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Q. How did this book come about?

A. To answer that, I have to step back and talk about my work as a volunteer with a small nonprofit in Portland, Oregon, called The Immigrant Story ( That organization’s founder, a former Intel engineer named Sankar Raman, is one of the most persuasive people I know. I started out editing the work of college students from around the Northwest who write profiles of immigrants in daily life. Before I knew it, Sankar was sending me out to do longer stories of my own, starting with a profile of Les and Eva Aigner, Holocaust survivors from Hungary. Next came a story about a remarkable man named Emmanuel Turaturanye, a Tutsi who somehow managed to escape the slaughters of the Rwandan genocide that killed nearly everyone else in his large, extended family. And so the stories continued, each one a portrait in courage, resilience and—against all odds—hope. One day Sankar, in his usual persuasive fashion, said, “we should turn these stories into a book.” When he said “we,” what he meant was: me. 

Q. How did you choose the subjects for your book?

A. At The Immigrant Story, we have now interviewed and profiled more than 50 survivors of Holocaust, genocide and the atrocities of war. We have strived to make sure that as best as possible, these conflicts reflected the entire globe—because, sadly, cruelty on the part of humans to other humans seems to be a universal phenomenon. We were not entirely successful in this effort. Survivors of certain conflicts, some of them ongoing, were hesitant to speak to us for fear of jeopardizing family members in their home countries. Others were impossible to locate, at least within the Pacific Northwest. Among those who did speak to us—and by the way, all of them did so willingly—we sought to attain geographic and geo-political representation. We also chose only those stories whose facts and details we could verify. 


Q. Did you ever think you might be re-traumatizing these people by asking them to tell their stories?

A. Certainly we discussed this possibility. We made it clear with each interview that participation was entirely voluntary, and if at any time, the subjects felt uncomfortable, we could conclude the interview. But far from reluctance, what we encountered was universal enthusiasm. These men and women wanted their stories heard. They wanted the rest of the world to hear first-hand accounts of the horrors inflicted on them and others who had endured barbaric torture. Over and over, these survivors told us that they wanted to make sure their stories were part of the historical record. In particular, they wanted Americans to understand some of the international conflicts that had taken place in regions some Americans might struggle to locate on a map—for instance, Myanmar. “I couldn’t wait to tell my story,” said Saron Khut, a survivor of the Cambodian killing fields. Les and Eva Aigner, survivors of the Nazi Holocaust in Hungary, said they spoke out in defiance of Holocaust deniers. Iraqi psychiatrist Baher Butti said Americans needed to understand that the violent, repressive politics in Iraq did not end with the execution of Saddam Hussein.


Q. Wasn’t it depressing, writing about such awful events?

A. On the contrary, every single one of these stories is filled with hope—something that sometimes feels in short supply these days. I almost hesitate to use the word “inspirational,” because it sounds like a category for grocery-store greeting cards. But when you read these stories, I’m pretty sure you can’t help but marvel at the determination and strength of character these men and women were able to muster under the most daunting of circumstances.


Q. Determination and strength of character. What other common traits did you find among your subjects?

A. I have to start by talking about resilience. Look this word up in the dictionary and you will see that it means the ability to bounce back from setbacks. It means toughness. It means elasticity—being able to bend and stretch in order to adapt to challenging and/or quickly-changing circumstances. Unremitting courage was another quality we encountered, over and over. Our subjects did not expect miracles to take place. But they never stopped believing that miracles were possible. We interviewed Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Catholics. There was no common religion. But all of them told us that a belief in something greater than themselves kept them going. Many of our subjects held on to a kind of black humor—that is, they were able to laugh at situations that might on their surfaces seem morbid. For instance, Les Aigner laughed at his own naivete when he told the story of arriving at Auschwitz at age 15 and mistaking the crematorium smokestacks for the camp’s bakery. Sivheng Ung could not help but laugh at how ridiculous it was that her mother-in-law insisted on carrying their television—and Sivheng’s own fancy wedding shoes—as they were marched out of Phnom Penh by the Khmer Rouge. And finally, all of these men and women were resoundingly grateful for the freedoms and opportunities that awaited them when they came to America. Among those who have attained U.S. citizenship, not one of them ever misses a chance to vote.


Q. All of your subjects reside in Oregon. How does the message of this book extend beyond state lines?

A. In a way it’s incidental that they all live in the beautiful state of Oregon. Their experiences are universal. To borrow from Tina Turner, what’s state lines got to do with it? And just for full disclosure, one of our subjects does live in Washington state.


Q. What are your hopes for this book?

A. This is going to sound really wide-eyed and dreamy. But I hope this book will advance a national dialogue around immigrants and immigration that sometimes becomes both strident and, frankly, toxic. I hope these survivors can impart lessons about overcoming unimaginable adversity—and also, about appreciation for the democracy we have created in this country. Not one of these survivors takes one day of freedom for granted. The survival lessons I learned from these men and women have made a big difference in my life. I hope they can do the same for others.

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