The Middle of Everywhere: Helping Refugees Enter the American Community

The Middle of Everywhere: Helping Refugees Enter the American Community

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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780156027373
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 06/23/2003
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 755,808
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.02(d)
Age Range: 14 - 18 Years

About the Author

Mary Pipher , Ph.D., is the author of three bestselling books, including Reviving Ophelia, which was on the New York Times bestseller list for more than two years. She speaks all over the country and has received a presidential citation from the American Psychological Association. She lives in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Read an Excerpt

The World's Refugees Come to Our Town
Mary Pipher


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?

I felt isolated in Beaver City, far away from any real action. We were a small town of white Protestants surrounded by cow pastures and wheat fields. I had no contact with people who were different from me. Native Americans had a rich legacy in Nebraska, but I knew nothing of them, not even the names of the tribes who lived in my area. I had never seen a black person or a Latino. Until I read The Diary of Anne Frank, I had never heard of Jewish people.

Adults talked mostly about crops, pie, and rainfall. I couldn't wait to grow up and move someplace exotic and faraway, and living where I did, every place appeared faraway and exotic. When I read Tolstoy's book on the little pilgrim who walked all over the world, I vowed to become that pilgrim and to spend my life seeing everything and talking to everyone.

As a young adult, I escaped for a while. I lived in San Francisco, Mexico, London, and Madrid. But much to my surprise, I missed the wheat fields, the thunderstorms, and the meadowlarks. I returned to Nebraska in my mid-twenties, married, raised a family, worked as a psychologist, and ate a lot of pie. I've been happy in Nebraska, but until recently I thought I had to choose between loving a particular rural place and experiencing all the beautiful diversity of the world.

Before the Europeans arrived, Nebraska was home to many Indian tribes. The Omaha, the Ponca, the Pawnee, and the Nemaha lived in the east, the Lakota Sioux in the west. In the late 1800s immigrants from Europe pushed out the Native Americans. Wave after wave of new pioneers broke over Nebraska and we became a state of Scots, Irish, British, Czechs, Swedes, and Danes. For a while, we had so many Germans that many schools held classes in German. But after World War I, when nativist sentiments swept our state, our unicameral made instruction in German illegal.

Mexican workers came to build the railroads and to work on farms and in meatpacking. African Americans came to farm and to work in our cities. Nebraska's first free black person, Sally Bayne, moved to Omaha in 1854, and an all-black colony was formed at Overton in Dawes County in 1885. Malcolm X was born in Omaha in 1925.

Even though people of color have a rich history in our state and, of course, the Native Americans were here first, our state's identity the last 150 years has been mainly European. Until recently, a mixed marriage meant a Catholic married to a Methodist. After World War II, so many Latvians came here that we became the official site of the Latvian government in exile. Our jokes were yawners about farmers or Lutherans-"What did the farmer say after he won a million dollars in the lottery?" "Thank God I have enough money to farm a few more years." Or, "Wherever four Lutherans are gathered there is always a fifth."

However, in the last fifteen years something surprising has happened. It began with the boat people, mostly Vietnamese and Cambodians, coming in after the Vietnam War. In the 1980s Lincoln began having a few Asian markets, a Vietnamese Catholic church, a Buddhist temple, and English Language Learners (ELL) classes. Around the same time, Mexican migrant workers, who had long done seasonal work in our area, bought houses and settled down. Refugees from the wars in Central America trickled in.

The real change occurred in the 1990s. Because Lincoln had almost no unemployment and a relatively low cost of living, we were selected by the U. S. Office of Refugee Resettlement as a preferred community for newly arrived refugees. Now we are one of the top-twenty cities in America for new arrivals from abroad. Our nonwhite population has grown 128 percent since 1990. We are beginning to look like East Harlem.

Suddenly, our supermarkets and schools are bursting with refugees from Russia, Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Hungary, and Ethiopia. Our Kurdish, Sudanese, and Somali populations are rapidly increasing. Even as I write this, refugees from Afghanistan, Liberia, and Sierra Leone are coming into our community. Some are educated and from Westernized places. Increasingly, we have poor and uneducated refugees. We have children from fifty different nationalities who speak thirty-two different languages in our public schools.

