Capturing the Refugee Crisis, One Word at a Time

From surveying the remnants of a car bomb blast in Lebanon, to reflecting on the overpacked Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, Hunter College Distinguished Professor Tom Sleigh has used the razor-edged precision of language to cover and contemplate some of the world’s most war-torn areas.

Beginning in the mid-aughts, the poet turned reporter began traveling to areas across the Middle East and East Africa in order to observe conflicts and their aftermath. Those essays and reported pieces have now been collected in a new book from Graywolf Press, The Land Between Two Rivers: Writing in an Age of Refugees.

With the deft eye of a poet, Sleigh focused on Qana, Mogadishu, Baghdad, and other cities where people were caught in the confusing nexus between one land and another. He trained his pen to pinpoint the daily lives of refugees at a time when they navigated what he described as “this calculus between the awful and the ordinary.” Sleigh said in an interview, “I’m interested in the people who are more or less helpless in these situations.”

In particular, Sleigh wrestled with how language functions under the weight of such overwhelming trauma, and what happens to the people caught in the middle of seemingly never-ending violence. Speaking about a Lebanese ambulance driver turned guide whom he met during an early assignment, Sleigh recounted how emotional the man became when he returned to a site of former violence. One year prior, he’d worked the area, placing body parts into body bags following a series of explosions. “I said, ‘Hey, you don’t have to talk about this if you don’t want to,’” Sleigh said. “He looked at me, and said, ‘I’ll tell you about what happened, but you have got to promise to write it down. You have got to promise to tell my story.’ That’s a tall order for an outsider, but I wanted to honor that in whatever way I could.”

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Book Cover: 'The Land between Two Rivers
Writing in an Age of Refugees' by Tom Sleigh
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The Land between Two Rivers: Writing in an Age of Refugees
Graywolf Press, 2018

Work By
Tom Sleigh (Distinguished Professor, English) | Profile 1

Colleges and Schools
Hunter College

Bonus Content
“A Traveler to Troubled Lands, Called to Bear Witness” (The New York Times)

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