WMU News

War refugees in U.S. at heart of new book

May 28, 1999

KALAMAZOO -- Albanian refugees from Kosovo are beginning to arrive in America, but it isn't the first time those victimized by ethnic cleansing in Europe have been brought to safe haven on American soil.

In 1944, during World War II, the United States brought just over 980 refugees -- most Jewish -- from Europe to an Emergency Refugee Center outside of Oswego, N.Y. The experiences of those in the U.S.' only wartime camp for refugees is told through the eyes of two teenagers in a new book written by Dr. Miriam Bat-Ami, an associate professor of English at Western Michigan University.

A novel written for young adults, "Two Suns in the Sky" was recently published by Front Street/Cricket Books of Chicago. This is Bat-Ami's fourth book and is based on an event in American history that relatively few people know about.

Located at the site of Fort Ontario, a decommissioned army base, the Emergency Refugee Center served as a holding center for refugees until plans were finalized for their return to Europe or resettlement in the United States. While many of the refugees had escaped imprisonment in concentration camps in Europe, what they found at the center was eerily reminiscent. The camp was surrounded by a six-foot fence topped with barbed wire and with a gate manned by armed guards.

Bat-Ami spent nearly eight months doing research for the book including reading historical documents and newspaper accounts and interviewing a dozen of the surviving refugees.

"Nearly every fact about the camp in this book was either told to me, heard on tapes or read by me," says Bat-Ami. "The refugees have stories to tell that resonate of times today. Many refugees left careers, money, their property and communities and were filled with anguish over the fate of relatives and friends who mysteriously disappeared. In spite of the less-than-ideal conditions in which they were housed, the camp did allow the refugees to make new lives."

On June 12, about 20 of the camp's surviving refugees will return for a reunion marking the 55th anniversary of their interment there. Bat-Ami will be present at the reunion and will give a reading from her book at 2:30 p.m. on that day at River's End Bookstore in Oswego.

Bat-Ami says that one impetus for writing "Two Suns in the Sky" was that, although there has been an attempt to set up a museum at the fort, most Americans, including citizens of Oswego, know nothing about the center. This is especially true of today's young adults, for whom Bat-Ami's book attempts to bring a very real and repeatable event from history to life.

The book focuses on the romantic relationship between Chris, a teenage girl from Oswego and Adam, a Yugoslavian Jewish refugee at the camp, and the issues that arise when their families object to their relationship. Also depicted in the story are accounts of the generosity and prejudices of the townspeople toward the refugees as well as subplots involving Chris' family members fighting in the war and Adam's father and brother who are still in Europe.

A pivotal symbol in the book, and in real-life accounts of the camp, is the fence that surrounds the center.

"The fence was an enormously emotional issue for the refugees and the town's residents," Bat-Ami says. "The refugees, who thought they'd find freedom in America, couldn't understand why the fence was there. At the same time, the country was gripped with paranoia about spies and other fears."

As a result, a hole under the fence developed, allowing refugees and residents to sneak in and out of the center. That hole is prominent in developing the relationship between Chris and Adam. This is Bat-Ami's first experience writing a romance, but she explains that the romantic relationship was important in telling the story of the center.

"I thought that through a love story I could speak to my readers about some things which transcend time, such as the need for freedom and the responsibility we all have to each other," she explains. "Today's high school and college students are cynical. Through Adam and Chris, I wanted to show that every positive act matters. Opening yourself up to someone else and experiencing love can give you the strength to act."

Media contact: Marie Lee, 616 387-8400, marie.lee@wmich.edu

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