On Sept. 20, President Barack Obama spread a message at the Leaders Summit on Refugees at the United Nations about welcoming refugees openly and recognizing they are products of outstanding circumstances.
Obama’s deliberate use of “refugee” stands out to Harriet Levin Millan because she was not used to hearing that word.
Millan, director of the certificate program in writing and publishing at Drexel University, just came out with How Fast Can You Run (available Oct. 28), a fictional novel based on the nonfictional life of Michael Majok Kuch, a Sudanese refugee. Millan took some creative license with characters, but the historical events in the novel are nonfiction.
An associate English professor, Millan, who grew up in Northeast Philadelphia and had her Bat Mitzvah at the now-closed Temple Sholom, also led Drexel’s peer tutors program. She got her students involved in community projects — one of which was One Book, One Philadelphia.
In 2008, the One Book choice was What Is the What by Dave Eggers, about Valentino Achak Deng, one of the so-called “lost boys” of Sudan.
Millan recalled getting a phone call from Gerri Trooskin, the director of One Book, who had an idea for a writing project for Millan’s students.
“She wanted me to choose 10 of my peer tutors and she would hook us up with 10 Sudanese refugees, and she wanted them to interview the Sudanese refugees,” Millan said. “At the time, like, I didn’t even know where Sudan was on the map and the word ‘refugee’ to me sounded so rude, because people didn’t really use the word refugee. … And even my own students didn’t use the word refugee. I had students from Vietnam, Laos, Somalia, Ethiopia — they didn’t even like to call themselves immigrants.”
She chose 10 students who then met with the Sudanese refugees and learned their stories, and Millan found a parallel within her own life. Her grandparents escaped pogroms and came to America but didn’t call themselves refugees, and Millan didn’t know much about them.
The students talked with the refugees and heard the horrors they went through, leaving their villages and families to escape war. One of them, Michael Majok Kuch, asked Millan if he could talk with her more and have her write a story about his life.
“That’s how this book grew,” Millan said, “and I just jumped at the opportunity because when I met these 10 refugees, I felt like I was meeting my grandparents’ young selves.”
Kuch and Millan began meeting in coffee shops, Kuch’s home, Millan’s home and other places to get to know each other and share their stories.
Millan learned that a 5-year-old Kuch was separated from his family and forced to flee his burning village and make his way to refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya. He searched for his mother throughout the years of his migration, only to much later discover she’d been in the same refugee camp as him for about seven years.
The book that tells this remarkable story is divided into three parts of Kuch’s life — from the refugee camps to being granted political asylum in America in 2001 and adjusting to a new life. Though names were changed in the book, Millan and her own family played an integral role in Kuch’s (spoiler alert) reunion with his mother.
Millan hopes this book gives people a different look at refugees.
“People have bad connotations of refugees,” she said. “When you picture a refugee, you picture somebody who’s very thin, somebody who’s very ill, shoddy clothes, maybe their eyes are lowered, they’re treated as less than human, they’re not welcome. … So the refugee image is not a good one, and I wanted to show the spirit of survival. What I found was that Michael was a very positive person and [so were] all the refugees I met. This positivity was very inspiring.”
As she and Kuch worked on the book, Kuch had one request: He did not want to be called a “lost boy,” a term they both felt romanticized and whitewashed the reality.
“The refugee narrative is an important one and that also attempted to erase it,” Millan said. “It made it seem like it was a Peter Pan (which ‘lost boy’ comes from) adventure story, where these kids were led through the forest where lions could eat them and they were starving and naked and barefoot. But what that ‘lost boy’ narrative left out is something really important: The lost boys weren’t the only ones that did that walk. All the refugees did.”
For Millan, working on this book changed her life. She said she went from living in a small sphere in her home in Bryn Mawr to becoming an activist. She has since connected her students with an orphanage in Haiti, and her family has gotten involved, too, with the creation of an organization called the Reunion Project.
When her son, Josh, learned Kuch hadn’t seen his mother since he was 5 years old, he felt compelled to do something. A student at Harriton High School at the time, Josh worked with his teachers to raise money to send Kuch to Australia, where Kuch’s mother had been given asylum.
Through the Millan family and the community’s efforts, they were able to send Kuch to see his mother as well as reunite four others with their mothers through a Reunion Project essay contest.
With the book release, Millan is doing speaking engagements, sometimes even with Kuch, who is back from South Sudan where he lives and works until January. On Oct. 30, Millan and Kuch will appear at Har Zion Temple at 10:30 a.m.
How Fast Can You Run will be available on Amazon, and a list of Millan’s upcoming appearances can be found on her website, harrietlevinmillan.com.
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