In this special bonus episode best-selling author and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Khaled Hosseini tells Melissa Fleming his personal story of being displaced by war and explains what drives him to focus his creative energy on storytelling.
“One night we were in our home and we were having dinner and the TV was on and we saw on our little black and white screen television we saw pictures of Soviet tanks rolling into Afghanistan. And when that happened I remember my parents watching this and looking at each other and, I didn’t know it at the time, but experience in retrospect what many refugees do when that final moment comes.”
Melissa Fleming (MF): To be sitting across from a writer that I just, you know I’ve spent, I feel like I’ve spent hours with him in his books and I was a bit nervous because I just admire him so much. The interview was incredible to me because he, I think revealed, not just his motivation for why he writes, he said it was like a meditation for him and he’s discovering himself as he’s doing it. But what runs through it all is I think his refugee experience his experience as somebody who grew up in a country that he loved but just turns into a war zone and where he just could never for many, many years go back.
Khaled Hosseini (KH): I came home from school one day in April of ‘78. I was 13 and my mom said there had been a coup in Afghanistan. My mom’s brother was jailed and he was a judge, he was tortured and beaten for nine months. One night we were in our home and we were having dinner and the TV was on and we saw, on our little black and white screen television, we saw pictures of Soviet tanks rolling into Afghanistan. And when that happened, that moment I remember my parents watching this and looking at each other and I didn’t know it at the time, but I experienced in retrospect what many refugees do when that final moment comes. When you suddenly realize that going home, for them staying home, but for us going home is no longer an option.
MF: I’m Melissa Fleming and I’m from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. Welcome to this special bonus episode of Awake at Night our podcast highlighting the work of those who have done extraordinary things to help refugees. It’s a real and particular honor to have Khaled Hosseini with me today. One of the most recognized and best selling authors in the world and also a Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR. Books like The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns have made him a household name. His most recent book Sea Prayer is dedicated to the thousands of refugees who’ve lost their lives at sea fleeing war and persecution. Khaled welcome to Awake at Night.
KH: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.
MF: Khaled, you’re not just someone who works for refugees, you were a refugee yourself. You were born in Afghanistan in 1965. And you were also granted political asylum in the United States with your family in 1980. And this was after the coup and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union. Childhood in Afghanistan is something you’ve written very movingly about particularly in The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns. What do you think of when you remember your own childhood in Afghanistan.
KH: Well for me the word Afghanistan conjures a set of images that I think would be very diametrical to what most people would think when they hear the word Afghanistan. They think understandably would think war, terrorism, corruption all those negative associations. The fact was I had a marvelous childhood in Afghanistan. It was a beautiful place. I never heard a gunshot go off. I never saw a tank move an inch. I had a fantastic and peaceful childhood in Afghanistan
MF: You were in Kabul?
KH: Yeah I grew up in fact my social upbringing and the sort of a socioeconomic milieu where I was raised was very similar to my protagonist Amir in The Kite Runner. We lived in Wazir Akbar Khan which at the time was one of the newer and kind of a posh neighborhoods in Kabul. Now it’s home to a lot of aid agencies and government workers and so on. But I went to the same school. I loved to read books and watch movies like Amir did in The Kite Runner I flew kites in the winter times. So it was kind of like a fairly idyllic childhood I would say. All the way up to when we left in 1976 and we thought we were coming back. My father was a diplomat for the Afghan foreign ministry and we were going to Paris for four years in 1976. And so we left everything behind. We didn’t expect that this was going to be a permanent departure. And so we went to Paris and then things back home fell apart.
MF: When was it clear at what point in Paris that your father could no longer work as a diplomat and that something had to change?
