American Refugee

A Review by Joey Madia

Disclaimer: I have known Sam Graber for 16 years and have worked with him for 14. We have co-written children’s shows, he’s published four of my nonfiction books, and my theatre company has debuted or work-shopped many of his plays.

That said, American Refugee is an important new podcast that stands on its merits without my doing a fluff piece for an old friend and colleague. Although, after hearing the first two episodes multiple times, I felt compelled to get the word out.

American Refugee is hosted on the OD Action website, which has “a network of more than a quarter million Americans committed to doing our part to right our ship of state and restore a sense of basic decency to our government.”

Of American Refugee, they say: “the big bold podcast finding the heartwarming, heartbreaking and sometimes hilarious stories of American refugees. … You’re about to hear remarkable stories rooted in the most pressing human rights challenges of our time.”

Although it’s rare in advertising, there is truth to this.

American Refugee is immersive journalism in the tradition of Sebastian Junger. It’s not phone interviews cobbled together around a theme. It’s not a progression of talking heads. All the interviewees, locations, and perspectives circle around and illuminate different aspects of the theme, as one would expect from a high-quality narrative. American Refugee is classic storytelling in an audio package with high production value and compelling subject matter.

Episode 1: Los Algodones

Just across the US–Mexico border, 300 dental clinics exist in an area the size of an NFL football field. Americans travel to this tiny town seeking quality dental work—dentures, bridges, braces, implants, cleanings, and crowns—and all at a fraction of what it would cost in America.

Sam interviews a wide range of Americans about their experiences. They all have one thing in common: for one reason or another, even those with insurance could not afford the dental procedures they needed in the States. Even when figuring in travel, they still came out ahead.

In the interest of balanced narrative, Sam (unsuccessfully) attempts to get six American insurance companies to answer questions. So he attends a Blue Cross Blue Shield conference, where he sits in the front row, recorder in hand, asking questions. The answers may surprise you.

I am sure the stonewalling by insurance companies doesn’t.

Again seeking balance, Sam talks to a US dentist. Although the dentist is concerned that people are crossing the border, he readily admits the current system is broken. Sam later talks to a Canadian specialist who outlines the downside of medical tourism.

If you crave Complexity in your socioeconomic–political dialogue, this is a podcast for you.

Having laid the groundwork, Sam flies from Minneapolis to Phoenix, where he rents a car, the common procedure for going to Los Algodones. Before he leaves, he interviews the owner of one of the dental businesses he’s going to visit. Her story shows the narrative strength of American Refugee. Sam’s an able interviewer who clearly puts the interviewee at ease. What we get as a result are frank statements and divergent perspectives.

His honest conversation with a hotel clerk about everything from cheap pharma to strip clubs is a highlight.

His descriptions of what he sees as he moves across the desert, border, and checkpoints are vivid, keeping us right there with him. And he hasn’t gone to Los Algodones just to do more interviews—he actually gets some dental work.

Another strength of American Refugee is its humor, which Sam uses the way Shakespeare’s dramas do—to relieve mounting tension. As Sam tries to deliver donuts to the dentists and passes on cheap Viagra hawked by a street hustler, we can laugh, letting off steam, knowing he’ll soon return to the drama.

Because the end result of his visit to the dentist makes the case for why so many Americans are going to Los Algodones: it was cheaper, faster, and better quality.

But, remember, medical tourism is Complex.

As complex as homelessness in the most affluent country in the world.

Episode 2: Street Angel

“Street Angel” isn’t as light-hearted as Episode 1. But that’s as it should be. Homelessness in America is as misunderstood as it is unacceptable. And, as Sam says, there is one homeless person for every one of the 10,000 lakes in Minnesota: and that’s just in Minneapolis. A single American city.

Most of what you think you know about homelessness is wrong. In 25 minutes, this episode smashes every stereotype about homelessness there is. And, for a growing number of Americans living paycheck to paycheck, the realities should concern you. Because some of the people Sam interviews share several unacceptable truths: some of those who are homeless have full-time jobs. Some are putting children through college. Some are children themselves.

And once you’ve lost your home, it’s a slippery slope of compounding factors that make it difficult to get back into one.

The episode—which includes interviews with shelter directors, those advocating for the homeless in the realm of policy, and even a school nurse who interacts with homeless children every day—centers around a mother named Angel. Just try to listen to her story without getting emotional.

And, remember, this is happening in America. Wealthiest country in the world.

I not only cried, I got angry. I felt ashamed. I re-committed to my work for equality and justice. Memories returned of those who lost everything in the financial disaster of 2008. Remember the reason for it? A falsely inflated housing market. And the government is still making things favorable for those who benefit from the buying and selling and still-inflated values of real estate.

As part of the episode, Sam sets out on a January night in Minneapolis, in single-digit temperatures, to spend the night on the street—in the spot where a homeless man named John had been found dead. Let me just say, I have been in Minneapolis in January, so I more than felt for him. You’ll be surprised at how it turns out.

Give this podcast a listen. It may sound trite, like I am doing a favor for a friend, but, given the complex state of things, you really can’t afford not to.

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TITLE: American Refugee (a new podcast)
Written, Engineered, and Hosted by Sam Graber