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.

The books I picked & why

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Making Refuge: Somali Bantu Refugees and Lewiston, Maine

By Catherine Besteman,

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

Why 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. 


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

By Patrick Kingsley,

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

Why 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.


Rescue: Refugees and the Political Crisis of Our Time

By David Miliband,

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

Why 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. 


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

By Kelsey P. Norman,

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

Why 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.


Syrian Women Refugees: Personal Accounts of Transition

By Ozlem Ezer,

Book cover of Syrian Women Refugees: Personal Accounts of Transition

Why 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.” 


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