Showing 1 - 4 of 4 annotations tagged with the keyword "Refugees"

The Flight Portfolio

Orringer, Julie

Last Updated: Jan-29-2021
Annotated by:
Field, Steven

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

It’s 1940, and France has fallen to the Nazis, leaving the country divided between occupied France in the north, and so-called “Free France,” with its government at the spa town of Vichy, in the south.  The Vichy government is headed by Marshall Phillippe Petain, a collaborationist puppet of the Germans running a collaborationist puppet state.  But unlike the north, the south is still technically unoccupied, and people fleeing the Nazis from all over Europe make their way there in the hope of finding a way off the European continent, and so a kind of black market in emigration develops, centered in the port city of Marseille.

Among the groups working out of Marseille is the Emergency Rescue Committee, an organization set up by the journalist and editor Varian Fry and his friends, and with the support of Eleanor Roosevelt.  The ERC has sent Fry to Marseille with a list of names of people to be assisted to emigrate, and the list is a Who’s Who of the European cultural elite:  artists, writers, philosophers, and the like, many of whom are Jewish and/or have opposed the Nazis and are thus wanted by the Gestapo.  It is Fry’s job to shelter them, get them fake transit visas, and ultimately smuggle them out, usually to neutral Spain or Portugal, or even directly to the States.   The Vichy government, which has an agreement with Germany to surrender any identified fugitives, knows this is going on, and together with their German allies, is always hot on the trail of these now stateless refugees, and thus hot on Fry’s trail also. 

The Flight Portfolio is based on several of the thirteen months Fry spent in Marseille as the representative of the ERC.  Along with his staff, he “brings in” (and successfully gets out) Marc Chagall and his wife, Franz Werfel and Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel, Max Ernst, Lion Feuchtwanger, a young Hannah Arendt (“Name?”  “Johanna Arendt.  My friends know me as Hannah”), and others.  All the while, he and his staff are but one step ahead of the agents of Vichy and the Gestapo. And during this time, Chagall has been compiling the flight portfolio, a collection of artworks which testify to the humanitarian crisis in Europe, to be smuggled out as a warning to the free world. 

Complicating the issue—and a major part of the story line—is the fact that Fry, whose wife Eileen had stayed behind in New York City, has reconnected with a Harvard classmate named Elliot Grant with whom he had been romantically involved as an undergraduate.  Grant has come to Marseille to be with Gregor Katznelson, a fellow Columbia University professor who has returned to Europe to find his son Tobias who has disappeared.  Tobias is a brilliant young Berlin physicist and is wanted at all costs by the Gestapo for his scientific acumen and his value to weapons development. Gregor is desperate to secure his safe passage to New York.  Fry promises Grant that he will get Katznelson’s son to safety.  When the elder Katznelson returns to the United States, Fry and Grant resume their relationship, and Varian finds himself becoming increasingly emotionally involved with Grant and distanced from Eileen, although he still loves her.  Ultimately Tobias shows up in Marseille; but there is another fugitive, a world-renowned and respected artist, who has been waiting, is in immediate danger, and needs to get out of Europe.  And only one can leave on the waiting ship.  

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Annotated by:
Field, Steven

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Anthony Marra’s debut novel (published in 2013) is set in Chechnya, the rebellious Caucasus republic that broke away from Russia in 1994, was in short order mired in two wars thereafter, and ultimately lost its independence and was re-incorporated into Russia as a semi-autonomous “federal subject” state.  Marra does not ease us into his story, but propels us headlong into it; it is 2004, and eight-year-old Havaa awakens to find that her father Dokka, suspected of aiding Chechen rebels, has been taken away by Russian troops, who have also burned her house to the ground.  She is alive only because Akhmed, her neighbor and her father’s friend, has spirited her out of her house in the middle of the night and hidden her in his.  Akhmed takes it upon himself to protect Havaa; he knows that the soldiers will be looking for her, because even though the official wars are over, Chechnya remains in the midst of a brutal battle for control, and the policy of the state is to “disappear” not only those it perceives as its enemies, but also their family members.  

Akhmed manages to get Havaa to the abandoned local hospital, where he believes she will be safe.  The hospital is staffed only by a smart, tough, and competent surgeon named Sonja, assisted by a nurse.  Sonja is an ethnic Russian from the area who trained in London and then returned to her homeland.  She agrees to shelter Havaa on the condition that Akhmed, who trained as a doctor but is painfully aware of his inadequacies in that profession (he wanted to be an artist), stay on also as her assistant surgeon.  Soldiers and civilians on both sides arrive in need of care in a hospital barely functioning, with little in the way of staff or supplies. 