Our obituary column shows who came here early in the 1900s. It is filled with Hrdvys, Andersens, Walenshenksys, and Muellers. But the births column, which reflects recent immigration patterns, has many Ali, Nguyen, and Martinez babies. By midcentury, less than half our population will be non-Latino white. We are becoming a brown state in a brown nation.

Lincoln has often been described by disgruntled locals and insensitive outsiders as the middle of nowhere, but now it can truthfully be called the middle of everywhere. We are a city of juxtapositions. Next to the old man in overalls selling sweet corn at the farmers' market, a Vietnamese couple sells long beans, bitter melons, and fresh lemongrass. A Yemeni girl wearing a veil stands next to a football fan in his Big Red jacket. Beside McDonald's is a Vietnamese karaoke bar. Wagey Drug has a sign in the window that says, TARJETAS EN ESPAÑOL SE VENDEN AQUI. On the Fourth of July, Asian lion dancers perform beside Nigerian drummers. Driving down Twenty-seventh Street, among the signs for the Good Neighbor Center, Long John Silver's, Fat Pat's Pizza, Snowflakes, and Jiffy Lube, I see signs for Mohammed's Barber Shop, Jai Jai's Hair Salon, Kim Ngo's jewelry, Pho's Vietnamese Café, and Nguyen's Tae-Kwon Do.

We celebrate many holidays-Tet, Cinco de Mayo, Rosh Hashanah, and Ramadan. At our jazz concerts, Vietnamese families share benches with Kurdish and Somali families. When my neighbor plays a pickup basketball game in the park, he plays with Bosnian, Iranian, Nigerian, and Latino players. I am reminded of the New Yorker cartoon which pictured a restaurant with a sign reading, RANCHO IL WOK DE PARIS, FEATURING TEX-MEX, ITALIAN, ASIAN, AND FRENCH CUISINES.

Women in veils exchange information with Mexican grandmothers in long black dresses. Laotian fathers smoke beside Romanian and Serbian dads. By now, every conceivable kind of grocery store exists in our city. And the ethnic shelves in our IGA grocery stores keep expanding. The produce sections carry jicama and cilantro. Shoppers can buy pitas, tortillas, egg rolls, wraps, and breads from all over the world. My most recent cab driver was a Nigerian school administrator who fled his country because he was in a pro-democracy group. S. J. Perelman's description of Bangkok-"It seemed to combine the Hannibal, Missouri, of Mark Twain's childhood with Beverly Hills, the Low Countries, and Chinatown"-could now apply to Lincoln.

Copyright © 2002 by Mary Pipher
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or
transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be
mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc.,
6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

Table of Contents

Prelude: Ellis Island

Part One: Hidden in Plain Sight
Chapter 1: Cultural Collisions on the Great Plains
Chapter 2: The Beautiful Laughing Sisters-An Arrival Story
Chapter 3: Into the Heart of the Heartland 4
Chapter 4: All that Glitters

Part two: Refugees across the Life Cycle
Chapter 5: Children of Hope, Children of Tears
Chapter 6: Teenagers-Mohammed Meets Madonna
Chapter 7: Young Adults-"Is There a Marriage Broker in Lincoln?"
Chapter 8: Family-"A Bundle of Sticks Cannot Be Broken"

Part three: The Alchemy of Healing-Turning Pain into Meaning
Chapter 9: African Stories
Chapter 10: Healing in all Times and Places
Chapter 11: Home-A Global Positioning System for Identity
Chapter 12: Building a Village of Kindness
Coda: We're All Here Now

1. Working with People for Whom English Is a New Language
2. Becoming a Cultural Broker
3. Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Acknowledgments 3

Reading Group Guide

Over the past decade, celebrated psychologist, family therapist, and author Mary Pipher has helped us better comprehend and communicate with our loved ones. Reviving Ophelia told us how to reconnect and bond anew with teenage girls; Another Country did the same with the elderly. Now, in a broader yet equally crucial context, Pipher helps us understand and assist the newest members of the greater American family: refugees.

All across the country, refugees arrive daily in our cities and towns. Sudanese, Liberian, Afghani, Bosnian, Iraqi, and Vietnamese: they come with only a desire to experience the American dream. Their endurance in the face of tragedy and their ability to hold on to the essential virtues of family, love, and happiness are a tonic for all Americans. The stories they tell make us laugh and weep, and give us a deeper understanding of the wider world in which we live.

