Friday, September 3, 2021

When You Can't Go Home: Portraits of Refugees in the Pacific Northwest - Karisa Keasey

Summary:  "GO BACK TO WHERE YOU CAME FROM!" a man yells from the window of his truck as he drives by a young Eritrean woman crossing the street.  The truth is, she would love to go back to her home country.  She misses her family, the smell of her favorite foods and all of her belongings she left behind.  The problem is that she would likely be persecuted and even killed if she ever returned.  She is here because she can't go home.  Tens of thousands of refugees like her come to the United States each year from all over the world.  Threatened by persecution and war, these brave people leave behind everything familiar to seek safety and the change for a new start.

When You Can't Go Home tells the story of 10 refugees and their families alongside 30 breath-taking portraits by artist, Karisa Keasy.  For every book sold, Karisa will donate 50% of the profits to World Relieff to help in their efforts with refugees.  In addition to raising funds, awareness, and compassion for refugees, Karisa hopes that this book will inspire readers to use their own unique gifts to make a positive impact for others in their own communities.  (Summary from book -  Images from & -- This book was given to me for free in exchange for an honest review.)

NOTE:  Occasionally, I am torn as to whether a book deserves the BIPOC Perspectives label.  It can be tricky and sometimes I just have to go with my gut.  In the case of When You Can't Go Home, the author/artist herself is white, but I felt that her efforts to center refugee accounts and elevate BIPOC voices and images merited the label.

My Review:  When Karisa Keasey first became aware of the international refugee crisis, she spent a great deal of time worrying about it and journaling her thought, until her husband encouraged her to put down her pen and do something to help.  Karisa decided to get to know some refugees in the Seattle area where she lives, listen to their stories, and put her artistic talents to good use.  The result is When You Can't Go Home: Portraits of Refugees in the Pacific Northwest, a compelling collection of third-person accounts and glorious watercolor portraits that tell the story of ten different refugees and their families.  At the back of the book, there is also a section that talks about the World Relief Organization, outlines five ways to help refugees, offers other relevant information, and even highlights some websites for further reading. 

Each story talks about an individual's life prior to leaving their homeland -- the hopes and dreams they may have had, their families, and other things that brought them joy.  It also addresses the specific persecution and dangers they faced which forced them to flee. These varied from person to person, but were usually a combination of religious persecution, racial prejudice, lack of personal freedoms, and horrific violence.  The stories also touch on the varied challenges that many refugees face during the resettlement process, the support network set up to help them succeed, and how their lives look now.  While each story offers a unique perspective and experience, all of them end on a happy note.

I can't say enough good things about When You Can't Go Home.  It's well-constructed, with thick sturdy pages, and is filled with unbelievable stories and exquisite watercolors. My eleven-year-old daughter was flipping through it while I was making dinner and even she commented on the amazingly realistic artwork. I wish I had an art background so that I could describe them properly, but you'll just have to settle for seeing them in miniature. I've shared a few examples in this review; simply hover over the images if you'd like to know their names and homelands. 

One of the most impactful stories (for me) involves a man named Merhawi Habteab who fled the horrors of his Eritrean homeland into Sudan and then Libya. When religious persecution increased, he and his new wife, Zaid, nearly drowned as they attempted to reach the relative safety of Malta.  Here is an excerpt from that moment, as they are trapped on a sinking ship in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea:

"The old engine heaved its last sputtering breath, leaving the lethal ocean waves to claim them.  In a last desperate attempt, the captain made a futile call for help over the radio.  Even if someone were to hear them, they knew the probability of someone harvesting them for their organs, selling them to slavery, or returning them to Eritrea was high.  In resignation, Ziad took Merhawi's hand, drawing him towards her.  "Come, let's be together the minutes that we have," her voice rasped, spent from the cries that were swallowed by the dark.  Merhawi kissed the crown of her head and they uttered prayers under their breath.

Suddenly, a crackling voice was heard on the radio, breaking the silence.  The voice, claiming to be with the Red Cross, was asking for their location.  The approaching boat was met first with skepticism, then relief when they found it was indeed the Red Cross.  "We really didn't believe our eyes," Merhawi remembered thinking, "Is it true? These people really come to save us?"

I was astounded that after having fled from three separate countries, clinging to each other in a rapidly sinking boat, they still had weigh their potential rescue against the possibility of organ harvesting, slavers, or being sent back to their homelands and further persecution.  Thankfully, the family fell into safe hands and five years later their application for asylum in the US was approved.  

As far as criticism is concerned, I only have a few notes.  Occasionally, I felt like the author's writing style wasn't consistent throughout the narratives.  This isn't really a problem, per se, since each narrative is told separately, but there was enough of a difference in style that I noticed the inconsistency.  Second, I do wish that the accounts had been first person rather than third.  I realize that is easier said than done in a case like this and that doing so would likely have raised a host of other problems.  Thankfully, the author does try to use direct quotes when possible, even dedicating entire pages to them (in bigger font), and I appreciated her efforts.

Karisa Keasey set out to make a difference in the lives of the less fortunate, to put a face to the refugee crisis, combat apathy, and elevate the voices of those who are struggling.  I think she was successful in that regard.  I certainly came away with a greater understanding of the unimaginable hardship many refugees face and a stronger desire to see them safely settled out of harm's way.   If I had my way, When You Can't Go Home would be required reading for those individuals who throw around phrases like 'go back where you came from'  and high on the list for anyone else who simply wants to enlarge their perspective, cultivate compassion and learn more about the refugee crisis.  

Oh, and one more thing -- Karisa Keasey is donating 50% of all the proceeds from the sale of this book to the World Relief Organization.  I hadn't heard of that particular organization until I read this book (apparently I live under a rock), but it is clear from the personal accounts that they do important work.  I don't normally link to book sellers, but in this case I'll make an exception. Click here.

My Rating: 5 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  There is some discussion of hardship, racism, and violence.  Mentioned but not graphically described.  However, could be potentially triggering for anyone who has been in a similar situation.

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