Michael J. Lato's 'Refugee Handbook' - a real-life international love story

  • by Laura Moreno
  • Tuesday December 27, 2022
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author Michael J. Lato
author Michael J. Lato

Michael J. Lato's first book shares the remarkable love story of a male couple and offers us a window into a world few of us will ever get to see for ourselves. "Refugee Handbook" is the suspenseful story of an American who, after five years of getting to know a beautiful young man online, decides to travel abroad to meet him in person. Likable and unusually good-looking, Khaled is an HIV-positive war refugee from Iraq who had settled in Turkey.

Of particular note, the book provides insight into the dangers that exist for LGBTQ people in the Middle East, despite their prevalence.

What prompted Lato to go nearly half way around the world to meet Khaled? His conservative family's reaction to Donald J. Trump's unexpected November victory did it. Boastful tweets and words with a family member compelled Lato to make the fateful decision to spend the holidays abroad. He decided to go to the Maldives and Turkey, one of the world's top ten most popular vacation destinations.

This book and the great love story within it never would have happened if the 2016 presidential election had gone as expected.

Lato's dazzling, vivid prose puts the reader right there alongside him in his travels. The reader gets to experience the beauty of the various locations through his eyes, as well as receive a crash course introduction to a vastly different world. We come to better understand our own changing world through this book.

Lato's traumatic journey is fraught with open prejudice, deception, and the economics that have made human trafficking one of the fastest growing industries worldwide. The possibility of falling into or eventually being pushed into slavery, perhaps by war, is a real danger.

As Lato points out, good people need to know what is happening in our world. After immersing himself in the culture, the author decides to make Turkey his home so that he and Khaled can be together.

"Refugee Handbook" fits into the new but growing genre of refugee literature and film, such as the highly acclaimed LGBTQ film "Label Me" from Germany, also a love story that depicts the battle for equality that refugees face in Europe, especially when one lacks a full salary. The genre reminds us that refugees are created by the endless wars we have been powerless for some reason to get our elected leaders to stop, and that each refugee is a unique individual with a great deal to offer their new country.

author Michael J. Lato  

Monumental task
The book is filled with engaging anecdotes like this one:

"The Maldives became a Muslim country in the 12th century, when a young Muslim man rented a room 11 from a widow and her daughter. At the time, every month a young virgin was brought to the seaside to be sacrificed to a genie. The genie would somehow make the virgin disappear.

When his host's daughter was chosen to go, the young unbearded man dressed as a woman and took her place. At the seaside, he read from the Quran and made the genie disappear. The act converted the country from Buddhism to Islam."

Turkey has more or less integrated four million refugees in a short time. The monumental task is accomplished with monetary help from the European Union, which provides basic cash assistance to 1.3 million refugees. The huge endeavor is on the same scale as Mrs. Frances Perkins' US Labor Department creating jobs for the four million soldiers returning from WWII.

Notably, 3.7 million of Turkey's refugees are Syrian. Like Khaled, the refugees participate in the life of the nation and are not held in refugee camps with their lives on hold for decades.

A major takeaway of "Refugee Handbook" is that successful nations can welcome asylum seekers with good will, begrudging them nothing.

A dramatic turning point in the book came when the Turkish government required HIV positive refugees to reveal where they contracted HIV. Rumors of what this would actually mean for them caused them to suddenly leave, escaping by raft for the first leg of their bold journey to attempt to obtain asylum in Amsterdam.

In the Afterword, Lato reflects on the fact that Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus were themselves refugees. Hospitality is a very important value in the Middle East, as true in the Christmas story as it is today in the refugee crisis.

"My fondest memory of the trip was Christmas morning.... I had seen dolphins in Venice Beach before; 1-5 swimming close to shore. Here, there were more. I watched the first 5, then 8, then 10 breach the surface. They kept coming and leaping. Minutes passed as we watched hundreds and hundreds of dolphins swimming and leaping maybe 15 to 50 yards from our boat.

The captain turned off the engine and we all stared and smiled. Babies swimming next to moms breached as well. Was it one giant pod of dolphins? Had several pods merged? There must have been a thousand dolphins traveling together swimming and leaping through the air. They were going somewhere. This incredibly beautiful migration filled our little boat with silent, unspeakable joy.

Who gets to witness that? It was an extraordinary and unexpected Christmas gift. I said a little prayer of thanks, and I hoped that somehow I was sharing this perhaps once-in-a-lifetime experience with my parents and all the people in heaven that I loved and who loved me. And, I cried."

'The Refugee Handbook: Notes from the Road to a Life of Choices' by Michael J. Lato. paperback, $8.99. Kindle $7.99, audiobook $5.99; self-published.

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