KH: That knowledge accumulated over time and we became increasingly worried that going home was going to be hard. I came home from school one day in April of ‘78. I was 13. I came home and my mom said there had been a coup in Afghanistan. It didn’t take long for us to begin to see the human toll of that. Very quickly we heard about family members who’d been imprisoned. My mom’s brother was jailed and he was a judge he was tortured and beaten for nine months. I had cousins who were shot. We were hearing every day about people that we knew in our former life who had to escape who went to prison. My wife’s uncle who was a musician, well-known songwriter and musician, was arrested and disappeared never heard from again to this day, over 40 years later. So, but the moment at which pretty certain that now we cannot go home and suddenly we saw that a new, new day is dawning for us, for our family, was when one night we’re in our home and we were having dinner and the TV was on and there was a break in the program and we saw on our little black and white screen pictures of Soviet tanks rolling into Afghanistan. And when that happened, that moment, I remember my parents watching this and looking at each other and I with that moment I experienced that I didn’t know it at the time but experienced in retrospect what many refugees do with that final moment comes when you suddenly realize that going home — for them staying home — but for us going home is no longer an option.
MF: At that point you were in Paris and you were going to school in Paris. What prompted your parents then to move to the United States.
KH: A couple of things. First my father was a child of the Cold War and he was ideologically utterly opposed to the communist regime. He sort of had these very idealized notions of the West, especially of the U.S. he always loved the idea of what the U.S. represented. You know the idea of freedom and opportunity and equal footing for everyone and the whole American dream idea. But also it turned out later that my father was a bit of a risk taker. He, it turned out, was working with the Americans and allowing journalists because he was a you know he was at the embassy.
MF: He was stamping passport?
KH: He was stamping passports for journalists undercover to go and cover the atrocities of the Soviet war and report back. And so one of my very vivid memories is being in France my father sort of working with this government that he really disliked and then
MF: He was kind of a dissident?
KH: Yeah he was. In retrospect I thought he was really heroic. And you know he took a risk. And I remember, he wouldn’t explain to us why, but every time we went somewhere as a family he would have us all wait and he would go to the car he would look under it and then he would turn on the car and if it didn’t blow up then we could go and sit with him. And so there was you know he was worried that his life was at risk.
MF: You must have been worried when you saw that your father was going into the car.
KH: It was scary. It was it was it was scary but you know we’re hearing news of much worse from Afghanistan. I mean kids that I grew up playing with who were you know shot. And so it was really scary. I gave my dad a lot of credit. I mean he took a risk and you know we came to the U.S. a couple of months before Ronald Reagan was elected president.
MF: Just back to Afghanistan because you said that some of your friends had been shot. Did you have a best friend back in Afghan because in your books you write a lot about friendship and child friendship?
KH: I had a lot of friends in school. You know all my best friends were family and they were you know my cousins and my siblings. I was never alone with one person. We were constantly in a group of people. What one of the great things about my life in Afghanistan was socially it was incredibly rich. We never ate dinner alone. We always had uncles and aunts and cousins swinging by, walking in and sitting unannounced at our dinner. It was normal, it’s the way people lived. And so I didn’t have a best friend but a lot of friends. It’s you know a lot of family that hung out with a lot of boys that I knew or grew up with. Some of them I’ve seen now in the U.S., seen them quite a number of times in fact, and cousins of course and relatives I still keep in touch with.
MF: What affected you the most you know hearing that news you know, on seeing it on the television but also the phone calls that your parents probably received about deaths of family members. How did that affect you?
KH: It shortened the horizon in a way. It was not exactly worded this way to me, but this the impression I’ve gotten talking to a lot of refugees is that you know when you’re in your normal life and you’re in your community in your country and you have a life and you’re building toward something. You have education and you working, you know there’s a far horizon you see where you’re going in life and you know there’s a everything going OK, there’s a future you’re working towards but when suddenly that is cut off, your horizon becomes very short. It becomes next month and the month after that. You know what’s going to happen to us? It’s just that uncertainty of the future is a very strange feeling. And I was only a teenager I can imagine that for my folks it was far more dramatic. They left so much behind they had land. They had a couple of homes. They had careers, identities they had an entire network of friends and colleagues and family that they knew. All of that for them was lost.
MF: Did they talk about that loss with you?
KH: They presented a very unified front for us, our parents. But I imagine that behind doors they were having very agonizing and difficult discussions and conversations about you know what’s going to happen to us.
MF: So when you were a kid what did you want to be, this is before the war, when you grew up?