In exposing us to such vital and vitally instructive stories, The Middle of Everywhere profiles Pipher's hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska, which is today a microcosm of the nation's refugee situation--indeed, people who have fled some of the world's most oppressive regimes now reside in Lincoln. As she reveals here, Pipher has worked on behalf of these refugees in schools, social service agencies, and homes as a cultural broker, teacher, therapist, and friend. Her timely, candid, well-researched study employs sensitive firsthand accounts as well as clear-headed, able reportage to move beyond the headlines, revealing the trials and errors, hopes and dreams, and joys and frustrations of refugees from around the world. Ultimately, it teaches about cultural sensitivity, multiethnic awareness, and universal social acceptance--all lessons that instructors nationwide will want to share with their students.

This Instructor's Guide, keyed specifically to the book, will help students of all backgrounds and abilities explore the phenomenon of refugee settlement in America today. The Guide will also help students articulate their own experiences, thoughts, and feelings. And as she writes in Chapter 4: "The most important cultural brokers are schoolteachers."


This Guide is divided into two sections, which both appear immediately below. "Reading and Understanding this Book" will help students with reading comprehension, conceptual appreciation, interpretation, and related matters. "Additional Questions and Exercises" will enable students to think more freely, associatively, or creatively about the ideas and experiences discussed by author Mary Pipher. "Reviewing Key Terms and Ideas," is a brief supplementary section in which students might be presented with a list of key vocabulary terms for purposes of identification, definition, contextualization, and/or application.


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?


1. The Middle of Everywhere begins with an epigraph--from the writings of Willa Cather, a great American fiction writer (who, like Mary Pipher, was from Nebraska). As a class, reread this epigraph and discuss what it means in the context of Pipher's book as a whole.

2. Consider these remarks from the Foreword: "After September 11, we are all refugees from what was once our America. We have been exiled from a country that felt safe and calm and now we live in a country filled with fear. We can learn from the refugees among us how to deal with our fears and sorrows." Do you agree with this? Explain why or why not, using specific examples from throughout this book in support of your view.

3. Pipher notes, toward the end of Chapter 1, that refugees "reveal the strengths and flaws of America." How would you support this remark? What specific examples from the book would you cite first and foremost?

4. In Chapter 2, Pipher says she became a "friend and cultural broker" to a refugee family from Pakistan. What does the term "cultural broker" mean? Refer to scenes, events, and dialogue from throughout The Middle of Everywhere in support of your answer. Also, look again at the list (in Chapter 4) of tips and pointers that Pipher says she "as a cultural broker, [has] taught newcomers." Either individually or as a class, think of other useful items to add to this list. (See also Appendix 2.)

5. Have you ever heard, seen, or read the expression, "Think globally, act locally?" What do you think it means? Finally, how--if at all--does Pipher's book reflect this notion?

6. Part Two, Chapters 5 through 8, profiles "refugees across the life cycle." What is a life cycle? Write a short essay about your own place within the life cycle--and about how and why that place would be different if you were forced to a.) suddenly leave your home environment and b.) create a new home for yourself in a foreign land.

7. Some of Chapter 11 concerns home as a physical, emotional, intellectual, and socio-cultural phenomenon--and also, more broadly, it concerns what Pipher calls "the psychology of place." As a class, explore how various individuals and families depicted here represent the widely relative ideas of both place and home. Try to compare and contrast what you can remember about the homes of these individuals and families. Also, consider the idea of a hometown. "What [refugees] need is a hometown," as Pipher tells us. What, in your view, is a hometown? And who finds or acquires one in this book? (You may also want to revisit the book's Coda when discussing hometowns.)

8. In Chapter 12 Pipher explains an ongoing refugee-oriented debate occurring in America--and indeed, around the world--on "respect for ethnic traditions [vs.] respect for human rights." How is this debate linked to the situation of refugees arriving in America today? Paraphrase the points that can be made on both sides of this debate, then explain how the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (see Appendix 3) aims to resolve this conflict.

