Checking in at the Refugee Hotel

By Joe Lowry

Ever been to New York? Was your first sight of it the gleaming Manhattan skyline? Lady Liberty? My first time in the Big Apple I just glimpsed some high-rises in the smog as my Virgin Airlines flight bounced through the clouds and smog into Newark on a wet November day in 1991.

Then I got grilled by immigration as I only had a one-way ticket. And my pal Maurice went to JFK to collect me, so I was stuck, sitting on a bench, smoking duty-free cigarette after duty-free cigarette, in the days before mobile phones, looking into a dark puddle for hours so no one would see how scared I was.

Ellis Island. The Statue of Liberty. The Empire State Building. These are the icons that come to mind when we think of migrants coming to America, all sea-spray and salty tears after an ocean crossing.

But here's the thing. The reality is banal. For thousands, every year, it’s one of the motels surrounding New York, Newark, Chicago, Miami and Los Angeles – the five official US ports of entry for approved asylum seekers. The “Refugee Hotels” as they have become known.

That’s thousands of stories, every day of every year. Some of them have been captured for posterity by an amazing lensman, Gabriele Stabile, who works closely with IOM and appears in the short film about his Refugee Hotel project, well worth watching on World Refugee day and indeed any day.

A few lines, a few words, some warm lighting and subtle music creates a sequence that will live long in the memory, and perhaps cause us to remember that the woman in the shop in front of us, struggling to speak English and count out her money is not like you and me. She is truly special, truly worth protecting, because she has seen a kind of hell that we can never, ever, imagine.

Watch the video. Listen.

“We fled the war of Laurant Nkunda. He came into the Congo and killed the people. I had problems too but God saved me. We walked (from Congo to Uganda.) After we had problems. They beat us with rifles. My teeth came out. (Now) the most important thing is to see my children study in normal conditions. That is my consolation. At the same time, life changes. I was sleeping out in the open. But finally… sleeping in a home. Life changes. Truly. Life changes.”

More photos here:


Joe Lowry is a Senior Media and Communications officer for IOM