1. Can you tell us a little about your background and how you were first affected by/became aware of asylum seekers or displaced peoples?
I was born and raised in Texas, a bit over a day’s drive from the Rio Grande and US’s southern border in what was colloquially known as a “white flight” community. As kids we sold T-shirts to save the rainforest and popcorn to raise money for the school and thought of the Middle East as one big nasty desert full of nasty people, because I was a child when the Towers came down and that’s just the place my small town was back then.
Things have changed. My aunt, who taught English at much more racially diverse schools than any I had ever attended, talks about her Hispanic students – the ones who teased her about bringing “white people food” (chicken and dumplings, mac ‘n cheese, lasagna) to after school debate practices; the ones who still got wide-eyed when she confiscated the notes they passed in class and understood them even though they were written in Spanish; the valedictorian who started her graduation speech with “I came to this country illegally…” My parents started volunteering with the Sierra Club in Big Bend National Park and telling stories about ranchers who left gates, step-overs, and water tanks in their pastures for crossers to use. It seems strange and tangential that these second-hand stories were my first experiences with displaced peoples when so many others have much more compelling stories, but it’s true. Even in the sheltered slice of Americana that I grew up in, the stories of people who risked everything for better lives still filtered in.
2. If you have worked with displaced people, can you tell us about a particular person, event, or interaction that was most memorable?
I have never worked directly with refugees or asylum seekers from another country, but I have worked with the displaced in the form of hurricane evacuees. I was a young teen the summer Katrina and Rita tore across New Orleans and created an American refugee crisis of sorts. My church took in evacuees and I helped my parents with the all-night shift a few times. There were the ones who stayed up all night watching the 24-hour news cycles, scanning the footage and dissecting the maps to see what might be left. There were the ones who slept and woke up screaming. There were the ones who kept a bottle of water in their hands at all times because they had been left on the overpass or had been trapped on their roof or waded through the streets and the filth of that water. Having drinking water in hand was a necessity. A living currency.
I have pulled all-nighters working on research and finishing projects. I have burned the midnight oil writing. I have counted the heartbeats in an overnight airport, but those nights being the night watch for families who came with nothing and might have nothing to return to, those were the longest nights of my life.
3. Can you tell us about any current projects you are now working on?
At the moment, my research is pretty all-consuming. I am studying Frankenstein, specifically the international influences Mary Shelley channeled through her text. It’s a fascinating project for a PhD, and I love the work, but it is the kind of work that does not safely tuck away and wait for convenient times. While that is happening, I also have a novel (The Adventures of Dogg Girl and Sidekick) coming out soon from Dreaming Big Publications. By the time We Refugees is published, it should be in print, but that is out of my hands and on the publisher’s timeline. ADG&SK is my attempt at a superhero story, fueled by watching too many movies. I created my own supers and created a college student who stumbles across their secret identities. You can find out more about in at https://jenniferdebie.com/.
4. In many countries, including the US, Australia, and UK there is often a stigma against and negative feeling toward refugees. What do you want people to know about refugees?
It sounds so trite, reading it in black and white: but refugees are people. They are people who escaped terrible, terrible circumstances, who have risked their lives in the hope of having something more. “Negative feelings,” fear, anger, resentment—all of those come from the lizard-brain hiding deep in all of us that dislikes adaptation and fears change. We have to be better than the lizard.
5. How does it make you feel when people in the West characterize asylum-seekers, refugees and immigrants as dangerous, causing them to want to close their borders?
It saddens me. Using a single label for all refugees and closing the borders in response is the easy route, the child slamming a door and saying no, no, no. We have to be better than the easiest, most hurtful solution. I believe people are better than that, I just pray that our institutions will catch up to that hope.
6. What is next for you?
Back to research. I’ve got chapters to write, research to conduct, and a terribly patient adviser who is slowly running out of patience.
7. Are you a descendant of refugees or displaced persons and if so, has that family heritage impacted how you view the current refugee crisis?
My great grandfather arrived in America in 1918, at the end of WWI. He was fleeing a continent absolutely cancerous with conflict, looking for the better life that so many people have been promised on American shores. He arrived without family. To my knowledge, no one traveled with him and there was no one waiting for him when he arrived. He was alone in a country larger than the war-torn continent he came from and he made it. He found work, a wife, a son. A life in a new land that is still big enough to carry the dreams of the world. A century later, I still carry the name of a refugee and that’s something that I should never forget.