‘Every Single Person Migrating Has a Story’: Caitlin Dwyer on the Emotional Underlayers of Family Separation

The writer describes her process of reporting and shaping her recent essay, “The State of Waiting,” which explores love in the shadow of war and immigration policy.

Photos and artwork courtesy of Wafa Almaktari. Illustration by Cheri Lucas Rowlands.

For couples and families separated by borders, financial circumstances, and national policies beyond their control, their relationships remain in limbo. As people spend months and often many years physically apart — not knowing when or if they’ll see their loved ones again — love can take on a new shape: It might evolve into pain, or defiance, or patience.

Caitlin Dwyer

“Perhaps a cross-border relationship is less about cathartic reunion than the slow, patient intention to help someone else find joy,” Caitlin Dwyer writes in “The State of Waiting,” her new Longreads essay about a Yemeni couple — and their long-haul love — in the shadow of war and immigration policy.

Dwyer, a writer in Portland, Oregon, produces and hosts Many Roads to Here, a podcast on migration and identity in which immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers in the U.S. tell their own stories. I last worked with Dwyer in 2019 on a story called “Shared Breath,” in which she beautifully explored the intimate, unique connections between organ recipients and donor families.

In “The State of Waiting,” she brings this same empathy and care to the relationship between Wafa, a young Yemeni woman in Portland, and her husband Moutaz, who lives in Sana’a, Wafa’s hometown (and the largest city in Yemen). I asked Dwyer about her reporting and writing process for this story, which we published last week.

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I love that this isn’t the usual piece on U.S. immigration. Can you talk more about your approach?

I think so many pieces on immigration feel abstract. Immigration articles often talk about people sort of en masse, reporting on a caravan from Central America or a trend in migration. It’s not that those big picture stories are wrong, but they feel impersonal. So much of our conversation in this country around immigration revolves around policy, and politics, that it’s easy to forget that every single person migrating has a story. People are only abstract when seen from this very wide lens — and seeing people as trends or abstractions or representations of policy dehumanizes them. I wanted in this piece to really focus on one story, a close-up on the emotional impacts of family separation. It’s impossible to dehumanize someone or put them in a political box when you’re hearing about their wedding and all the giddiness of young love. We can all relate to that.

Read stories from other Longreads writers, like Alice Driver and Gabriel Thompson, who also approach the topics of migration and immigration with care.

What drew you to Wafa, the main subject in your story?

It’s impossible to dehumanize someone or put them in a political box when you’re hearing about their wedding and all the giddiness of young love.

Originally I was going to interview Wafa for an entirely different project. I volunteer with a group called The Immigrant Story and she was going to be our first foray into podcasting; the executive director set up a meeting for us to chat. The podcast (which never happened) was just going to be about her immigration story. We met in a classroom at Portland State University, and she was really hesitant at first. I think she wanted to figure out what my intentions were. But a couple of minutes in, she mentioned this secret boyfriend back in Yemen, and her demeanor totally changed. She couldn’t stop talking about him. Her face lit up, her gestures got more expansive. I realized he was the story. We spent the next two hours talking about their relationship. I got all the juicy details of their first dates, her wedding planning … I thought we were going to be talking about serious issues, and instead we’re talking wedding cake and makeup artists — but with this very serious and unavoidable overlayer of civil war. It surprised me, and I realized how many stories about immigration are just framed as tragedies, without the tenderness and hope of real life. Wafa had this great vivacity and excitement for the normal stuff of young romance, and the horribleness of her situation didn’t negate her love. The two coexisted. That really interested me.

As I got to know her, I realized what a remarkable person Wafa is. She’s this bold, brassy sort of person, presents herself as very sassy and unafraid, but she has this deep well of vulnerability because of all that she’s gone through. And she loves to talk, which made my job easier.

What challenges did you face during your reporting?

I realized how many stories about immigration are just framed as tragedies, without the tenderness and hope of real life.

