Book Captures Complexity of Genocide Refugee’s Story

By Mary Ann Zehr — December 21, 2009 1 min read
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I didn’t mind being snowed in over the weekend because I had a good book to read, Strength in What Remains, by Tracy Kidder. It’s about Deogratias (Yes, Latin for “thanks be to God”), a medical student who survives genocide in Burundi and arrives in New York City at age 24 without knowing any English. He has only $200 in his pocket, so living in the United States is another test of survival for him, though of a different sort than what he lived through in Burundi. In the United States, he has to deal with his memories of what happened. (The New York Times has reviewed the book.)

If any of you have refugees in your classes who have survived civil war, the book would help you to understand what kinds of feelings linger after traumatic experiences.

Kidder is a master in what journalists call “the long narrative form.” I’ve heard and read many stories from refugees who survived war or torture over the years, but the book really conveys the complexity of a refugee’s feelings in finding a new life. Here’s an excerpt (in italics) about how Deogratias feels when a woman named Sharon is trying to find him a home in New York City. At the time, he’s sleeping in Central Park.

He thought he should be more grateful for Sharon. In her company, sometimes, he could talk as if he still imagined himself becoming a doctor, even though, as it had been from the start, this was usually just a way of telling her who he used to be. ... What did it say about him that no one was willing to lend him a bed? The feelings that came from this weren’t entirely different from the feelings that came from having people try to kill you. You wondered who they thought you were and who you were in fact. You felt utterly alone.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.