.

    Diya Abdo  44:42

    Thank you so much for having me. It was great having the conversation with you.

    Joel Tirado  44:49

    Thanks again to Dr. Abdo for joining us on Policy Outsider, a link to her book American Refuge: True Stories of the Refugee Experience can be found in the episode description. If you liked this episode, please rate subscribe and share. It will help others find the podcast and help us deliver the latest in public policy research. All of our episodes are available for free wherever you stream your podcast and transcripts are available on our website. I’m Joel Tirado until next time. Policy Outsider is presented by the Rockefeller Institute of Government the public policy research arm of the State University of New York. The Institute conducts cutting edge nonpartisan public policy research and analysis to inform lasting solutions to the challenges facing New York State in the nation. Learn more at or by following RockefellerInst. Have a question, comment, or idea? Email us at [email protected].

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Policy Outsider” from the Rockefeller Institute of Government takes you outside the halls of power to understand how decisions of law and policy shape our everyday lives.

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