Communicating with folks in a war zone was definitely the most difficult part. Wafa has gone to Yemen twice during the reporting. The first time I met her, she was a senior in college; she flew back to Yemen after we met and I didn’t hear from her for a year. When she came back to Oregon we finally reconnected, but then she flew to Yemen again for another six months. The internet connections are very unreliable there, and it was often hard to communicate with her and Moutaz (her husband). I think also when they are together, they (understandably) just want to focus on surviving and on each other and not worry about some random writer back in the U.S. — so I just had these large gaps where I didn’t know what was going on with them, and then I had to catch up later.

It’s also hard to verify information about Yemen, other than through large official sources like the U.N. At this point, there isn’t a lot of on-the-ground reporting in English on the conflict. I was lucky enough to get in touch with the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, which studies and writes on policy and conflict in the region. They really helped with finding the contextual resources I needed.

This essay, like your last piece for us that explored how donated organs affect a person’s sense of self, is meditative in parts: You pause to reflect on larger themes that emerge from the story. How did the shape of this piece come about?

I’m interested in slowness. That’s a weird thing to say, perhaps, but the pace of a story — writing it, reading it, thinking it through — really matters to me.

What interests me more is what the facts cohere into, what webbing and connections they create: the emotional and psychological underlayers.

When I went to journalism school, I was really frustrated by the restrictiveness of news writing. On deadline, we couldn’t really do storytelling that got deeply into human emotion and descriptive scene-making. It was just facts. I respect traditional journalism, but in my own writing, I always wanted to slow down and take a second look at every article. Situations always seemed so much more complex and nuanced than could be covered in a quick feature. I think maybe I just fear getting things wrong, and I know that if I slow down, I have a better chance of not messing up. I worry about leaving out some essential angle. This is true in my daily life, too — I’m always the friend who asks, but what about this factor, doesn’t that make it more complicated? I’m sure it’s annoying sometimes, but I can’t help it.

That tendency comes from a real respect for the people I’m writing about. I want to honor their stories, and if I rush, I’m possibly going to miss something. (I’m not trying to malign traditional journalism here, only to own my own capabilities and weaknesses). My personality is that of an observer. I’m kind of shy, so I’ve learned to get a lot of information by watching and listening. I don’t jump in and ask a million questions. I pay attention. I’m comfortable with long silences — because people jump in to fill them, and you get a lot of really interesting material that way. But that method takes time.

When I’m writing a piece like “The State of Waiting,” I can see right away that the facts alone are pretty dramatic and make a good story: long-distance love, war, separation. Boom. What interests me more is what the facts cohere into, what webbing and connections they create: the emotional and psychological underlayers. That larger, more interesting story for me emerges as I write. Sometimes I figure that underlayer out by writing these more meditative sections; as I write them, they help me make sense of the facts.

That’s one way past politics and dehumanization, and toward empathy, it seems to me.

The meditations also help me check myself, to make sure I’m not off-base with my assumptions and biases. In this piece that was really important to me, as a white American writing about Muslim immigrants. I was constantly questioning the narrative in my head and asking, where is this story coming from? I wanted the emotional and thematic content to emerge from Wafa and Moutaz, not from some preconceived notions I’d developed in my head about them. The meditations function almost like a break: They slow me down, help me work through the material and examine my assumptions.

If the writing ends up decent, and the section helps the reader to do the same thing — slow down, sink into their assumptions, make an emotional connection to the story — I keep those sections. I want the reading experience to be slow-ish, too, because my goal in writing these pieces is to tell a full human story. That can’t be done at top speed. We don’t feel a lot when we rush. Again, it comes back to complexity and nuance. Immigration stories — actually, all stories — are complicated and messy. If we go slow, pause, reflect, we have a chance to go beyond what we were sure was true at the start. We get to revise our thinking as we read. That’s one way past politics and dehumanization, and toward empathy, it seems to me.

Seeing real change from a shift in immigration policy is a slow process. But has the Biden administration given Wafa and Moutaz any more hope? From the stories you’ve told through your podcast, how do you think people cope with the uncertainty, with this state of waiting, for an indefinite length of time?

