The best books on refugees in or from the Middle East

Nell Gabiam Author Of The Politics of Suffering: Syria's Palestinian Refugee Camps
By Nell Gabiam

Who am I?

I developed an interest in the Middle East after taking a class on the Peoples and Cultures of the Middle East and North Africa as an undergraduate student. I later lived and worked in Kuwait for two years and traveled extensively across the Middle East, including to Syria, a country whose hospitality, history, and cultural richness left an indelible impression on me. During subsequent travel to Syria, I became acquainted with the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, in Damascus. This camp, which physically blended into its surroundings while retaining its Palestinian-ness, ignited my desire to better understand Palestinian refugee identity and the political claims at the heart of this identity. 

I wrote...

The Politics of Suffering: Syria's Palestinian Refugee Camps

By Nell Gabiam,

Book cover of The Politics of Suffering: Syria's Palestinian Refugee Camps

What is my book about?

The Politics of Suffering is based on ethnographic research in Syria and focuses on the Palestinian refugee camps of Neirab and Ein el Tal, which were singled out in the early 2000s by UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees) as the sites for experimenting with reforms meant to move away from a humanitarian, relief-based, approach to a more developmental one in Palestinian refugee camps.  

The book argues that the very suffering that the ideology and practice of development seek to eradicate in Palestinian refugee camps paradoxically acts as a political tool for keeping alive Palestinian refugee identity and advocacy of the refugees’ right to return to their Palestinian homes.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Making Refuge: Somali Bantu Refugees and Lewiston, Maine

Why did I love this book?

Making Refuge focuses on Somali Bantu refugees who were resettled in the town of Lewiston, Maine in the early 2000s. These refugees had been the focus of Besteman’s earlier research in Somalia in the 1980s. About a decade after Somalia plunged into civil war, Somali Bantus were being resettled in the United States, enabling Besteman to physically reconnect with them. One of the strengths of this book is that it provides rich historical context, giving the reader an overview of the different stages of the refugee experience: the events leading to war and displacement, life in refugee camps in Kenya, and resettlement in the United States.

Making Refuge is also one of the few books that gives ethnographic insight into the refugee resettlement process in the United States. Through its focus on the challenges faced by resettled Somali Bantus, who are Black and Muslim, it questions the assumptions underlying the idea of the United States as a multicultural “melting pot” that is naturally well-suited for refugee integration. It also provides critical insight into the global humanitarian regime that manages refugees through the provision of emergency humanitarian aid, encampment, and resettlement by highlighting Somali Bantu refugee experiences of this regime. 

By Catherine Besteman,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Making Refuge as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

How do people whose entire way of life has been destroyed and who witnessed horrible abuses against loved ones construct a new future? How do people who have survived the ravages of war and displacement rebuild their lives in a new country when their world has totally changed? In Making Refuge Catherine Besteman follows the trajectory of Somali Bantus from their homes in Somalia before the onset in 1991 of Somalia's civil war, to their displacement to Kenyan refugee camps, to their relocation in cities across the United States, to their settlement in the struggling former mill town of Lewiston,…

Book cover of The New Odyssey: The Story of the Twenty-First Century Refugee Crisis

Why did I love this book?

Kingsley’s The New Odyssey is a journalistic account of what became known during the 2015-2016 period as “Europe’s Refugee Crisis.” It brings a human face to the million or so refugees— a significant number of whom were from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq— who sought asylum in Europe by way of various irregular Mediterranean routes. By embedding himself with the refugees at the center of his book, Kingsley gives an intimate portrait of the reasons Europe became a destination for these refugees and of the violence and hardships they are subjected to at the hands of an unwelcoming Europe. The New Odyssey also provides an in-depth and nuanced portrait of the smugglers who, while by no means idealized in the book, are an easy scapegoat in European attempts to deflect responsibility for the suffering and death of migrants taking the irregular Mediterranean routes. Kingsley’s narrative balances a broad overview of the experiences of refugees trying to reach Europe with the specific story of Hashem al-Souki, a Syrian fleeing war in his country and ultimately seeking refuge in Sweden.

By Patrick Kingsley,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The New Odyssey as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On the day of his son's fourteenth birthday, Hashem al-Souki lay somewhere in the Mediterranean, crammed in a wooden dinghy. His family was relatively safe-at least for the time being-in Egypt, where they had only just settled after fleeing their war-torn Damascus home three years prior. Traversing these unforgiving waters and the treacherous terrain that would follow was worth the slim chance of securing a safe home for his children in Sweden. If he failed, at least he would fail alone.

