Far from Home | Collection Development: Immigration

These 34 titles help patrons understand  the experiences of immigrants, migrants, and refugees through memoirs, documentaries, and novels.

In 2011, Syria became embroiled in a civil war during which bombings, terror, and violence displaced, according to U.N. estimates, upwards of 6.5 million people. Although some Syrians fled to neighboring countries, others embarked on a dangerous journey across the Mediterranean to Europe. The large number of refugees inflamed populist, nativist sentiments among Europeans.

Although American news is dominated by reports of people seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border, other conflicts have generated refugees in recent years, including large-scale crises in Rwanda, Somalia, and Myanmar.

In Central America, violence in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador has driven families from their homes and north through Mexico to the United States. The situation on the U.S.-Mexico border garnered international attention in June 2019 when a photograph of a drowned father and daughter in the Rio Grande sparked outrage. As in Europe, all this has led to an increased fear of the perceived "other" in the United States, further sparking populism and nativism.

Throughout history, war and persecution have created refugees and migrants who seek economic opportunity and better jobs elsewhere. Dangers abound on their treks. Migrants may contract a smuggler to transport them to their destination country, leaving them at risk of exploitation, rape, or human trafficking. Additionally, migrants may choose to return home seasonally, or once the conflict that displaced them ends. Refugees may be forced to enter an in-between state; unable to go home, they also cannot formally enter a host country and start a new life. Those who can stay in their host country may experience difficulties adapting to a new culture, especially one that could be hostile to them. Second and third-generation immigrants have reported feeling caught between their parents’ culture and the culture of their host country.

Storytelling can alleviate fears and concerns. The titles below focus on understanding the experiences of immigrants, migrants, and refugees. Memoirs dominate both this list and the literature in general, while documentaries are another popular format for building awareness. Novels also can allow potent exploration of themes, though librarians should be careful to avoid materials that perpetuate stereotypes. Starred titles (redstar) are essential for most collections.


Rebekah Kati is the Institutional Repository Librarian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has been reviewing for LJ since 2012 and was Reviewer of the Year in 2018

Biographies and Memoirs

redstar Cantú, Francisco. The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border. Riverhead. 2018. 256p. ISBN 9780735217713. $26.
A former border patrol agent and the child of a Mexican immigrant, Cantú was forced to confront his involvement in the immigration system when a friend was detained during a border crossing.

Fishman, Boris. Savage Feast: Three Generations, Two Continents, and a Dinner Table. Harper. 2019. 368p. ISBN 9780062867896. $26.99.
Fishman’s family migrated from the Soviet Union to New York, passing through Vienna and Rome on the way. Weaving their experiences and recipes throughout, Fishman explains how food helped them stayed true to their roots.

Fleming, Melissa. A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea: One Refugee’s Incredible Story of Love, Loss, and Survival. Flatiron: Macmillan. 2017. 288p. ISBN 9781250105998. $26.99.
After fleeing her home in Syria, Doaa Al Zamel made a harrowing journey across the Mediterranean, barely surviving a shipwreck that killed her husband. Fleming chronicles Al Zamel’s path to activism and advocacy after terror and loss.

Harding, Andrew. The Mayor of Mogadishu: A Story of Chaos and Redemption in the Ruins of Somalia. St. Martins. 2016. 304p. ISBN 9781250072344. $26.99.
Harding’s account of activist Mohamud Nur’s return to his native Somalia, after his exit before the 1991 civil war, picks up as Nur, later the mayor of capital Mogadishu, tried to rebuild a divided city.

Hilgers, Lauren. Patriot Number One: American Dreams in Chinatown. Crown. 2018. 336p. ISBN 9780451496133. $27.
As the Chinese government cracked down on protestors, dissident Zhuang Liehong and his wife fled to the United States to settle within the Chinese American community in Flushing, NY. Hilgers weaves a heartrending story of a family’s attempts to achieve the elusive American Dream.

redstar Iftin, Abdi Nor. Call Me American: A Memoir. Knopf. 2018. 320p. ISBN 9781524732196. $26.95.
NPR contributor Iftin shares a compelling account of luck and loss: falling in love with American culture as a child, trying to obtain a visa as an adult, and leaving his native Somalia for Kenya and, ultimately, the United States.