I do think Wafa and Moutaz feel more hope now. With the travel ban lifted, there is a chance that Moutaz’s application can move through the system, though I believe it’s pretty backlogged right now after the pause on visa processing for four years. More simply there’s just a shift in rhetoric. We had an administration that didn’t speak well of immigrant communities and tried to deter immigration; that was part of their policy agenda. Now we have an administration whose rhetoric is different, and the language coming from the top levels of government has a profound effect not only on policy, but on people’s hopes and actions. If there’s a chance that Moutaz’s application can move, they’re willing to wait. If there’s no hope, well, you start to look for other options, because you can’t just sit still forever and hope the nations of the world align with your personal family plans. You have to act to protect the people you love.

If there’s no hope, well, you start to look for other options, because you can’t just sit still forever and hope the nations of the world align with your personal family plans.

I think uncertainty is pretty devastating. The world just went through a pandemic year of profound uncertainty, and look what it did to everyone. We’re a mess, mentally. Uncertainty generally is a difficult place to live, and so you have to find ways to cope. For some people, that’s finding other ways to ground yourself and make things feel less unstable (that’s Moutaz). That might mean choosing to ignore situations that scare or further unsettle us, the way he endures daily scares like bombings and armed militia and sort of shrugs it off. For other people, it’s finding ways to take action and change the situation, even in small ways (that’s Wafa). At least then you feel like you’re doing something, you aren’t passive and helpless amid these huge circumstances.

I think the uncertainty of living across a border can be devastating especially for children. I didn’t write about that situation, but adults can find coping mechanisms; kids really suffer from the state of waiting. They need comfort and care now, not later. My Buddhist tradition would tell me we can all learn to live with uncertainty, to accept it as a fundamental truth of life, but that’s asking a lot of folks who are living apart from their kids.

We can hear Wafa talk in short audio interludes throughout the piece. Can you tell us more about this additional layer in the story? In general, how do you approach storytelling as both a writer and podcaster?

There’s something really powerful about hearing the person’s real voice, unmediated. The podcast I work on (and I should add that Many Roads to Here is a fully collaborative effort with many skilled producers; I’m just one of a team) uses first-person storytelling, so I am intrigued generally by the personal oral narrative. Whenever I write, I automatically filter the story -— pick certain details, put them in a certain order, leave out other details — and I think that hearing the person tell their own story is a wonderful counterpoint to that filter. Multimedia storytelling is also just a great way to keep people’s interest online, especially in a long story (which this one is). You can read, then pause and listen, and read again. The audio offers a break and also adds another voice beside mine to the storytelling, so it’s more of a collaborative effort.

Recording was a delight, because it happened just as Wafa and I had both received the second shot of our COVID-19 vaccines, so we could record in person. We left the windows open in her house (that’s why you can hear traffic in the background) for additional ventilation, but it was the first time I’d seen her in person in a long time. I had asked her to pull out objects that really mattered to her and Moutaz, and she had these amazing stories behind each object that enriched my understanding of their relationship, and of her relationship with Yemen and her culture as she becomes an American.


 
In both podcasting and writing, I try hard to let the storytelling emerge organically from the conversations I’m having with the person. I might arrive at an interview believing I’m there for a particular story, and learn halfway through that this person wants to tell a different story. Sometimes it’s good to let that person just talk, and just be a good listener. What are they really trying to say? What emotions or fears or passions underlie their storytelling or have brought this particular narrative to the forefront, where they’re willing to talk about it with a stranger? I may end up telling the story differently from them, but I always try to honor their intentions in telling it. I’m also pretty transparent with people about the themes and big ideas I’m getting into. Sometimes I check in and say, hey, I’m thinking this story is about the sacrifices we make for love. I asked Wafa that, actually, and she totally agreed, so I knew I was on the right track. 

At the same time, I know that I’m bringing artistry and craft to the table to assemble all these pieces skillfully. Whether that’s cutting audio or writing scenes, I’m always aware that I’m reassembling pieces in a way that appeals to an audience and makes a (hopefully) delightful listening or reading experience. So there’s a certain amount of artifice that automatically goes along with that. I try to balance my responsibility toward my subject with my responsibility to my audience, and that comes down to the craft elements of editing and selecting and cutting. In other words, I think storytelling is a super ethical endeavor. You can’t enter into telling other people’s stories without considering your own self, your tendencies, your biases, and being kind of unrelenting in your self-scrutiny.
 

Read “The State of Waiting”