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Imagine being a child, a teenager, thrown out of the only home you have ever known, persecuted, and left to the mercies of others. Malala Yousafzai’s new book We Are Displaced tells us the real stories of such girls.
Malala Yousafzai and her rise in the international community has been fascinating. I remember reading about her blogging against the Taliban and marveling at the guts this teenager had, living in the Swat Valley and speaking up. I followed her health when she was shot along with the whole world, thinking about her and hoping to hear good news while resigned at the impact evil has. But she overcame all that was thrown at her: it was almost like she became 4 people after being shot.
Listening to her speak was fascinating because she didn’t pander to the West. She said it as she saw it, calling people on their words or thoughts right then and there with her charm and diplomacy. She confronted but with a smile and wit and people couldn’t just resist her much. The cause she espoused, of girls’ education being a critical cause in today’s world, was ballast for this dove’s flight.
Her latest book, We are Displaced: My Journey and Stories from Refugee Girls Around the World, is as charming. It starts with her thoughts walking through Birmingham, UK, feeling grateful for peace. The UN estimates 68.5 million people as having been forcibly displaced worldwide, 25.4 of whom are considered refugees. This staggering number needs interpretation, needs individual stories and circumstances to be laid out for all of us, privileged enough to be safe and sleep in our own beds each night.
The book is divided into two sections: Section I “I Am Displaced” and Section II “We Are Displaced”. Malala talks about internal displacement in a bit of detail in the first section, of how the Army’s initiative to defeat the Taliban required the inhabitants of Swat Valley to leave their homes in droves and find homes for themselves for a few months. Even 3 months was hard to be in another’s home, sometimes split up as a family, despite welcoming relatives in one’s own land, along with the rights of being its citizen. I like that she is matter of fact in the narration – this is no attempt to wring out a sob story. If anything, the matter-of-fact narration of the stories makes them more hard hitting, leaving the reader with a deep sense of unease and enlightenment.
Malala clearly states her gratitude to the countries that take refugees in, including the United Kingdom for embracing her and her family. She also talks at length about how much she misses her home, that missing her home isn’t a sign of ungratefulness. It shows us how much it means to belong, almost an embossing on our souls.
The pull and push of being in another land is well illustrated when the narrative moves from what she is grateful for to what she misses and back to what she doesn’t miss: the feeling of being under siege always. Which teenager should have to speak up asking for education, have to self-advocate for what is clearly a universal human right and be shot for it?
Malala isn’t a refugee and she states that clearly. She has experienced displacement though and poignantly says
“I am incredibly grateful to the United Kingdom for the warm welcome my family and I have received. But not a day goes by when I didn’t miss my home. I miss my friends and the taste of Pakistani tea that has been boiled with milk on a stove and sweetened with sugar. My mum makes rice and chicken here, my favourite dish but it tastes different in Pakistan….I miss the sound of Pashto being spoken in the streets and the smell of the earth after a heavy rain in the mountain village where my grandparents live…”
The book is a collection of stories of different girls from all over the world, all refugees. Malala’s travels give her the opportunity to meet these powerful women, all of them looking to do well: for themselves and for those who sacrificed their lives to ensure this success. Zaynab from Yemen talks of her experience of fleeing to less than ideal circumstances in Egypt. When the sisters, Zaynab and Sabreen applied for the US visa, Zaynab alone got it.
How that story pans out is carried on by Sabreen, who takes the hard decision of going by boat across the Mediterranean, thinking it would be the cruise ship experience for the money they paid. Ah, the naivete and the resulting crash to reality! Just reading these stories and placing myself in them is hard and then someone has actually gone through it? One knows that the story in the book is only the summary, much has been left out and glossed over to ensure that the main goal stays clear: these girls were all working towards their improvement, in search for peace and in many cases, education. Zaynab graduated class valedictorian with a 4.0 grade point average. You will have to read the book to know what happened to Sabreen.
Iraq, Colombia, Guatemala, The Congo, Myanmar and Uganda: young girls who have been displaced, refugees from man-made borders seething with problems created by ego and a thirst for power. Some of these children are the same age as my children. I work with other children who could be these children, but for the birth lottery. The book and its underlying message is one of hope, that these children have transcended their visible boundaries to draw on strength from universal values.
Jennifer, a US volunteer who was a part of settling Marie Claire’s family in their home, is given space to talk in the book. She talks of her dismay at the state of the house that they were able to provide this large family and as she apologizes for this, she sees the family taking pleasure in many of the small facilities that we take for granted. Running water, a bathroom, separate rooms and privacy are all privileges they hadn’t had and some paint chipping off here and there in a safe country wasn’t even in their vision. Jennifer talks of the privilege she feels when Marie Claire introduces her as her American mum.
Refugees carry with them a well of grief, some from the displacement and a lot for the atrocities they escape from. They are the ‘fortunate’ ones to have found new homes where peace isn’t in doubt on an every day basis.
I came away feeling the need to DO something, at the very least be more aware and see the numbers we read in newspapers as people. Do ensure that this book is read by your tweens and teens: one, it will build empathy and an understanding of what their counterparts undergo elsewhere in the world and two, help them take less for granted and be grateful for the opportunities they have in front of them.
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Sangitha Krishnamurthi is a special educator, blogger and mother of three. Her interests include living
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