Nayeri, Dina. The Ungrateful Refugee: What Immigrants Never Tell You. Catapult. 368p. ISBN 9781948226424. $26.
Nayeri’s candid tale of leaving Iran as a child with her mother, living in a refugee camp, and settling in the United States is interwoven with stories of current and former refugees and her own research on seeking asylum.

The Penguin Book of Migration Literature: Departures, Arrivals, Generations, Returns. Penguin. 2019. 320p. ed. by Dohra Ahmad. ISBN 9780143133384. pap. $17.
This evocative collection of memoir, fiction, and poetry reflects on living in between countries and cultures; a good starting point for further exploration.

Rawlence, Ben. City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp. Picador. 2016. 400p. $26. ISBN 9781250067630. $18.
Rawlence follows nine Somali refugees in Kenya’s Dadaab camp, focusing on the poor diet, overcrowding, and violence that inhabitants endure—and the political circumstances that created them.

Vargas, Jose Antonio. Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen. Dey St: HarperCollins. 2018. 256p. ISBN 9780062851352. $25.99.
Through a series of short essays, Vargas considers his Filipino and American identities along with the role of the media in conversations around immigration, the challenges of living as an undocumented public figure, and America’s complex immigration policies.

redstar Wamariya, Clementine. The Girl Who Smiled Beads. Crown. 2018. 288p. ISBN 9780451495327. $26.
Wamariya fled the Rwandan genocide and spent her childhood in refugee camps before immigrating to the United States. Here, she describes her successes along with the challenges of reconciling her former and current lives.

Yousafzai, Malala. We Are Displaced: My Journey and Stories from Refugee Girls Around the World. Little, Brown. 2019. 224p. ISBN 9780316523646. $18.99.
Nobel laureate Yousafzai describes leaving her home in Pakistan’s Swat Valley to escape the Taliban. Several young female refugees from other countries also share their stories in this collection. Though aimed at teens, this one has crossover appeal.

Societal Explorations

Chung, Nicole. A Map Is Only One Story: Twenty Writers on Immigration, Family, and the Meaning of Home. Catapult. 240p. pap. ISBN. 9781948226783. $16.95.
Essays from the archives of Catapult magazine, by writers such as Victoria Blanco, Nina Li Coomes, Nur Nasreen Ibrahim, and Krystal Sital, consider belonging (and not).

redstar DeParle, Jason. A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves: One Family and Migration in the 21st Century. Viking. 2019. 400p. ISBN 9780670785926. $28.
DeParle’s investigation of the impact of migration follows Rosalie and a generation of her relatives as they migrate to the Middle East and North America in pursuit of secure wages to send back to the Philippines, all the while staying in touch via technology.

redstar The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives. Abrams. 2018. 192p. ed. by Viet Thanh Nguyen. ISBN 9781419729485. $25.
In this collection from Pulitzer Prize winner Nguyen, contributors, all refugees, detail the difference between immigrants and refugees, the perception of immigrants in the United States and Europe, and the psychological impact of settling in a new country.

Eaton, Susan. Integration Nation: Immigrants, Refugees, and America at Its Best. New Pr. 2016. 192p. ISBN 9781620970959. $24.95.
Eaton presents 12 successful U.S. programs that help immigrants adjust to life in a new community and country.

Kerr, William. The Gift of Global Talent: How Migration Shapes Business, Economy & Society. Stanford Business. 2019. 256p. ISBN 9781503605022. $28.
Kerr argues that, from a business and labor perspective, the United States benefits from immigration and that the visa program for highly skilled workers should be expanded.

Miller, Todd. Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration, and Homeland Security. City Lights. 2017. 248p. pap. ISBN 9780872867154. $16.95.
Climate change will cause more migration and, consequently, more conflict, contends Miller in this chilling call to action.

Mulligan Sepúlveda, J.J. No Human Is Illegal: An Attorney on the Front Lines of the Immigration War. Melville House. 2019. 256p. ISBN 9781612197692. $26.99.
Immigration attorney Mulligan Sepúlveda offers an insider’s perspective on the U.S. immigration system: how polarizing immigration reform has become, and how we can create a more just system.

Pearlman, Wendy. We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria. Custom House. 2017. 352p. pap. ISBN 9780062654441. $16.99.
In this poignant oral history of the Syrian civil war, civilians and activists share their experiences before and during the revolution, along with their eventual flight from the country. Pearlman puts a personal touch on an ongoing crisis.

