We are Displaced—My Journey and Stories from Refugee Girls Around the World: Malala Yousafzai (with Liz Welch)

Review by Mohan Raj

A longer version of this review was originally published in The Book Review, Vol XLIV, No. 2-3, Feb-Mar 2020.  Reproduced with the permission of The Book Review Literary Trust.

Displacement──within and across countries──of large numbers of people, owing to political instability or civil strife, is a fact of contemporary life. UN statistics show that nearly 70 million people, or 9% of the world’s population, are displaced at present, of whom more than 25 million are considered refugees. The human suffering such displacement causes──and the heroic way some affected individuals and groups overcome it to give humanity a message of hope in the midst of such strife and pain──is often ignored. This volume offers a corrective in that regard.

Malala Yousafzai’s personal story is well known. But in addition to the story of her own journey, she brings together in this volume the stories of nine other young women from around the world, told in their own words, to give us a more complete picture of both the suffering and its sublimation.

In simple, stark, direct terms, she begins: “It never fails to shock me how people take peace for granted. I am grateful for it every day. Not everyone has it. Millions of men, women, and children witness wars every day. Their reality is violence, homes destroyed, innocent lives lost. And the only choice they have for safety is to leave. To ‘choose’ to be displaced. That is not much of a choice.”

Malala was 11 years old when she was displaced. She wrote this book “because it seems that too many people don’t understand that refugees are ordinary people. All that differentiates them is that they got caught in the middle of a conflict that forced them to leave their homes, their loved ones, and the only lives they have known.”

To sum up Malala’s story first, her father, Ziauddin, ran two schools in Mingora town of Swat Valley in Pakistan, one of which was for girls. It was from him that Malala first learnt of the Taliban, whom her father first thought of as “more of an annoyance than a real terror”. That view was soon to be changed by events.

As Malala understood it, the Islam the Taliban wanted to enforce “was not our Islam.” The Taliban were religious fundamentalists, who “attacked our daily way of life in the name of Islam . . .  most of all, they tried to take away the rights of women”. Soon after they gained some influence, they declared that educating girls was “un-Islamic”.

When the Taliban issued a decree closing all girls’ schools and then began to bomb girls’ schools in the Swat valley, 11-year-old Malala began writing a blog for BBC Urdu, and this helped get the story across to the outside world. She also joined her father in TV and radio interviews, which forced a temporary truce to the extent that the Taliban then lifted the ban for girls up to the fourth grade.

That relief proved short-lived. When relations between the Taliban and government authorities in Pakistan worsened, the latter ordered everyone should leave the valley. Malala’s family had to move to another town, Shangla, three uncertain days of travel away by road, to stay with relatives.

This is where Malala understood the true meaning of “internal displacement”.  She was in her own country and with her family, “and yet I still felt so out of place”. When peace returned gradually to Malala’s home town, the family still had to spend weeks moving around different places before returning “home”. In the process, Malala realized, she says, that “to be displaced, on top of everything else, is to worry about being a burden on others”.

It was to become obvious soon that the “Taliban had not been destroyed. They had only been scattered.” Malala went back to speaking up for girls’ education. As she had built up a media platform for that cause, she began, in her young mind, to imagine a future for herself as a Pakistani politician, “speaking up for girls’ education and peace”. That visibility was reason enough for the Taliban to strike back, and she was targeted and shot.

The next thing Malala knew, she woke up in a hospital bed in a foreign city, with doctors and machines working in tandem to keep her alive. But she did not break, and started a new life. The last chapter of her memoir, “Caught Between Two Worlds,” describes this new life in Birmingham, England.

Malala soon realized that it was going to be hard for her to go back to Pakistan, but she realized also that “the Taliban had failed in their mission: instead of silencing me, they amplified my voice beyond Pakistan”. People from all over wanted to support the cause she was fighting for. The activism she had begun in Pakistan would continue from her new home.

As part of that continuing activism, Malala brings together the stories of 9 other young women, and their travels and travails encompassing 16 countries (Bangladesh, Canada, Colombia, the Congo, Egypt, Guatemala, Iraq, Italy, Jordan, Mexico, Myanmar, Syria, Uganda, the United States, Yemen, and Zambia).

Here is a gist of those stories, which have to be read in full to grasp their import:

  1. Zaynab and Sabreen, sisters of mixed African parentage, had a diametrically opposite experience going from their home in Egypt to the United States, seemingly on account of a capricious authority which readily granted one of them a visa, while refusing it to the other. (We hear of their varied experiences in their own voices).
  2. Muzoon, a 13-year-old Syrian girl in a refugee camp in Jordan, is able to convince other girls in the camp that schooling is a better option than waiting to be married to older men, the only other option that their lives offer them.
  3.  Najla, a Yazidi girl from Iraq, survives the horrors of an ISIS attack and then fights her father──and prevalent community values──to resume schooling.
  4. Maria, the daughter of a farmer, loses her father at the age of 4 to a militant attack and is forced to flee her home in the Colombian countryside, to live in a makeshift camp in the capital city, Cali, for the next three years. She then joins a theatre group for children and ends up, as a 16-year old, making a documentary about what it means to be displaced.
  5. Analisa, a Gautemalan, loses her mother at age 4 and her father at 15 and, to escape a cruel life, flees for the US via Mexico, seeking the help of touts and illegal immigration agents. She endures a horrendous journey through Mexico. Though she has a half-brother waiting to receive her in the US, she meets a very unwelcome reception by the US immigration agency at the border.
  6. Marie Claire escapes the violence of her native Congo to enter Zambia as a refugee at the end of a 3-year journey, where she endures insults and mistreatment by other children at school before she witnesses a vigilante attack on her home, which kills her mother and deeply wounds her father. The family is then fortunate to be accepted, after a wait of several years, to live on refugee status in Lancaster, PA, USA, where, in a happy ending, Marie completes her final year of schooling and graduates out of high school just six months after arriving.
  7. Ajida, a Rohingya young woman from Mayanmar, is forced to run to an open-air camp in neighboring Bangladesh with her husband and three children to escape a military attack. Her family remains both stateless and homeless and has had to shift camp from the river plains for fear of floods to treacherous mountains, with little external support.
  8. The last story, of Farah from Uganda now settled in Canada, is told in retrospect. She has now become a project administrator helping girls’ education in Uganda, but her family had been the victim of Idi Amin’s forced exodus of Ugandans of Asian origin, back in 1972, when Farah was two years old. Her family had tried so hard to assimilate into Canadian life that until she became an adult, Farah had no idea of her origins or the facts of their exile from Uganda.

For a true appreciation of what these brave women have endured and achieved, you have to read the book. Their lives certainly help rekindle hope for vast numbers of displaced people in our uncertain and often dangerous world.

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