KH: Secretly I wanted to be a writer because from the time that I grew up I loved to read. I loved to write. I would write short stories when I was a boy. Never really talked about it to my dad or my mom but I wrote a lot from the time that I could pick up a pen. I began writing stories, I would write little plays for my siblings and cousins we would kind of act out when we had parties, which was all the time. You know I wrote little short stories in Farsi and then later in French and in English. But I think if I had stayed and the country had been stable I would probably ended up following my dad’s path. I would have probably studied law or political science and then try to work for the government.
MF: So there is a silver lining to having become a refugee?
KH: Yeah because I think quite likely I would have been enlisted in the army and sent to fight the Mujahedeen.
MF: But you ended up as a teenager in the United States in San Jose, California. Why San Jose?
KH: We had a friend here who sponsored us. So we arrived here, she was an Afghan friend of ours a daughter of a friend of my father’s in Paris who worked for UNESCO and so we had known her and she was incredibly big hearted. Her name was Nazia Tamati. And to this day my family is very, very grateful to her because she was a single woman, a young woman in her late 20s and she had taken in, in her house three families of recent Afghan refugee families, including ours and there was nine of us.
MF: Nine of you!?
KH: Five kids, my aunt, my grandmother and my parents. And there was another family, and another family. All of us living in this house with her until we could all get on our feet and find you know rentals and so on. So, she was a very big, is a very big hearted person and so she agreed to sponsor us and that’s how we ended up in San Jose.
MF: And that was probably quite a contrast having been in a diplomatic residence in Paris?
KH: Yeah, you know this is an Afghan diplomatic residency. It was a little apartment. It wasn’t very glamorous. But it was a big change to suddenly, I mean it’s a tectonic shift.
MF: You didn’t speak English at that time?
KH: I didn’t speak English.
MF: So you were thrown into high school?
KH: Yeah. Two weeks after we arrived and we arrived in mid-September, in fact we had recently our 30th anniversary of arriving in the US. But, yeah two weeks later I was in school and I was in regular English class, for English one A one B one C. So I was in the lowest level of English but it wasn’t ESL it was with the normal English speaking kids but they were all the kids who were you know in trouble and they didn’t want to study and so on. So that’s sort of I learned English on the fly and it took me about a year really to pick up English.
MF: How did the other kids treat you?
KH: With complete disregard, really. When I began school I felt completely disconnected from everyone because I couldn’t speak the language and I didn’t understand the culture at all. So I was one of those you know in every high school you see this cast of sort of these very anonymous characters who sort of hover on the periphery of high school life and campus culture. So that was me. But for months after I started high school I hang out with these Cambodian kids at lunchtime because I didn’t want to eat alone because it was you know you’re 15 you know. But these Cambodian kids, none of them knew any English, but I understood them better than the American kids because I knew something of their experience. I knew why they were in the US and that they had experienced something, you know different but fundamentally familiar. The loss of home and not being able to go back and escaping violence and brutality and now having to restart life in this very strange new place. I understood what they were going through. You know I was eating lunch with them and they kind of took me in and then I, you know, over time learned English and probably found my sea legs by the time I was a sophomore.
MF: Meanwhile you’re, I mean both your parents were professionals, your father a diplomat your mother was a Farsi teacher and they’re now in the US. How did they get by?
KH: So both of my parents in Afghanistan were very generous and they’re always helping. You’ve been to Afghanistan it’s affluence and poverty are literally next door. So it’s part of your daily life. You can’t really live in a bubble in Kabul. So they were very good at helping poor people and being generous. Now suddenly they were the ones that needed help. And for them that change in perspective was really hard. I remember one night we had, we were a few months in the US, and we had friends over and there was a knock on the door and we opened the door and this these boy scouts and this guy from the Salvation Army rolled in with canned food and clothes and gifts and a tree. And we were all kind of bewildered. What was going on and they came in and they put the tree and they wished us merry Christmas and give all they gave us gifts and so on. They were grateful, but it was also so strange that there roles are reversed now. I remember going to the grocery store with my mom and she would pay for food with food stamps and that was so mortifying for her. She was always so embarrassed about it because she felt like somebody from her old life was going to see her and she would be caught in this moment of fall from grace.
