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Meet The Woman Who’s Changing The Immigration Conversation One Show At A Time

Comedian Maeve Higgins wanted to make the toughest issue of our time more personal–and funnier. So she started a podcast.

Meet The Woman Who’s Changing The Immigration Conversation One Show At A Time
Maeve Higgins

It’s been well documented that in comedy, timing is nearly everything. But how about in podcasts?

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Maeve Higgins is out to prove that when it comes to the still-young business of podcasting, timing is absolutely crucial. She is, perhaps, better positioned than anyone else to make the case. That’s partly because Higgins is an Irish-born comedian who moved to America three years ago—and was quickly inspired by New York City’s robust community of immigrants.

“All the new people in the city would get together,” Higgins said recently. “I’m always drawn to people from other places.”

Higgins and Eugene MirmanPhoto: Erika Romero

She remembers hearing about an astrophysicist in Jordan who couldn’t get a U.S. visa and wondered what mechanisms in her new country’s immigration system were thwarting his efforts. She began to see that there was something–something–to be done with all the new people she was meeting, all the new stories she was hearing. The idea lodged in her brain. Meanwhile, as a funny person with a background in radio, she was frequently invited to meetings to kick around ideas for podcasts. In the beginning, Higgins was more certain about what she didn’t want to do.

“I didn’t want to be another comedian just kind of spewing to another comedian.”

A 2016 trip to Iraq for a comedy workshop helped Higgins hone her idea. “Comedy is a baby industry there,” she told the Guardian last month, “but there are sketch writers and satirists all operating under really tough times. They were keeping going, using comedy.”

Last summer, with an intensely divisive presidential campaign roiling the country and then-candidate Donald Trump calling Mexicans “rapists” and throwing around the idea for a Muslim registry, Higgins hit on an idea she felt passionate about: a podcast about immigration. But funny.

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Photo: Erika Romero

Okay, not exactly laugh-out-loud hilarious, because that would sound tone-deaf, but Higgins thought that if she was going to truly humanize these stories of struggle, then it would be disingenuous to have the show be a total downer. Or, as she put it: “Even if you are undocumented, you are still going to have birthday parties. We wanted to reflect the real experiences.”

So Higgins joined forces with creative partners at the production company Pretty Good Friends and pitched the idea to First Look Media, the socially aware company co-founded by eBay billionaire Pierre Omidyar and journalist Glenn Greenwald.

Three episodes into season two of Maeve in America, Higgins is succeeding in delivering intimate accounts of the emotional highs and lows of the immigrant experience. The show is driven by the real stories of real people, with a pinch of levity added by Higgins and a few recurring voices, including the host’s British friend, Mona Chalabi, the data editor at the Guardian. Oh, and the absurdity of bureaucracy is also good for a chuckle now and then.

This formula—you’ll laugh, you’ll learn, you might cry—has been evident in the show from the very first episode. MIA debuted last November, a week after the election (remember all that stuff earlier about timing?), and told the story of an elderly Chinese-American activist named Rosalyn Koo.

Koo hosts regular voting-rights workshops for senior citizens in San Mateo, California. It was while spending time with Koo that Higgins—and subsequently her podcast listeners—learned about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned immigrants from China from entering the United States. The details of the legislation are eerily similar to Trump’s executive order banning immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries.

Photo: courtesy of Maeve Higgins

For another episode, Higgins met Iraqi-American Nayyef Hrebid in Seattle. Hrebid had worked as a translator for the U.S. Army in Iraq, but fled when his safety became jeopardized. As a gay man, his life in Iraq was doubly dangerous.

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“It was not easy to leave my mom,” Hrebid tells Higgins during a poignant moment in the episode. “I just hugged her and told her how much I love her. When my taxi [drove away] I saw her drop to her knees. I felt so bad, I was crying.”

Making his life even more complicated and painful, Hrebid’s then-boyfriend, now-husband, Btoo Allami, was not able to make it to the U.S. for six years after Hrebid fled Iraq in 2009. Hrebid found work in a Seattle Lowe’s, eventually earning a promotion to department manager–but he was incredibly lonely without Allami. So he went to the local animal shelter and adopted a cat. He named it Lotus.

Before Lotus entered his life in Seattle, Hrebid “had nothing to cuddle and nothing to hold,” Higgins said. “That really got to me.”

Now she’s hoping stories like Hrebid’s will also get to more people. In an email to me after we spoke, Higgins suggested how and why she thinks her show can have broad appeal:

As well as talking to people who come/stay here because they have to—refugees, asylum seekers, undocumented people—I’ve also met and interviewed people who came here for many other reasons. Like adventure; Tanael Joachim who came here as a student from Haiti then, having got TPS (temporary protected status) because of the Haitian earthquake, he was no longer dependent on his student visa and became a wilderness coach and comedian. And of course, people like me, who moved out of ambition for greater opportunities, because women in comedy in Ireland can really only go so far. I feel like ‘The American Dream’ has been debunked as a myth, and it’s not real for many people born in the US who get stuck in the socio-economic group they are born into, but in the case of immigrants, it’s quite real, moving here does give you a better shot.

Also, people move for love. Like Nessia who is a member of the Lubavitch Orthodox Jewish faith, and could not find a husband in Canada, so came to Crown Heights in Brooklyn, ‘the dating hub of the Lubavitch world,’ and met Andrew and settled down almost immediately. They have a one year old and I just had my first Shabbat in their house!

Anyway what I mean is . . . the immigration experience contains MULTITUDES and we try and reflect as much of that as we can. And something that’s becoming so clear to me as I proceed is just how vital immigrants are to the US. People congratulated me when I got my visa and I appreciate that visa and this country a LOT, as does pretty much everyone I’ve spoken to who has made the US their home. But also—US is lucky to have us and would be making a grave mistake to continue down this nativist path. Ok I am using the caps lock so I better stop typing!

Higgins says that when her guest is from, say, Colombia, then that episode sees an audience surge in Colombia. And that’s great. But now she’d like to reach listeners who couldn’t even find Colombia—or Syria or Nigeria—on the map.

“Ideally I’d love to have someone who doesn’t know any Syrians to listen to the show and then want to meet someone from Syria.”

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That might seem like a crazy dream, but you could probably say the same about a podcast on immigration hosted by a comedian.

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