The Middle of Everywhere: Helping Refugees Enter the American Community
by Mary Pipher

Published: 2003-07-01
Paperback : 416 pages
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Over the past decade, Mary Pipher has been a great source of wisdom, helping us to better understand our family members. Now she connects us with the newest members of the American family--refugees. In cities all over the country, refugees arrive daily. Lost Boys from Sudan, survivors ...
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Over the past decade, Mary Pipher has been a great source of wisdom, helping us to better understand our family members. Now she connects us with the newest members of the American family--refugees. In cities all over the country, refugees arrive daily. Lost Boys from Sudan, survivors from Kosovo, families fleeing Afghanistan and Vietnam: they come with nothing but the desire to experience the American dream. Their endurance in the face of tragedy and their ability to hold on to the virtues of family, love, and joy are a lesson for Americans. Their stories will make you laugh and weep--and give you a deeper understanding of the wider world in which we live.
The Middle of Everywhere moves beyond the headlines into the homes of refugees from around the world. Working as a cultural broker, teacher, and therapist, Mary Pipher has once again opened our eyes--and our hearts--to those with whom we share the future.

Editorial Review

Though Lincoln, Nebraska, seems a strange gathering place for refugees from all corners of the globe, it is the setting for Mary Pipher's The Middle of Everywhere, an ardent, anecdotal, and at times moving study of some new arrivals to the United States. Pipher emphasizes the resiliency of the refugees--from Laos, Bosnia, Northern Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan, and the former Soviet Union--whose homeland tales of death, privation, torture, and multi-pronged persecution vary only in the details. In America the refugees must learn a new language and pick their way among the temptations and wonders of a complex land. Does a Publishers Clearing House notice mean one is a millionaire? What is aluminum foil? Is an overdue library book a jailable offense? Pipher visits classrooms and homes and offers extended portraits of a female family of Kurds and a bewildered clan of Sudanese, as well as snapshots of many other refugees. She is a harsh critic of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and an advocate of "cultural brokers"--the social adjustment equivalent of practical nurses. --H. O'Billovich



I am from Avis and Frank, Agnes and Fred, Glessie May and Mark.
From the Ozark Mountains and the high plains of Eastern Colorado,
From mountain snowmelt and lazy southern creeks filled with water moccasins.
I am from oatmeal eaters, gizzard eaters, haggis and raccoon eaters.
I'm from craziness, darkness, sensuality, and humor.
From intense do-gooders struggling through ranch winters in the 1920s.
I'm from "If you can't say anything nice about someone don't say anything" and "Pretty is as pretty does" and "Shit-mucklety brown" and "Damn it all to hell."
I'm from no-dancing-or-drinking Methodists, but cards were okay except on Sunday, and from tent-meeting Holy Rollers,
From farmers, soldiers, bootleggers, and teachers.
I'm from Schwinn girl's bike, 1950 Mercury two-door, and West Side Story.
I'm from coyotes, baby field mice, chlorinous swimming pools,
Milky Way and harvest moon over Nebraska cornfields.
I'm from muddy Platte and Republican,
from cottonwood and mulberry, tumbleweed and switchgrass
from Willa Cather, Walt Whitman, and Janis Joplin,
My own sweet dance unfolding against a cast of women in aprons and barefoot men in overalls.

As a girl in Beaver City, I played the globe game. Sitting outside in the thick yellow weeds, or at the kitchen table while my father made bean soup, I would shut my eyes, put my finger on the globe, and spin it. Then I would open my eyes and imagine what it was like in whatever spot my finger was touching. What were the streets like, the sounds, the colors, the smells? What were the people doing there right now? ... view entire excerpt...

Discussion Questions

Questions from the Publisher's Teaching Guide:

1. In the Foreword to The Middle of Everywhere, Mary Pipher discusses how September 11 changed the way she thought and felt about this book (since she had finished writing it just before that tragic Tuesday morning). How did September 11 affect this author? And what does she mean by saying that "The Middle of Everywhere is my way to chop wood and carry water"?

2. In the book's Prelude, Pipher points out an striking image she saw on Ellis Island: "a tree whose branches were countries and whose leaves were words." Revisit this passage. Which of these words did you recognize? Which were new to you? And what point is Pipher making about the links between language, culture, and experience in America?

3. What do we learn in the opening pages about the setting of this book, the Midwestern city where it takes place? Look again at Pipher's description of contemporary Lincoln, Nebraska (in Chapter 1). Where does the book's title come from? How has Lincoln changed in recent times? Be as specific as you can. And why has it thus changed?

4. What is a refugee? How does the United Nations define one? (See Chapter 1.)

5. In Chapter 2, Pipher says she discovered that a certain recent Hollywood movie is often "a favorite of refugees." Which movie is it? And why does she think it is so popular amid refugees?

6. Near the conclusion of Chapter 2, Pipher writes: "There are two common refugee beliefs about America." Identify these two beliefs, explain why refugees hold them. Are they true? False? Both? Explain.

7. Linh is a young woman from Vietnam whom we first encounter in Chapter 3. After learning of Linh and her family's ongoing adjustment to American life, what differences can you articulate between family as a Western construct and family as a part of more traditional cultures?

8. Explain in detail why driving is so often a problem for newcomers and refugees in America. (See Chapter 4 and elsewhere.)

9. How would you summarize Pipher's experiences at Sycamore Elementary School (see Chapter 5)? Describe the physical and educational environment of the school itself--including Grace, the English as Learned Language teacher whom Pipher befriends--and then describe each of the ten pupils on Pipher's abridged roster. In each case, reflect on the social ability, cultural background, and academic achievement of the student in question.

10. In Chapter 6, we "sit-in" (alongside Pipher) on a high school ELL class taught by a composite instructor known as Mrs. Kaye. Why does Mrs. Kaye decide not to return to this school next year? How do the students react to her news? And how have they changed, individually and collectively, over the course of their time in Mrs. Kaye's classroom?

11. "In some ways, young adults are our most vulnerable newcomers," Pipher states in Chapter 7. Recount the stories of Thiep and of "the three Iraqis" so as to illustrate this key point about vulnerability and refugees.

12. One of the women Pipher converses with at length in Chapter 8 is Nessima. Where is she from? How old is she? What does she do in Lincoln to a earn a paycheck? What does Nessima like about America, and what does she dislike? Describe her personality, her socio-political views, her family, her home life, and her "mixed feelings about Nebraska."

13. Why do Pipher and her husband decide to act as "an American mom and dad" to the family from Kenya's Kakuma Refugee Camp? And what does being such a "parent" call for in this scenario? (See Chapter 9.)

14. In Chapter 10, Pipher discusses the twelve "attributes of resilience" that she believes all refugees must possess in order to adjust successfully to life in America. Looking back over this list, which individuals from throughout the book would you assign to each of these attributes as particularly representative or especially symbolic?

15. What does Pipher mean by the term "JPI" (as she writes in Chapter 12)? How does this acronym reflect the ways in which most Americans perceive or imagine refugees today?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

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  "Various stories of how refugees come to America, specifically to LIncoln, Nebraska."by Cooper1277 (see profile) 02/23/07

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