Solito, Solita: Crossing Borders with Youth Refugees from Central America. ed. by Steven Mayers & Jonathan Freedman. Haymarket. 2019. 336p. ISBN 9781608466221. $60.
Mayers and Freedman share a heartbreaking, much-needed oral history of children and teens emigrating from Central America.

Trilling, Daniel. Lights in the Distance: Exile and Refuge at the Borders of Empire. Verso. 2018. 304p. ISBN 9781786632791. $26.95.
Trilling interviews African and Middle Eastern migrants waiting in camps or living precariously within Europe, while connecting his own family’s story of being refugees to those of his subjects.

redstar Wides-Muñoz, Laura. The Making of a Dream: How a Group of Young Undocumented Immigrants Helped Change What It Means To Be American. Harper. 2019. 384p. ISBN 9780062560124. $27.99.
Wides-Muñoz tells the stories of undocumented high school and college students who were brought to the United States as children, and examines the DREAM Act, which may provide them with a path to citizenship.


Hamid, Mohsin. Exit West. Riverhead. 2017. 240p. ISBN 9780735212176. $26.
Lovers Saeed and Nadia meet in a city spiraling into unrest. Magical doors appear, allowing them and other refugees to instantly travel to other locations.

redstar Joukhadar, Jennifer Zeynab. The Map of Salt and Stars. Atria. 2018. 368p. pap. ISBN 9781501169052. $16.99.
Twelve-year-old Nour flees Syria during the civil war. Her journey alternates with that of Rawiya, who disguises herself as a 12th-century boy to be apprenticed to a mapmaker.

Unnikrishnan, Deepak. Temporary People. Restless. 2017. 272p. pap. ISBN 9781632061423. $17.99.
Magical realism is an inspired vehicle to spotlight the foreign workers who build the United Arab Emirates’ infrastructure but who never become citizens.



Clínica de Migrantes: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. Color. 40 min. HBO Documentary Films. 2016. 888574645687. $19.95.
Director Maxim Pozdorovkin shines a light on the Philadelphia-based health care clinic Puentes de Salud, which serves undocumented immigrants for whom even basic medical services might otherwise remain out of reach.

Fire at Sea. color. 108 min. Kino Lorber. 2017. 738329213695. $34.95.
Featuring English and Italian language options, this Academy Award–nominated documentary records daily life on the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, where Dr. Pietro Bartolo treats the many refugees who have endured starvation, sickness, and exposure to the elements in their journey toward freedom.

This Is Home: A Refugee Story. color. 91 min. Bullfrog Films. 2018. 1948745097. $350.
With English and Arabic subtitles, this documentary profiles four Syrian refugee families as they settled in Baltimore and attempted to adapt to a new country before their humanitarian assistance, tied to an eight-month transitional period, expired.



Graphic Novels

Brown, Don. The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees. Houghton Harcourt. 2018. 112p. ISBN 9781328810151. $18.99.
Brown presents snapshots of the journeys of Syrian refugees, including their settlement both in and out of camps or within Europe; he also explores the growing resentment of many in their host countries. This young adult work of nonfiction makes a complex situation accessible to teens and adults alike.

Bui, Thi. The Best We Could Do. ComicArts: Abrams. 2017. 336p. ISBN 9781419718779. $26.99.
In this illustrated memoir, Bui reflects on her parents’ life in Vietnam, their move to the United States, and her life as a second-generation American.

Colfer, Eoin & Andrew Donkin (text) & Giovanni Rigano (illus.). Illegal. Sourcebooks. 2018. 128p. ISBN 9781492662143. $19.99.
Ebo follows his siblings from Ghana across the Sahara and the Mediterranean in search of a better life, encountering hardships and dangers. Though written for children, this graphic novel will nonetheless resonate with adults seeking a more intimate perspective on the refugee crisis.

Web Resources

Define American
In these videos, immigrants and allies muse on the challenges of being undocumented, the important role that immigrants play, and other issues. This deeply personal site humanizes those pushed to the margins of society.

Misrach, Richard & Guillermo Galindo. Border Cantos. Aperture. 2016. 274p. ISBN 9781597112895. $75.
Misrach’s book of photographs vividly depicts the borderlands, the wall between the United States and Mexico, and the items that people have left behind; Galindo’s companion website showcases musical instruments that he created using these items.


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