MF: Did that give you a feeling of wanting to do something to protect her, help?
KH: Well, I felt helpless. I felt bad for them but I kind of admired them too because they were tough. They took it on the chin and kept going and they kept telling us that things will get better. I remember my dad convening the whole family the day after we arrived around the table. And he said that you know your mom and I are going to work, and your aunt, we’re going to work. But you guys are the five of you. You have a job and your job is to do really well in school and go to college and make something for yourself. So I admired them, but it was hard for them. My dad was loathed to be on social welfare and so he wanted to get us off of that very quickly. And so he dove into a bunch of jobs that were really ill suited for him.
MF: What kind of jobs?
KH: He tried to sell insurance. You had to know my dad to realize how absurd that was. He was not a salesman. He worked at an assembly line for a while, then he was a driving instructor for years. Sort of his specialty was to teach the physically challenged how to drive. So this school had given him this van with all these lifts and levers and gears and stuff so he would teach the paraplegic drivers in San Francisco up and down the hills there and he would teach them how to drive. He did that for years. And then in a kind of a weird twist, which if I were to like put in a book it would be considered too coincidental or too neat, my dad eventually got a job with the County of Santa Clara and dispensed welfare to refugee families and immigrant families for years. And so he had clients that were refugees and now he was on the other end giving them housing and being their carer.
MF: So what direction were they pushing you in?
KH: The holy trio of medicine, engineering or law was sort of the selection. I never thought I mean writing to me was a joke. I mean I’m learning English. Plenty of people who were native English speaking people who couldn’t write or publish. You know, it seems so hubristic to think that I could I, mean more than that, it seemed delusional. And so I never really thought that something sensible people do anyway – write for a living. So, no, I thought it could do medicine well, I like people, I like being around people. And I was always good in school.
MF: You’ve kept a really strong relationship with Afghanistan, obviously you write about this, it is the settings for your work. You speak the language, your kids speak the language but you are an American. Do you have an identity or how would you describe it?
KH: It’s something I don’t think about consciously. Because I forged this messy complicated identity for myself over the last 40 years and it’s very hard to extricate one from the other. It’s all entwined. But I think at the end of the day I will always feel like an Afghan, although I also feel like an American. But I have a very different reaction when the plane is about to land in San Jose than I do when I’m going to Kabul. Whenever the plane enters the airspace in Kabul and it’s on its descent, and I see the city below me I become quite emotional. Because I look down and I think this is where it all began, my life. This is where I took my first step. This is where I learned to write the first letter, made my first friends. It’s a sense of homecoming to Kabul. Even though I realize also that this city is a dramatically transformed place and that in many ways I don’t belong there anymore. But nevertheless it is a very strong personal, sort of visceral bond that you feel. I don’t feel that way, and I’m happy that I’m home when I come back to California, I look forward to seeing my family and my neighbors and I’m happy to come home. It’s a very different thing. I don’t imagine my kids will ever have — they will never have — that kind of connection. For them, this is their birthplace, this is their home.
MF: Did they read your books?
KH: Oh yeah, oh yeah. Yeah. They have. They’re 17 and 15 so they’ve both read all three of my books, four I should say. And they’re you know, one of the true highlights for me as a writer and one of the most cherished moments for me was this past summer when my daughter was in L.A. on camp and she finally read And the Mountains Echoed, my third book, and she called me and she was in tears because she recognized in the book the little rituals that she and I have had for many years at nighttime. And she finally read it as she called me from Los Angeles and she was in tears and she was saying this is such a gift. You know, this is us. And I said, yes it is. And you know and one of the really wonderful things about being a writer which I never thought about in my younger, but now I do think about is that I feel like my kids 20, 30 years from now, 40 years from now, can pick up the book from the shelf and just open it and we’ll be together. So it’s leaving a piece of yourself permanently for your kids. It’s really, really a great gift.
MF: So was writing a kind of catharsis for you?
