Lit that’s trending now: Books by refugees

  • Books
  • Sunday, 05 Aug 2018

“... NO one puts their children in a boat,” writes Somali-British poet Warsan Shire in her poem Home, “unless the water is safer than the land”.

This is why Syrian swimmer Yusra Mardini (pictured above), like so many people fleeing war-torn homelands nowadays, got into the boat that would become the scene which defined her for the world.

Then 17, she and her sister Sara were trying to cross the sea from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos. Smugglers had packed them onto an inflatable dinghy meant to take eight passengers, but crammed with 20.

When the engine died and the boat began to sink, the Mardini sisters jumped into the water to lighten it. They swam for three hours until the engine revived and they could reach the shore.

Mardini’s remarkable story made her one of the faces of the modern-day refugee crisis. She went on to compete in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro as part of the Refugee Olympic team – swimming in the women’s 100m freestyle and 100m butterfly – and, at 19, became the youngest United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Goodwill Ambassador.

Literature by and about refugees has been gaining ground in recent years.

Mardini’s autobiography Butterfly is among a spate of memoirs and novels coming out this year that strive to convey the complexity of the refugee experience, even as borders tighten around the world against the swelling tides of the displaced.

The UNHCR estimates that there are nearly 25.4 million refugees in the world today, over half of whom are under the age of 18.

‘I Miss My Country’

Samawi tells of escaping besieged Aden in Yemen with help from strangers in his memoir, The Fox Hunt. Photo: BEN DROZ

“I was not proud of the word ‘refugee’,” says Mardini, 20, over the telephone from Berlin, where she now lives.

“But now I accept it. I am proud of being a refugee because I represent so many people around the world. A lot of people have faith in me.”

In Butterfly, she recounts her journey before and after the boat: how an unexploded rocket-propelled grenade fell into the pool during one of her regular swimming training sessions in Damascus; sleeping rough, hopping on trains and evading the police on the refugee route; and the humiliation they faced from locals.

refugee voices emerging in print
Proceeds from Hosseini's book, Sea Prayer will go towards helping displaced kids in Kabul. Photo: The Khaled Hosseini Foundation

There is nothing that she would like more, she says, than to swim at the Olympics under the Syrian flag.

“I miss my country,” she says. “I loved what I left there. But there was war and we had to go. And this could happen to anyone around the world – I feel it is very important for people to understand this.”

Mardini’s story will be adapted for the big screen by director Stephen Daldry for British film company Working Title.

Another memoir that will receive the Hollywood treatment is Yemeni peace activist Mohammed Al Samawi’s The Fox Hunt, the thrilling account of his miracle escape from the port city of Aden as it succumbed to civil war in 2015.

Over 13 days, four strangers around the world – some of whom had never met Al Samawi in person – moved heaven and earth to get him out of the war zone. The book is being developed by Fox 2000 and La La Land (2016) producer Marc Platt.

The refugee crisis is also getting more play in fiction, with a much-awaited illustrated book, Sea Prayer, by bestselling Afghan-American author Khaled Hosseini – of The Kite Runner (2003) fame – coming out in September.

Hosseini, whose family sought asylum in the United States when he was 15, wrote Sea Prayer to mark the third death anniversary of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy whose body washed up on a beach in Turkey in 2015.

Author proceeds from the book will go to the UNHCR and The Khaled Hosseini Foundation for refugee relief.

‘Everything Is Hard To Recall’

refugee voices emerging in print
Wamariya fled her home in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide when she was six. Her recently released memoir, The Girl Who Smiled Beads, tells of the six years she spent as a child refugee. Photo: JULIA ZAVE/

Refugee crises are nothing new, says Clemantine Wamariya, who fled her home in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide when she was six. But there is a growing interest in such stories among publishers.

She says: “In terms of people moving worldwide, that has been the case since thousands of years ago. But now the person who wants to push these stories forward has the power, money and resources.”

Wamariya, 30, released her memoir, The Girl Who Smiled Beads, earlier this year – an account of her six years as a child refugee wandering through seven African countries with her teenage sister, until they got to the United States and shot to fame after being reunited with their parents on television mogul Oprah Winfrey’s show.

She writes of having to play the role of the perfect refugee, of how her trauma would sometimes be sensationalised.

“There are those who have agendas on how they want to share my story,” she says over Skype from San Francisco. “They want to share only my pain, not my goodness. I don’t have time for those people.”

