But it occurred to me this week that the right to vote is not the only thing that makes America a great place. The security and relative prosperity we enjoy here are revered the world over.
Don’t believe me? Think our country is going downhill toward a land of crime, economic imbalance and ruin? You might be right, but ask a refugee who has seen family members dragged off in the middle of the night by soldiers, never to see them again. Or another who has lived for months with small children in a refugee camp where it is difficult to tell the difference between food and feces because both are covered with flies.
Author and New York Times reporter Warren St. John talked to people like this and told a magical story in the process. His book “Outcasts United” came out in 2009 and this year was assigned to freshmen at the University of Nevada, Reno for discussion at orientation. I was asked to read the book and help lead a discussion group about it.
I began reading the book several months before the orientation so I’d be done on time, but I could have started reading the night before because it was impossible to put the book down. St. John did an amazing job of telling the stories of the refugees who had been relocated to the town of Clarkston, Georgia. They were brought to America by a common need to escape their home countries and then together by a woman from Jordan who coached their children’s soccer team.
I spoke to St. John this week in advance of his appearance at the UNR campus Nov. 16 to talk to students further about his book. I wanted to talk to him because I so admired his work and, as a fellow storyteller, wanted to find out how he did it.
He told me about how it was difficult to gain the confidence of these refugees, who had lived their whole lives being suspicious of reporters — suspicious of just about anyone with a notepad asking questions, actually. He said the refugees’ new lives in poor, crime-filled neighborhoods in Clarkston are a far cry from the danger of living in a refugee camp, but the gunshots at night are painful reminders of what they left behind.
In escaping one kind of struggle, he said, the refugees found another in the United States. It is hard to believe that working a dirty job at a poultry plant, only to go home to a one-
bedroom apartment with five children and not enough food would be an improvement, but for some of these people it was. While things could seem bleak for them now, I truly believe our American system will give these refugees the chance for something better. It could take a generation or three for these families to see the benefit, but the opportunity is there. The lessons these refugee children received on the soccer field from their refugee coach are similar to those being taught on athletic fields all over the country and are keys to success in life: hard work, determination, teamwork, how to win and how to lose.
In the scheme of their lives, voting is low on these refugees’ priority lists. In fact, for many refugees voting is a concept that is not part of their realities. As new residents of the United States, however, one day it will be their right to cast a ballot. Like waves of refugees who have come to our shores before, they will one day realize their collective power at the polls. Actually, that day may come sooner than later as it is predicted that America is quickly becoming a country where the racial minority is turning into a power majority. Some folks with white skin see that as a scary thing, perhaps because it will force them to work with people of other ethnicities instead of against them.
St. John told me part of why many of these refugees talked to him was a desire for the rest of America to understand them. His personal desire to understand is what drove him to spend so much time with these people and get the detail needed to write his wonderful book. His work helped me better understand them and I am proud to join him in similar (albeit less impressive) endeavors in journalism — another aspect of American democracy that we can discuss another day.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to finish an article about candidates for office. Just three days and counting!
Nathan Orme is the editor of the Sparks Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.