The very notion of an “urban Appalachian” begins with movement and migration, and these are at the core of the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition. We urban Appalachians are a people who exist and find our sense of self at least in part from movement, and the origins of much of what we have historically called the “Appalachian people” are rooted in displacement and migration. Beginning Again: Stories of Movement and Migration in Appalachia, edited by Katrina M. Powell and published by Voice of Witness and Haymarket Books, brings this story into the 21st Century global arena. The migrations of the 21st Century are driven by the same sets of issues that led Europeans into the Appalachian regions centuries ago. Yet, contemporary migration stories are also of an order and scale that has not previously been seen. These stories from and around the globe in Beginning Again: Stories of Movement and Migration in Appalachia find their ending points in the Appalachian region, and in this way, they are both familiar and entirely new. 

Because movement and migration are now a global set of issues that are unique to the 21st Century, the kinds of migration stories we find in Appalachia today are just as unique. These are people who have been forced out of places like Syria, Afghanistan, and Gaza who are fleeing for their lives and encountering a world that is chaotically unfamiliar. The tensions that arise amid these experiences are complex, yet we see the points of connection as they are formed. The editor, Katrina M. Powell, explains that these narratives force us to see Appalachia in new ways, one in which we gain an “understanding of Appalachia as a place of movement and mobility expands what we mean when we say Appalachia.”

As urban Appalachians, we have long seen Appalachia as a place of mobility, and these narratives reinforce this even as they harken back to the first people to move through the region. As people now escape parts of the world that are overrun with violence—wars, the violent misogyny of religious extremism, social and culture upheavals due to global climate change—they come to an Appalachia that has a long history of embracing those who are in need of the safety of the mountains and its people.

The narratives are collected as oral histories. The Editorial Director’s note explains: “We do not set out to create comprehensive histories of human rights issues. Rather, our goal is to compile a collection of voices that (1) offers accessible, thought-provoking, and ultimately humanizing perspectives on what can often seem like impenetrable topics; and (2) can meaningfully contribute to the efforts of social justice and human rights movements.”

As oral narrative testimonies, these individual stories create a web of experiences through which we can come to understand a wide range of situations. Choosing just one narrative, that of Sohaila from Afghanistan, we witness the struggles and suffering of a single individual within the broad network of women who are enduring, escaping, and resisting the sexism and violence of religious extremism. Her story is astounding in many ways. She was born as a refugee after her family fled Afghanistan during the Soviet invasions. After an arranged marriage to a much older man (he had children older than her), she moved back to Afghanistan. There she suffered the abuse from the other wife of her husband, the near death of her only child, numerous violent attacks by men both in and outside her family. When she found the opportunity to escape, she took it, but that too was dangerous and difficult. Even after making it back to Quetta in Pakistan, the process of working with nonprofits (called NGOs) and other organizations was agonizing. In her words: “From Islamabad [where the NGO office is located] to Quetta is a fifteen-hour bus ride… I had to go to Islamabad to do the interviews and come back. The NGO would give me money, but I also depended on neighbors and young men who were not married to come with me—I wasn’t allowed to travel alone, plus my husband’s brother was looking for me.”

After all Sohaila endured, she finally made it to Virginia. I found it moving to see the way Sohaila found the point of connection to the land. Her first glimpse of her new home in Virginia was the mountains of Appalachia, and she saw something that was distinctly familiar: “There are many fruit trees in Quetta and mountains on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. So, when I saw the mountains, I was happy.”

One could easily make the case that this is the moment everyone who ever passed through the mountains of Appalachia decided they had made it to where they needed to be, where so many before Sohaila found it possible to begin again. Sohaila moved many times before finally arriving in Appalachia, and this shows the ways Sohaila and others found themselves adrift once they became caught up in the streams of movement and migration.

Beginning Again: Stories of Movement and Migration in Appalachia has stories that further draw out the issues described by Sohaila. We meet Claudine Katete who wandered refugee camps in Rwanda following the civil unrest and massacres as she finally finds a home in Falls Church, Virginia working as a social worker to provide help to others who have fled horrors. We meet Elvir Berbić whose family fled the horrifying wars in the Balkans. All of these people make their way to Appalachia where they find what countless others have found before them: a place of beauty, safety, possibility, but a place that is not without its challenges.

Appalachia has always been a place where one made their way but also found new challenges. What is so astounding about these people is that they all seem to find the breath to turn around and help others once they find their footing in their new home place. As many Appalachian people once made their way among the indigenous people of the region and then offered helping hands to Black people escaping slavery, so the newcomers to Appalachia are settling in among those who have always been there and holding out their hands to others. It is the way of the mountains, and it always has been. Nikki Giovanni wrote the Preface to this book, and she states quite simply: “These are a great people.” 

The narrative of movement, migration, and re-settlement is one that is at the heart of urban Appalachia. This is how we came to be, and even the home places folks left behind can be said to have emerged out of such change. In its efforts to document migration stories, UACC’s own Kith and Kin project is driven by this kind of work. The Urban Appalachian Community Coalition finds its core in movement and migration. Advocating on behalf of urban Appalachians and others is a key part of our work, and we also witness this in Beginning Again when the new migrants find their footing and put out their hand to those who are just arriving.

Beginning Again: Stories of Movement and Migration in Appalachia is published by Voice of Witness and Haymarket Books and edited by Katrina M. Powell. Anyone with an interest in contemporary Appalachia will find this book essential reading. It may be equally essential for people who are students of oral history and oral narrative. Ultimately, Beginning Again: Stories of Movement and Migration in Appalachia offers us a powerful view of contemporary migration amid the turmoil of our times, and it locates these narratives in the Appalachia of today.

I am grateful to Rory Fanning and Haymarket Books for a review copy of this book.

Beginning Again: Stories of Movement and Migration in Appalachia is available from Haymarket Books at this link:

You can learn more about Voice of Witness at this link:

Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. He is the author of The Chief of Birds: A Memoir, available from Erratum Press, and Impossible to Believe, forthcoming from Iff Books. Check out his profile in UACC’s Cultural Directory. He lives in West Milton, Ohio with his wife who is a talented photographer. They spend their free time walking around the city and the country snapping photos. She looks up at the grandeur above, while Mike always seems to be staring at the ground.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *