Every day, the small lobby of the dilapidated building filled with displaced people, men and women suffering dislocation, survivors of violence in the place they fled and inhabitants of uncertainty in the place they’d fled to. They brought with them stories of harrowing journeys, lost friends and family, threats of forced conscription and fears of knocks on the door at night. All had come from countries experiencing conflict. Some carried literal and horrific scars, physical manifestations of the cruelty some people wield against others.
One woman who came had been kidnapped, held in a garage and tortured, until her name was mentioned by an archbishop whose homily was broadcast over the radio. She was eventually released. The archbishop Romero was later assassinated while preparing the Eucharist during mass. One man was missing part of a finger, cut away little by little by an interrogator seeking information or absolute obedience.
For three years, I worked for an agency providing legal services to refugees from Central America. The experience informed my first novel, Water from the Moon, the novel that taught me to write. I set the themes—of cruelty, oppression, lack of human rights—in the United States to make them more familiar and not distant. I didn’t write from direct experience, but through the stories of others. Because of that, I don’t know when I will consider the novel finished.
“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed.” Elie Wiesel wrote this in his acclaimed memoir, Night. The tremendous suffering and loss he experienced came during the Holocaust. His parents and one of his three sisters did not survive. He spoke with the authority of that experience to regularly remind us of those living in oppressive circumstances and the importance of speaking out and taking sides.
Elie Wiesel told us, “Words are gestures. Words are offerings.” In Night, he used his words to remind us, “In the end, it is all about memory, its sources and its magnitude, and, of course, its consequences.”