By Gabriele M. Lashly

My husband was at his favorite Starbucks last April. Some friendly person offered him a free book. Telling them he was not interested in religious tracts, my husband was surprised to learn it was National Book Day and no, this book was literature. Still somewhat leery, he accepted a book called “Little Bee” by Chris Cleave. He read it, was riveted, and passed it on to me. I had seen the book at the bookseller but assumed it was a “chick flick” based on the title. As the old saying goes, never judge a book by its cover. Actually, instead of having the silhouette of a lovely young woman, the cover should contain a warning in bold “contents under pressure, highly explosive.”

Based on the story of a teenage refugee from Nigeria, the narrative is a highly poetic and elegantly written story about survival in the world of refugees. Nigeria, a former British colony, is one of the world’s largest oil producers, but the industry has unwanted side effects. The trade in stolen oil has fueled violence and corruption. Few Nigerians, including those in oil-producing areas, have benefited from the oil wealth. The village in which Little Bee lived was situated on top of an oil field – with unfortunate consequences.

Little Bee was held in an immigration detention center in England for more than two years. The story is told from her perspective and that of Sarah, the posh editor of a London fashion magazine, each in a distinct voice. The narrative goes back and forth between Little Bee’s experiences with the British immigration system, the fateful and horrific encounter of Little Bee and her sister with Sarah and her husband on a beach in Nigeria, and the repercussions that encounter has for all involved, including Sarah’s Batman-clad four-year-old son. The moral choices presented have the character of Greek tragedy, including murder, suicide, depression, and adultery.

The story is so riveting and cleverly constructed that the political implications almost catch the reader unaware, as it is also a devastating attack on the massive failure of compassion for the world of refugees. Chris Cleave, the British author, had the idea of writing of Little Bee after reading a newspaper article about a refugee father. The father committed suicide shortly before being deported because he knew that his unaccompanied teenage son would not be sent back to his native country.

Sadly, though the story takes place in Britain, it’s relevant to the U.S., where in 2009 the government detained approximately 380,000 people in immigration custody at a hodgepodge of about 350 facilities after 1996 changes to the immigration laws dramatically expanded the use of detention, which now costs $1.7 billion annually. In a tragic turn, individuals fleeing persecution are now regularly imprisoned in county jails, federal detention centers and private facilities while U.S. immigration officials process their applications to establish whether the asylum seekers have a “well founded fear” of political prosecution in their home country. Individuals who have neither violated the law nor been charged with a crime have languished in detention centers for months or even years. Families are often torn apart, and children separated from their parents.

To distinguish between politically persecuted immigrants and those entering the country illegally for purely economic reasons is not easy. But reading Little Bee will open the reader’s heart and mind to those who have nowhere to turn.

Gabriele Lashly is an attorney at Venturab a s e d S l a u g h t e r and Reagan, LLP specializing in motions, writs and appeals. She also advises clients about German law and serves as an expert witness on German legal issues.

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