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Tell Me Why You Fled: True Stories of…
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Tell Me Why You Fled: True Stories of Seeking Refuge

by Karen O'Reilly

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I enjoyed Karen O’Reilly’s memoir so much—like, really took pleasure in the reading of it. I wasn’t necessarily expecting that, because TELL ME WHY YOU FLED is not a tale of lightness and sweet, quirky life lessons. But it sort of reads like it is, or like a dear friend has sat you down with a drink and is pouring out everything of significance that’s happened to her in the past five years. Chapters with the easy-to-swallow feel of linked essays follow this sort-of-lost, but also curious and active Irish woman on her journey towards figuring out who she is. Under the burden of a terrible and growing depression, O’Reilly finds a way to go on living in the world: she begins working for the UN, writing reports, conducting interviews, and making recommendations to convince host countries to accept the world’s most desperate and needful refugees. The work is meant to provide an anchor to a life swimming out from under her, and in some ways, it does. She’s able to live well in Uganda on her small “volunteer” salary—to buy art, party with friends, smoke cheap cigarettes, employ a housekeeper—and she enjoys the satisfaction of knowing she’s doing true good in the world. But cracks in the organization quickly make themselves apparent. There's an office sexual predator who’s given zero incentive to stop, and a racist boss who holds his own Ugandan employees in contempt, and worst of all, endless rules and policies that discredit and dehumanize the very refugees her UN office is supposed to be protecting. O’Reilly’s writing shines in these stories, which she tells in an unadorned, unsentimental way that lets you see exactly how this broken system serving broken people must be breaking her heart, because it’s breaking yours too. But while the book is unsparing in its portrayal of the UN and its endless corruptions both large and small, it’s no polemic—everything is brought back to the faulty human woman at its center. O’Reilly continuously questions her own motives (which are mixed), her own effectiveness, hangups, and moral standing. She makes very clear that as much as the refugees with whom she works need virtual superheroes, neither she nor the organization she works for can measure up… and yet the work goes on, needing to be done. If this all sounds very serious, it is—but what makes this book so readable is the warm, kind, funny voice at its center, and the careful pacing that ensures no emotion drives us off a cliff. I recommend this book equally to those who want to understand current world events and those who just want to curl up with a glass of wine and take in a heartfelt memoir. ( )
  Xiguli | Dec 31, 2019 |
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