Sonja meanwhile is searching for her sister who has disappeared into the chaos of the Chechen wars; she believes that Natasha is alive, but hasn’t heard of her, or from her, in years (we will, in the course of the novel, hear Natasha’s story and learn of another side of the underbelly of this war).  She comes to believe that Akhmed may hold a key to Natasha’s whereabouts, and Sonja of course holds the key to whatever measure of safety exists for Havaa—and thus for Akhmed as well.  Other locals, a local Chechen historian, his turncoat son, and various governmental and non-governmental functionaries round out the cast in the novel.   Akhmed must negotiate in a world where anyone could be an informer, and one person clearly is; where the price for falling into the wrong hands could be death or worse; where federal troops and rebels vie to outdo each other in brutality; and where the rest of the population spends every waking minute simply trying to survive in a lawless society and a landscape gutted by ongoing strife.   When the various narrative arcs ultimately link up the ending is a powerful one.




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Exit West

Hamid, Mohsin

Last Updated: Oct-22-2018
Annotated by:
Redel-Traub, MD, Gabriel

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Exit West, a novel by Mohsin Hamid, follows two young lovers as their (unnamed) Middle Eastern city descends into war. The story is an intimate look into how quickly war can warp the quotidian routines of daily life. It begins by introducing us to its protagonists. Nadia is a fiercely independent and thoroughly modern woman; she lives alone, rides her vespa around and listens to jazz records. Saeed is perhaps a bit more traditional—he lives with his parents—but is still a typical university student (he brings a joint to one of his and Nadia’s early dates.) The city is a cosmopolitan one, if not a bit outdated. However, as Nadia and Saeed’s relationship deepens, the initial hints of insurgency become apparent: drones and helicopters buzz constantly overhead, a night curfew is implemented, the window with a nice view becomes a liability as gunfire breaks out. The city descends bit by bit into all out war. As this happens, rumors of magical doors that whisk people away to distant lands begin to circulate. Nadia is keen to find one of these doors; Saeed is hesitant to leave in part because his parents are unwilling to join them. Eventually with growing violence in the city, the couple decides to enter a door and together are transported to Mykonos where they join hundreds of other migrants and refugees from all over world who are living in makeshift homes. The second half of Hamid’s novel follows the couple’s life as refugees, traveling from Greece to England and eventually to the USA. Hamid portrays the psychological cost of exile, loss and dislocation—a cost which slowly drives Nadia and Saeed apart.

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Alpha: Abidjan to Paris

Bessora,

Last Updated: Jun-04-2018
Annotated by:
Natter, Michael

Primary Category: Literature / Literature

Genre: Graphic Memoir

Summary:

Alpha is part graphic novel, part heartbreaking memoir of cabinetmaker Alpha Coulibaly. It chronicles the story of a man on a journey to find his family and a better life, but his story could easily apply to the tens of thousands others who are seeking refuge. This is the painful tale of the refugee journey.

Alpha is from Cote d’Ivoire, Africa. The book is written in first person, in a manner as if the reader and Alpha are sitting together at a coffeeshop, as a family member or dear friend would recant their trials and tribulations to a trusted confidant. The text is blunt, matter of fact, but also painfully deep and poetic.

We learn about Alpha’s desire to reconnect with his family, whom he believes made it to Paris and to his sister-in-laws salon. He explains the futile process of attempting to go through the government sanctioned means of gaining access to other countries, which proves to be impossible. The only remaining option is to attempt to steal away by paying smugglers to help him cross border after border. This means long trips in overcrowded vans, treks by foot, and even precarious watercrafts. The journey is harrowing, and soul crushing. Death is looming around every bend, whether by illness, dehydration during these long, crowded desert drives, or by the hand of crooked armed border guards. Days turn to weeks, weeks to months, and eventually years. Many perish in their journey, but Alpha remains steadfast in his commitment to find his child and wife despite the unfavorable odds. He endures death of fellow refugees, friends, and children. He is forced to live in slums in each new country he enters and work laborious odd jobs to pay off smuggler after shady smuggler at each never ending leg of his journey. This is a tale of the many who are treated like unwanted pieces of trash, balled up and thrown into slums, labeled as “illegal immigrants,” and all so they can have the chance of a better life for them, and for their families.

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