Go, Went, Gone, a novel by Jenny Erpenabeck, tells the story of Richard, a retired East Berlin professor and his relationship with recent immigrants from Africa who are seeking asylum and attending German language classes. Hence the title from their language classes which also serves as a metaphor for the daily struggle the immigrant face in their journey toward acceptance and freedom.
Personal immigrant tales, almost by nature, are always about aspirations, drive, conflict, death and dreams. In this novel we read of the tremendous struggle men from Nigeria, Niger, Mali and other West African countries have endured to travel from oppression in their homeland to Libya where smugglers transport them to Italy on small boats and rubber rafts. In her acknowledgment, the author expressed thanks for a dozen immigrant men with whom she had conversations on which the novel is based.
The personal stories of migrants traveling through Libya are just one part of the massive movement of oppressed people from Ukraine, Syria, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Myanmar, South Sudan, Eritrea and other places. The flood of refugees is combated by naval forces, fences, new laws and governmental red tape and violence. There is a general reluctance to receive refugees. They are truly people without a country and there numbers are increasing every day.
European countries, especially Italy and Germany, in recent years have faced a tsunami wave of refugees from Africa and the Middle East which make the immigration questions faced in the United States insignificant in comparison.
The question, ”Who is my neighbor”? takes on new meaning in light of the massive movement of refugees as well as the additional thousands of displaced people still living in oppressive conditions in their own country. In the novel Richard and his friends end up taking some of the immigrant men into their own homes, a situation that requires a high level of personal commitment and sharing.
For us who live in the comfort of our own homes and country, reflection on Who Is My Neighbor and how do I relate should promote reflection on our responsibility and compassion.
The New York Times has over the years devoted special sections to telling the story of migrants like those in the novel.
In one piece, The Road To Nowhere, the Times devoted eight pages to photos and text to tell the story of people fleeing Northern Nigeria and Niger to escape the Boko Haram massacres. Thousands of families and individuals have fled to neighboring Niger and have camped along a dessert road, their new home in the middle of nowhere. Don’t miss their story at
Additional special sections on refugees can be found at
This phenomenon of people on the move to escape poverty and oppression will continue to increase in numbers in the coming years. The novel tells of how a dozen men found hope. How many times can that be repeated?