KH: It felt like a compulsion. There was catharsis in finishing and seeing a piece go to its end, and seeing the final shape of it. Because as I’m writing I never really know what’s going, how it’s going to turn out and where this is going and what the book will ultimately be about. It’s really just kind of like digging and digging. Like imagine having this massive object buried under the sand then you’ve got a broom and you’re just kind of sweeping the sand off of it and hopefully at some point you will see the shape of this thing. And so there’s a real catharsis in that for me.
MF: What are some of the values that you think are the most important to you, that you want to come through?
KH: I don’t really know and I never really think about themes. I never really think about what are the ideas I want to get across. It’s much more immediate than that. I’m really just in the moment and writing the scene and kind of getting a feel for where this is headed and I just kind of keep blindly following that way. And then after you know 100, 200 pages I sit back and I read it all over again and I pay attention to what’s speaking to me, what are the things that are emerging from this? And often the things that I will notice will be friendship and they will be family. Those are things that are very important to me. I mean all my books are in some ways family stories. I don’t really know how, how to say it because the whole process to me isn’t all that clear. I don’t really know what’s under the hood and what makes me say the things that I do and so on. I do know that when I’m writing, It’s the closest thing that there is to people who describe meditation. I don’t notice the passage of time, I’m in the moment, when it’s working well, I’m in the moment and I look up and eight hours have passed, and it’s just incredible.
MF: So you were working as a doctor. You’d head off in the morning and practice medicine, what kind of doctor?
KH: I was an internist, but I began writing The Kite Runner, the novel, as a kind of a challenge to myself because I had written a short story version of it, which I halfheartedly tried to get published and nobody would. And so it sat in my garage for two years. I wrote it in 1999 and then in March of 01, I found my wife reading it. She somehow found it and she really loved it and she was kind of responding to it. So I sat back and reread the short story and I thought it still didn’t work. But I felt there’s a seed here for something bigger. And so I kind of challenged myself to see if I can write a book from this, as an exercise more than anything. You know I get up at 4:30AM, 5:00AM in the morning I worked for about three hours until 8th and then just quickly get ready get dressed and go off and see patients. That was the schedule I kept to. The more I wrote, the more I became really involved in that world and began these characters were just kind of squatted permanently in my head and it was going swimmingly until 9/11 and then at that point everything turned upside down and we were all emotionally involved in this massive incredibly tragic and confusing and traumatizing moment. And for me as an Afghan it was even more complicated because I not only experienced what happened as a citizen of this country but also as an Afghan. And when the stories began to come out that this attack initiated in Afghanistan, and then when President Bush announced that the U.S. was going into Afghanistan it was a very, very challenging time for us. It was a mixture of dread and hope. Dread that there is going to be more fighting. But at the same time there was a hope that things might finally turn in a better direction. And at that point The Kite Runner, I pretty much abandoned it because I felt like it would be capitalizing on this kind of this national tragedy. And I felt there was something possibly exploitative about it. So I just said to Roya I said you know I’m pretty much done with it. You know I’m just going to set it aside. I mean I enjoyed it and if I finish it will be for myself. But she convinced me otherwise over time. She took about three months, but she kept talking to me and said you know this book can give people a different view of Afghanistan than what they’re exposed to. All they see on the news is Tora Bora and Bin Laden, the Taliban. So I go back to work on it.
And so I did eventually early the following year I went back to work on it, and by June of 2002 I had finished it and I sent it off to agencies. I got turned down by dozens. I only got two people who were interested. The one that did bother me was a rejection slip that I received, a letter. They had actually read the manuscript and they actually enjoyed it. They actually liked the book, but the thing that bothered me was they said you know although we liked the book we’re not going to represent that because, this is June of 2002 mind you, they said because we’re now onto stories about Iraq. And I was devastated, not for myself. I was disappointed but you know there are other agencies, move on. But that oh my God what does this mean for Afghanistan. June of 2002. Oh my goodness. The day that the U.S. invaded Iraq I landed in Kabul and you could hear the collective groan come out of that city because everybody felt, and I think quite correctly, that all resources and attention and focus was going to be shifted from Afghanistan. And it wasn’t long after that that Afghanistan was like the forgotten war.
MF: It got published. You were you surprised?