Hashem's story is tragically common, as desperate victims continue to embark on deadly journeys in search of freedom. Tracking…

Book cover of Rescue: Refugees and the Political Crisis of Our Time

Why did I love this book?

This is another book that addresses Europe’s 2015-2016 “refugee crisis.” While Miliband also offers some insights into the experience of refugees seeking asylum in Europe, the focus of his book is on how current European policy betrays the values at the core of Europe’s recent history and self-understanding. Miliband weaves analysis of the predicament of mostly Middle Eastern and African refugees attempting to reach Europe through irregular Mediterranean routes with reflection on his parents’ experience as Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany and seeking protection in England in the 1940s. The strength of Rescue is that it provides the reader with multiple frames of reference for thinking about what ought to be Europe’s response toward contemporary refugees, a significant number of whom are Muslims from the Middle East. 

By David Miliband,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Rescue as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

We are in the midst of a global refugee crisis. Sixty five million people are fleeing for their lives. The choices are urgent, not just for them but for all of us. What can we possibly do to help?

With compassion and clarity, David Miliband shows why we should care and how we can make a difference. He takes us from war zones in the Middle East to peaceful suburbs in America to explain the crisis and show what can be done, not just by governments with the power to change policy but by citizens with the urge to change…

Book cover of Reluctant Reception: Refugees, Migration and Governance in the Middle East and North Africa

Why did I love this book?

Reluctant Reception is a worthwhile read in that it addresses refugee policy from the perspective of Egypt, Morocco, and Turkey, three states located in the Middle East and North Africa. Norman argues that, like other states in the Global South, these states are often perceived as transit countries for migrants and refugees, who ultimately want to reach Europe. Norman shows, however, that these states’ lack of a strong formalized refugee policy hides the fact that political and economic interests play a major role in informing their response to migrants and refugees.

Norman also shows that apparent disinterest in migration is part of a deliberate strategy that countries in the Global South use in order to have international organizations, as well as Western governments (the latter being keen on limiting migration from the Global South), provide for the basic costs of hosting migrants and refugees. Reluctant Reception not only provides compelling insights into immigration policy in the Middle East and North Africa but also into the actual populations migrating within the region and the differential treatment that they sometimes face.

By Kelsey P. Norman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Reluctant Reception as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Seeking to understand why host states treat migrants and refugees inclusively, exclusively, or without any direct engagement, Kelsey P. Norman offers this original, comparative analysis of the politics of asylum seeking and migration in the Middle East and North Africa. While current classifications of migrant and refugee engagement in the Global South mistake the absence of formal policy and law for neglect, Reluctant Reception proposes the concept of 'strategic indifference', where states proclaim to be indifferent toward migrants and refugees, thereby inviting international organizations and local NGOs to step in and provide services on the state's behalf. Using the cases…

Book cover of Syrian Women Refugees: Personal Accounts of Transition

Why did I love this book?

Syrian Women Refugees is a good complement to the other books on this list because the stories that make up the book move beyond the violence, trauma, and suffering that the reader might expect from a book on refugees displaced by war. The book reads more like a story of nine Syrian women, who also happen to have been displaced by the Syrian war and to have become refugees. The women’s narratives take us into their childhood, their everyday life in pre-war Syria, and their experiences adapting to their new host countries. Through these women’s stories, which focus on topics like religion, family life, and gender dynamics, the reader gets rich cultural insight into life in Syria as well as in the host country. The reader also gets insight into the women’s own self-understanding and the extent to which war and forced displacement have impacted this understanding.

Because the broader context of the Syrian uprisings and subsequent war only appear in snippets, the reader will learn rather little about these events. The strength of this book, however, is that it reminds us that refugees are more than the events that forced them to cross borders, that their humanity and their womanhood, while shaped by these events, are not reducible to the category of “refugee.” 

By Ozlem Ezer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Syrian Women Refugees as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Based on original interviews, this book relates the experiences of nine Syrian women refugees and their perspectives on a range of subjects. Each narrative reveals a displaced woman's concept of the self in relation to memory, history, trauma and reconciliation within familial, international and cultural contexts. Their stories contribute to building bonds and promoting trust between locals and "strangers" who are often defined only by their status as refugees, and serve as a timely reminder that we too can become refugees through a sudden turn of events.

5 book lists we think you will like!

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