To tell her story on her terms, she worked for three years with writer Elizabeth Weil to piece together what she went through – of walking so much that all her toenails fell off, of nearly dying of malaria or malnutrition, of having no words to describe the sounds people made around her when they died.

“Everything is hard to recall. You have to go to different parts of your memory, of your body.”

She recalls queuing for hours to get corn in a camp.

“I remember being so utterly grateful that someone stopped and gave us corn.

“But fast-forward to now and I realise, wait a minute – that is so inhumane. I remember being so grateful, but no one should be lining up for corn for five hours.”

It is hard to relive such stories to tell them, but she hopes more refugees will be able to as a counter to current policies, such as US President Donald Trump’s hard line on immigration and refugees.

“There are children being rounded up and put into shelters away from their families because they sought refuge here,” she says.

“These experiences are happening in front of our eyes. We have to think about that as reporters and storytellers and to end that abuse.”

‘Important Stories’

refugee voices emerging in print
Bala feels refugee stories are important and timeless. Her novel, Boat People, is about the plight of an asylum-seeking family that is torn apart. Photo: Doubleday

Under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy towards illegal immigration, more than 2,000 children have been separated from their migrant parents at the US-Mexico border in May.

Trump issued an executive order on June 20 calling for families to be detained together pending criminal or immigration proceedings.

Canadian author Sharon Bala’s debut novel, The Boat People, had been published before news on the family separations broke.

But it resonated eerily with her book, in which a Sri Lankan father seeking asylum in Vancouver, Canada, is separated from his six-year-old son and fears he will be deported without him.

“Part of me thinks (the separations) are traumatic, cruel and vicious,” says Bala, 39, over the telephone from St John’s, Newfoundland.

“The other part of me was not surprised because these things happened in the past.”

She was inspired by the real-life arrival of two ships of Tamil asylum-seekers from Sri Lanka in 2009 and 2010. The nearly 500 passengers of the second boat were detained for months by the Canadian authorities due to suspicions that some on board were from the militant group Tamil Tigers.

Bala’s own family had successfully emigrated to Canada from Sri Lanka in the 1980s and she was struck by how vastly different their treatment had been. “It could have been our family in that boat.”

When she started writing in 2013, refugee boats had just begun to appear on the Mediterranean.

“These are really important stories, not so much because they’re timely, but because they’re timeless.”

‘Resist Suffering By Finding Joy’

refugee voices emerging in print
Joukhadar's The Map Of Salt And Tears is about her experiences as a refugee seeking asylum. Photo: Neha Gautam Photography/

Family heritage was also what spurred Syrian-American writer Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar to pen her novel, The Map Of Salt And Stars, which uses a traditional Arab storytelling technique to entwine the mythical voyage of a 12th-century map-maker’s apprentice with the modern-day journey of a young refugee girl travelling from Syria to Morocco.

Joukhadar, 30, has family in Syria and was frustrated by the “distancing and dehumanising” of refugees in the media.

Her lyrical novel includes poems written in the shape of the countries the characters traverse. It is not one with trauma and suffering at its heart, she says, but hope and resilience.

“I felt it was important to talk about the ways we resist suffering by finding joy. I am hopeful that literature can help with that.”

A book is the best way to document history and educate others, says Syrian activist Kassem Eid, whose memoir, My Country, looks back on not just the horror of Syria’s civil war, but also the years before that under the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

Eid, 32, is thrice-displaced. The child of Palestinian exiles, he fled Syria for the United States in 2014 and is now a refugee in Germany.

refugee voices emerging in print
Eid recorded daily life under siege in war-torn Syria in his memoir, My Country. Photo: Handout

After his town Moadamiya became the site of a revolution he calls “a dream that turned into a nightmare”, he became vocal online under the pseudonym Qusai Zakarya.

He recorded daily life under siege and in the grip of famine, even going on a 30-day hunger strike to try and draw international attention to the Syrians’ plight.

On Aug 21, 2013, he nearly died in a sarin gas attack that killed hundreds of civilians.

He describes holding in his arms a little glassy-eyed boy whose face was “stained with grotesque shades of red, yellow and blue” from the chemical.

Hours later, he would pick up a gun for the first time and join the Free Syrian Army on the frontlines.

He believes people should stop calling refugees, refugees.

“Unfortunately, the alt-right in the US and Europe are trying to steer people towards fear when they hear that word.

“But these refugees are just normal people who used to have jobs, families and names. They want freedom, safety and education and to move on with their lives.

“They are people who love life more than anything else. That’s why they risked it to find safety.” – The Straits Times/Asia News Network

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