KH: I was surprised at every step of the way. I was surprised I found an agent. Then I was surprised that a publishing house took a chance on me. I was surprised it was actually published. I think this is a book about a country that people know hardly anything about. It’s really dark. It’s very sad. It has many painful parts. And the good guys die. Who wants to read this – it’s the how not to write, best seller. So it came out in paperback. Within a couple of months, that was when I realized that I got to think about what I want to do with my career, because there was a lot of demand on my time and people were asking me to give interviews. And then a lot of my patients, it wasn’t good for them because you know I had 20 minutes to manage their thyroid and their diabetes and pancreatitis and here I am talking about plot points of The Kite Runner and taking pictures and signing books. So at that point I thought maybe I should take some time off. And I took a year off to write A Thousand Splendid Suns and at the end of that year I still wasn’t done, so at that point I just resigned.
MF: How did your family react to your sudden fame?
KH: Well it wasn’t so sudden. I mean it was sort of, the book came out and there was some news and it was just. My parents were always, my mom especially, was always worried that I was going to leave medicine. And so when I told her that I was going to leave it she became a little bit worried. I think she kept a lot of it inside. Some of it trickled out. I remember her saying something like she said “wow ok, are you sure?”. You know what the book is selling well you know, I think I’m going to be OK. “Well, tou know, I went to Costco and they didn’t have it.”. So she was worried. And then the second book was published and my mom walked into the house and she goes “Guess what I saw at Costco..?”. So at that moment I had her full blessing to pursue a career in writing because, you know, if you’re at Costco you’ve made it.
MF: You’ve made it. So you have received remarkable success actually doing something that you love, something that for most people, let alone for a refugee, is something they probably never could achieve. So do you ever feel a sense of survivor’s guilt?
KH: Yeah. You know I used to. In the earlier days. When I went to Kabul the first time I felt it most acutely. And in fact I imagined that I would because I wrote The Kite Runner before I ever went back to Afghanistan. So I wrote that book, and then it was a few months from being published and in that window I went to Afghanistan for the first time in 27 years. I had written about this guy who goes back to Afghanistan, main character in The Kite Runner and he goes back to Afghanistan has this feeling of survivor’s guilt. And I felt the same. It was strange. I had many of the experiences that I had imagined for this character, actually lived through them later in person. So it was kind of like life imitating art. So I felt that, but over time, and I have UNHCR to thank for this, my work with UNHCR has taken what I’ve always felt was kind of a negative and useless emotion in a way and turned it into something really positive. To talk about people that went through similar experiences as my family did, but far, far worse even and so when UNHCR reached out to me in 2006, I fairly leapt at the chance.
MF: And that is also to use your storytelling talent. Tell me about that.
KH: When I was in Sicily in June and in Lebanon and I was speaking to refugees and I’m listening to these people and the reasons why they’re here and what they fled and the incredible hardships that they’ve overcome and the unbelievable resilience that they’ve shown. Shining examples of humanity that they’ve displayed that just, compassion and I’m so moved by their example and I remember thinking and I’m listening to this thinking, you know I wish I could put the rest of the world just having be like a fly on the wall and just hear this because I feel like 99 per cent of people, when faced with a human situation that they can relate to, will have a human response. And I think this photograph of Alan Kurdi is a prime example. We all saw this little boy lying face down on the beach and no matter where we were from, no matter what country, no matter what language we spoke we all reacted the same way – we were all gutted. So I feel like if they could be with me they would understand, so since they can’t be with me in that hut to hear these refugees speak, I can take that and bring it with me. And so I feel like my role in UNHCR has always been to take the numbers, the statistics, the storylines, the metrics and all those things and crystallize out of them the human part.
MF: And in tribute to those people, those thousands of people who lost their lives and in the spirit of the feelings that people had towards Alan Kurdi, you wrote Sea Prayer.
KH: It’s a small book, but it has a big heart and it has a huge message. I did want to pay tribute to the thousands of people before and after who attempted this crossing and all the lives that have been lost at sea, just in search of a measure of safety and dignity and a better life. People doing what probably I would do if I was in their place. I mean when I spoke to refugees and I heard the decision making that went into it, I could see how I too if I was in their place and I was a father who couldn’t provide for his kids, or if I feared for the safety of my family, I too might risk it and just you know pay smugglers and, and take a chance at sea.
