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Emory scholar tells immigrant stories through young adult novels

"I write love stories because I believe that when we face complicated issues, looking through the eyes of love changes the way we engage these issues," explains Marie Marquardt, scholar-in-residence at Candler School of Theology. Photo by Kenzi Tainow.

As a scholar and immigration advocate, Marie Marquardt has spoken in classrooms and communities across the nation about how the U.S. immigration system is broken and why it needs to be repaired.

Through her work as co-chair of El Refugio, a non-profit program that aids immigrants detained at Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia, she’s had a close view of both the system’s flaws as well as its human costs.

But a few years ago, Marquardt decided to try something new, turning her experiences working with immigrant families and refugees into stories that could help readers connect with these families’ complicated lives in a more meaningful way.

This month, Marquardt, a scholar-in-residence at Emory’s Candler School of Theology, is releasing “The Radius of Us” — her second young adult (YA) novel — which examines the hardships Latin American teens face fleeing gang violence and seeking asylum in the U.S.

This Thursday, Marquardt will be joined by illustrator Carlos Morataya to discuss the novel at an author talk and book signing at the Barnes & Noble at Emory Bookstore in Emory’s Oxford Road building. The 7 p.m. event is free and open to the public.

Next month, she’ll serve as a workshop leader at the third annual Leadership and Multi-Faith Program (LAMP) symposium, a partnership between Candler School of Theology and the Georgia Institute of Technology. The Feb. 6 event will focus on “Asylum, Refuge and Relocation: Multifaith and Community Responses to Global Migration.”

On Feb. 9, Marquardt will also be featured in a panel discussion on “Intersectionality and Immigration” at Emory’s Legal Association for Women Students (LAWS) Conference from 6 to 8 p.m. in the Emory School of Law’s Hunter Atrium.

With immigration and refugee issues drawing headlines around the world, Emory Report caught up with Marquardt to talk about her work.

How did immigration become a focus of your scholarship?

It initially developed as an academic interest out of professors who fed my interest in the role of religion and social movements. In the early to mid-1990s, there was quite a bit of activity around Latin American immigration and anti-immigration sentiment. I began doing ethnographic research, which I sometimes call “disciplined hanging out,” spending a lot of time in churches and other organizations where there were a lot of Latin American immigrants and became interested in the role of religion in Latin American communities.

How has social justice advocacy continued to inform your work?

As things became increasingly difficult for Latino and Latina immigrants — especially here in Georgia — I helped found El Refugio (The Refuge), a small nonprofit that provides hospitality to detained immigrants at Stewart Detention Center and their families. “The Radius of Us” has emerged from my experiences there. We actually work with a lot of Emory groups and student volunteers, from undergraduates to those studying public health and law.

Why did you decide to tackle immigration through YA fiction?

I care about the stories of young people — I think they’re very compelling. My first YA fiction, “Dream Things True,” came out in September 2015. It was the story of a young woman who was brought by her parents to the U.S. as a child and grew up undocumented.

As a reader, I think YA fiction is extraordinary. There are so many great YA authors who are bold and so engaged in issues that matter. They’re telling stories in ways that aren’t “preachy” and allow young readers to dive into important issues. I think most YA readers are eager to do that. Not enough of us know what’s happening with young immigrants and asylum seekers; I want to make sure those stories are accessible to young people.

What issues inspired “The Radius of Us?”

Beginning in about 2013, the Stewart Detention Center saw a surprising shift. The people who were requesting visits from El Refugio were increasingly teenagers and young adults who’d been detained at the U.S./Mexico border and flown to Stewart.

In most cases, they weren’t trying to sneak into the U.S., but were actually presenting themselves to the U.S. Border Patrol to seek asylum. No criminal record, no criminal activity. And almost all of them were deported back to dangerous communities in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Most of what is happening in their communities is linked to gang violence, recruitment and extortion. The book tells the story of a boy who escapes El Salvador looking for a safe place to call home. It’s also a love story.

Why is it an important story to tell at this time?

I write love stories because I believe that when we face complicated issues, looking through the eyes of love changes the way we engage these issues. The next administration has framed immigration in a way that is almost impossible for me to understand, as a threat to our nation when it’s historically been the very lifeblood of our nation. They’ve described immigrants and asylum-seekers as dangerous. I think of brave, scared young men who really believe the U.S. is a place of refuge where they’ll be allowed to contribute to the life of our nation.

My love stories try to bring out connections against what some would argue are insurmountable differences. In the past, I’ve spent a lot of time sharing data and statistics that could change people’s minds about the myths and realities (of immigration), but what it really comes down to is our interconnectedness and relationships. That’s why it’s so important to keep telling these stories.

How do you weave these issues into the classes you teach?

I’m affiliated with Candler School of Theology, where I’ve taught since 2012. In 2014, I co-led “The Church on the Border,” a short-term social justice course that gave students first-hand experience with people and places affected by U.S. immigration policies. Next year, I’ll be co-teaching an ethics course with David Jenkins that will involve a trip to the U.S./Mexico border.

What do you find gratifying about your advocacy work and scholarship?

It’s always the relationships, the deep and enduring friendships, both with the people we serve and the people we work with. As a person of faith, I’ve learned the profound, central importance of hospitality as a virtue. The work we do allows us to recognize the divine presence in each person; I’ve been changed by it.

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