The Middle of Everywhere: Helping Refugees enter the American Community by Mary Pipher
Book Overview by Rachael Simmons
“We all suffer. Pain and sorrow find a niche in every house-hold…All of us have lost people we love. We have been betrayed or abandoned. We have made serious mistakes and needed to forgive ourselves…
Just as suffering is universal, so are systems of healing. All cultures have wisdom to offer their own members and the rest of us.” (pg. 276)
By sharing stories of families and individuals from Afghanistan, Bosnia, Iraq, Vietnam, and many others, Mary Pipher, an anthropologist, psychologist, and bestselling author, offers insight into the challenges and hardships faced by survivors who land in the middle of nowhere. Pipher tells us that this is a “book written for ordinary people who live in communities with refugees” with the hope that it will “open the eyes of ordinary Americans and allow them to see refugees with knowledge, empathy and respect.” At the same time she tells us that this book is written for refugees as a “guide to America” with the warning that this land of opportunities comes with “new dangers and perils” (p. 20). Pipher alerts us that “Refugees come from a fire into a fire,” and helps her readers realize that “The ways people are damaged are also the ways they are made strong” (p. 21). Pipher’s message is one hope with invaluable insights into healing for us all.
The Middle of Everywhere includes a foreword and preface to provide context to the book as a whole. The book is divided into three major sections and has a series of useful appendices. In part one, “Hidden in Plain Sight,” Pipher describes how refugees are placed in America, specifically in her hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska where her interviewees now reside. In these stories of refugees, Pipher reveals the evolving demographics of Lincoln and how quickly this middle-American city, once a land of diversity of European descent, is becoming home to those fleeing the fires in other lands. She also talks about “cultural collisions,” (pg. 3) and how life in America can be very confusing for many refugees. Driving a car for instance, is something that many refugees have never had to do in their homeland, and something that many Americans take for granted. Pipher describes one woman she was working with, and how she thought that people were supposed to stop directly under the traffic lights. A traffic light is a seemingly simple object to many of us, and the rules surrounding them seem straightforward; however, many of us have been riding in cars since the day we were born. Imagine what driving must be like for someone who has never seen a car!
Part two takes readers through different stages of life, describing what kinds of hardships are experienced by children, teens and adults. Pipher explains that school is often the first time that young children will be separated from their families. For refugee children, not only are they separated from their family during the day, but they are also experiencing culture shock. Pipher goes on to describe ten children in an ESL classroom, and how their teacher and school experience helped them transition into their new lives.
Teenagers however, may have a somewhat different struggle. Pipher writes,
“American adolescence is about individuation, risk taking, and experimentation. Our concept of adolescence is discordant with the values of many cultures…Refugees are amazed by how American teenagers treat their parents and grandparents. Many of the ELL teens plan to live at home until they are married. Some hope to live all of their lives with their families. And yet, at school, like all American teenagers, they learn to think for themselves. In fact, the major identity struggles of refugee tens involve finding balance between independence and their obligations to family and community.” (pgs. 166-167)
Finding identity is a struggle for most teens. However, as Pipher points out, refugee teens are trying to find their identity between two worlds: that of their native cultures, and that of the American culture surrounding them. The last life cycle that Pipher describes is adulthood. Pipher describes how adults must learn how to try to balance work, relationships, education and identity. She says that often times young adults are the primary wage earners for their families. Many times they want to go to school, but after age 21, refugees are no longer allowed to attend public high schools and must learn how to work within the college and university systems. Pipher says that adults tend to be less adept at cultural switching, and struggle with the same identity crisis that many teens do. Many young adults may also be interested in dating, or finding a marriage partner, however with work, school (if they are able to attend), and taking care of their families, adults aren’t left with much time or energy.
Part three is where Pipher talks about healing, and what readers can learn from the refugees’ stories. She points out aspects and characteristics that made many of the refugees successful in their transitions into America. She discusses laughter, music, prayer, touch, forgiveness, faith, talking and sharing as universal methods of healing that all peoples can benefit from.
The Middle of Everywhere is a touching collection of stories that will give readers an appreciation for refugees around the world, and how transitioning into a new country can be a great challenge. Pipher tells these stories through her own perspective, and infuses a variety of emotions throughout the book. At times the stories are humorous, other times tragic, and many times the stories are inspirational and full of hope. The refugees’ stories will instill a gratefulness of the simple things we often take for granted. Readers will learn how they can become “cultural brokers” and help newcomers adjust to their new home.
Based on Fry’s readability graph, The Middle of Everywhere would be appropriate for 7-9th graders; however, based on the content that Pipher addresses, it could be used for 10th-12th graders as well. The language is fairly easy to read and understand; however, the content is dense, and there are complex implications and issues that could be addressed within each section. The book is written in such a way that excerpts can be easily selected. Within each part of the book, there are subheadings to divide the stories and content. It is important to note that some of the stories in the book discuss several traumatic events as experienced by refugees; these sections will require more background knowledge and scaffolding before the students can begin reading. There are several important themes that teachers and students could discuss through readings from The Middle of Everywhere, such as culture, identity, resiliency and healing.
Chapter 1, Cultural Collisions on the Great Plains, is a great section to begin discussing culture and identity. The chapter begins with an “I am from” poem written by the author. The poem reflects Pipher’s own perspectives and experiences on where she is from, and how she has been shaped by these experiences. Within the chapter, Pipher talks about growing up in Lincoln, and how Lincoln has evolved. She talks about her culture in relation to the cultures around her. Students could read this section, and begin writing their own “I am from poems” discussing their own experiences growing up, and how certain aspects of their lives may have shaped them. This would also be a good place to discuss how other cultures can teach us about our own, and that noticing something “different” means noticing something about yourself and your own culture.
The story entitled “State Fair,” on page 41, is a very short account that shows the meaning of cultural context. The author takes a family to see a play called “State Fair;” however, the family does not understand the play because so much of the story was based on American-specific language and rituals. After reading this short story, students could discuss why the family had difficulties understanding the play. Students could think about their own culture, and identify which aspects of culture are taught or learned. They could also discuss how they could teach these things to someone else, such as a new student. Appendix 1 also includes an outline on becoming a cultural broker. Students could review this appendix, and expand on it by adding other ways that they could become cultural brokers within their own school/community.
The Middle of Everywhere also opens with a foreword about 9/11, and a preface called “Ellis Island.” These two sections are good resources for social studies teachers who are interested in addressing immigration issues during the “war on terror.” This book also includes 2 other appendices that could be helpful to teachers and students. Appendix 2 discusses working with English Language Learners, with some helpful tips on how to communicate appropriately. This is also an important aspect to becoming a cultural broker, and students and teachers may want to review this appendix if they plan on working or volunteering with English Language Learners. Appendix 3 is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is an important resource for any classroom. Students could examine the Declaration as background information, or a preface to reading any of the selections from the book. Then once a selection from the book has been chosen, students could identify which human rights the refugees had been deprived of, and determine whether they had gained more human rights by moving to the United States.
Pipher, Mary. (2002) The Middle of Everywhere; Helping Refugees enter the American Community. Florida: Harcourt, Inc. http://www.marypipher.net/Mary_Pipher/Home.html