MF: There’s one line from the prayer that really struck me as representing the refugee experience. Can you read that?
KH: I have heard it said we are the uninvited. We are the unwelcome. We should take our misfortune elsewhere.
MF: Why did you write that?
KH: For me, that line is really about the climate that we are living through both here in the U.S. and abroad. You know we have witnessed unfortunately a rise in anti-refugee sentiments. And of course I see a big disconnect between the public rhetoric and the official rhetoric around this issue. And what I find on my missions when I actually meet with refugees and see them, the many nuances of their circumstances. But for me this line is about the fact that people who are fleeing their homes to find safety and dignity are being met too often with this kind of sentiment. Don’t bring it to my doorstep. Out of sight out of mind. And that bothers me.
MF: Well the name of this podcast is “Awake at Night”, in this context maybe of everything that you’ve seen working for UNHCR and everything you imagine in conceiving your books, these days what keeps you awake at night?
KH: What keeps me up and what upsets me is to think that those people that I’ve met on the road whether it be in camps or whether it be in these informal urban settings, and the struggles that they are going through are going to be trapped in those conditions for a long, long, long time. Like things will not get better for them. I worry about that. I worry that people will continue to risk their lives, families and take chances that are really dangerous. I worry that we’re becoming desensitized to the dying and the suffering of fellow human beings. And as a former refugee myself, and as a person who’s seen the faces of refugees and heard the stories, that’s troubling to me.
MF: Is there anything that makes you hopeful?
KH: I always find hope in the little moments. I went to a small town in Sicily called Pachino. There’s orchards and there’s vineyards, little stone farmhouses, really beautiful. But there is a community center there that was built for young boys. Boys that are from Sierra Leone and from Ivory Coast and Liberia and Somalia and all these other places. And they arrive by boat. I went to this committee center and I saw all these local Italians you know mingling and engaging with these boys through music, through dance, through jokes through sports. We watched the World Cup together. The mayor of the town spoke to me and told me how proud he was of his town, that they received them as fellow human beings and that their presence in their community has enriched their lives. That gives me hope, because it makes me realize, although of course I know this, but it reinforces to me idea that I’m not alone. There are a lot of people who feel the way I do and that there are a lot of people who care about refugees and who care about people whose lives have been ruined and turned upside down through no fault of their own.
MF: Sometimes I think people do feel empathy but they don’t really know what to do. So if someone were to ask you what can I do, what can I do to help?
KH: Support UNHCR. Traveling through the world, I have seen UNHCR staff in very, very challenging and difficult circumstances. I remember landing in eastern Chad a number of years ago in Abéché and the plane landed in what looked like a desert from Lawrence of Arabia and it was windy and I saw this young woman emerge sort of from the sand and the wind that she was wearing a scarf. And she was maybe 100 pounds soaking wet. This young Belgian woman who had been there for almost two years and I see how much they really care, how committed they are to helping these really vulnerable people. I always walk away after I’ve met with UNHCR staff, I always feel like, I walk away and say I got to do more with my life you know. And so I think back to my early days as a refugee and what it was like and what a difference it made to my family when somebody from the community just reached out for something really simple. So what I would say to people is, yes you can, you can and should donate to organizations like UNHCR. But if there are refugees in your community find out if there are people who recently arrived from another country who’ve been resettled in your community chances are they’re really confused and disoriented and don’t know how to do things. And even banal tasks are bewildering to them you know so they may not know how to make a doctor’s appointment and they may not know how to apply for driver’s license or apply for a job. They may not know how to get enrolled in school. The simple things. I always speak to high school students and I tell them that, look if there are refugee kids in your school who have newly arrived, maybe they’re being bullied so stand up for them. Get to know them. Ask questions about where they’re from. It makes a huge difference. Every tiny bit of help that you provide will be appreciated. And I speak from experience, it won’t be forgotten.
MF: Khaled, thank you so much for sharing with us in this podcast and for joining us here in the studio.
KH: My pleasure Melissa. I’m glad we’re able to do this podcast. That means a lot to me too.