9. One reviewer has noted that The Middle of Everywhere shows readers not only how newly arrived refugees experience this "vastly more complex nation," and how they might adapt to it more easily and successfully, but also "how Americans need to adjust as refugees change the definition of what it means to be American." Conduct a classwide discussion on how, where, and why we must all "adjust" in this regard.

10. Looking back to the beginning of this book, we find that at the outset of Chapter 1 Pipher offers a poem--entitled "I Am From." (This sort of poem is also discussed at the end of Chapter 6.) Write your own such poem in this vein--a poem about who you are, where you are from, how and why you are you and no one else, etc. (Another example of this kind of poetry is Walt Whitman's great "Song of Myself."


Terms to define and discuss: immigration; identity; INS; ELL; globalization; cultural broker; bilingual; bicultural; acculturation; Americanize (as a verb); Americanized (as an adjective); Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Instructors are advised to keep an up-to-date globe or a detailed world map handy while teaching this book.

Instructor's Guide written by Scott Pitcock.


Mary Pipher, Ph. D., is the author of three bestselling books, including Reviving Ophelia, on the New York Times bestseller list for nearly three years. Pipher has received a presidential citation from the American Psychological Association and is one of the leading voices in contemporary psychology. She lives in Lincoln, Nebraska.

· A Notable Book in Education 2002 - American School Board Journal

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The Middle of Everywhere: Helping Refugees Enter the American Community 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
goldiebear on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I really thought I was going to like this book. We read it for my book club at work and honestly this book did nothing for me. I didn't quite understand who exactly she was.... she kept saying that she was a "cultural broker" but never really explained what that meant. I thought the stories were good -- but the book it's self was all over the place... I didn't like the way it was laid out and how it jumped around. I guess this book also might be more insightful for someone who doesn't work with refugees on a daily basis. I pretty much knew everything she was writing about. I might share this book with someone who has never had the experience of knowing a refugee personally.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
This book does an excellent job of immersing the reader in the lives of the immigrants with whom we share this country. The culture shock experienced by Mary Pipher's interviewees is very eye-opening, as the American reader will see the simple luxuries they possess which are not available elsewhere. Emotions run high while reading The Middle of Everywhere. The stories are told with notable sincerity that contributes greatly to the book¿s overall value. Messages of both struggle and hope are intertwined throughout every account that this book offers.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The Middle of Everywhere is a book based on Pipher¿s personal experiences working to assimilate refugees to American ways of life. The book ranges from driving to cooking, to the college process or the obvious language barriers. In a way, this book is also a sort of ¿how-to¿ book for those who help refugees. Through stories of Pipher¿s own successes and, indeed, failures, she invites the reader to understand what works and what has proven unhelpful when assisting refugees which American skills are necessary and which are harmful. A major message of the book is that when dealing with refugees, assume nothing. The Middle of Everywhere is split up into three main sections and further divided into ¿chapters.¿ Each chapter consists, for the most part, of a single experience or story that is obviously carefully chosen to keep the reader¿s attention. Many stories are very comical, but each is still respectful and has a valuable lesson to be learned. Pipher does an excellent job in not being repetitive with her lessons and also presents them with a tremendous amount of humility. She pays close attention to small details that make the book easier (and more enjoyable) to read. However, sometimes the purpose of each story within the larger sections of the book was a bit unclear. The titles of the sections and even of the individual stories can be very misleading. Still, The Middle of Everywhere is a wonderful and very valuable book. It is respectful and personal and any American should read The Middle of Everywhere in order to better understand the plight of the many refugees who are becoming a part of our world more and more.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I assigned this text for a multicultural classroom where my students were working with Somali children in the community. There is a lot of helpful information in this book for those new to working with immigrants. However my students, particularly the immigrant students, found Pipher's tone to be extremely condescending. They hated the book. While she does talk at length about refugees' strengths many of her stories make them sound pitiful so that she must become their 'American mother'. At other points her culturally biased judgements are quite offensive. At one point she praises a Muslim man who is 'a good man' unlike most Muslim men who do not encourage education for their daughters. At another point she marvels at the 'good manners' of a Sudanese refugee who smiles and shakes hands and she wonders where he learned to be so polite. Basically Pipher would have done refugees a much better service by telling their stories at greater length and without comment.