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An Evening with Khaled Hosseini


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Since becoming a goodwill ambassador for the UNHCR, The UN Refugee Agency, Khaled Hosseini has endeavoured, through his books, to inject the world with vital empathy in times of social crisis, such as the American refugee detention camps and subsequent familial separation.

Anyone who has read A Thousand Splendid Suns, The Kite Runner or And The Mountains Echoed will be somewhat aware of Hosseini’s political agenda, which he brought to life on the stage of London’s South Bank Centre, interviewed and prompted by journalist Razia Iqbal, as well as launching his newest venture, Sea Prayer.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Sea Prayer commemorates the second anniversary of the death of Alan Kurdi, the three-year old Syrian refugee who’s drowned body shook the world with its jarring juxtaposition of innocence caught up in such brutality. The illustrated book imagines the words his father, the only survivor of the family, said the night that they embarked on the fatal journey across the Mediterranean Sea. Since Sea Prayer is not in the form of a novel, its words are so much more poignant, felt especially in the passage that Hosseini read out for the audience.

The heart of Hosseini’s talk, and work, is challenging the misconceptions that we are fed about refugees and immigrants, the fear of ‘the other’, as they have become, and the greater need to humanise the people behind the numbers. Refugees are real human beings, like you and I. Hosseini is not a stranger to this himself, growing up in America as a refugee from Afghanistan, where many of his novels are set, speaking very little English - an achievement in itself considering how beautifully written his books are. The manifestation of our ‘fear’, or perhaps our blind denial of what is truly happening, manifests itself in the isolation of those seeking refuge.

In collaboration with UNHCR, Hosseini visited Lebanon and Sicily to meet some Syrian refugees; and their stories emanate through his words. Up to 1 in 6 citizens in Lebanon are Syrian refugees. He told us the necessarily brutal truths; these boats are flimsy, smugglers do not genuinely care about human life and the chance of survival has dropped significantly – it is now 1 in 18.

It is vital that we find a safe way for refugees to find safety; we were told about a horrific story of a young male refugee in Libya who was kidnapped, brutally hurt, escaped twice and was caught and shot in the leg with permanent consequences. We were told of a women threatened by the Taliban for owning a multi-gendered gym; her husband was beaten and died of his injuries. Hosseini also spoke of the haunting scene of a graveyard in Sicily that was empty of headstones; as if the refugees that were buried had never been alive in the first place.

Hosseini, and humanity in general, can be under no veil of disbelief that social media almost disconnects us in such social tragedies; it is ‘enough’ to post a status or change a profile picture to feign solidarity and move on with your life. In spite of this, one of the overriding messages that can be found, both in Hosseini’s work and talk, is the overriding belief in people, and humanity.

We were told the beautiful story of a woman in Sicily, who owned a restaurant that was composed entirely of refugees and paying homage to their authentic dishes. She also houses many of them; when asked whether she had a large house, she replied no, ‘a home is as big as you make it’. Hosseini went on to say that this is the case with the human heart, and for a nation, thus advocating that the EU should ‘own’ the problem, rather than seeking external and often unsafe solutions. Hosseini spoke about a Syrian poets’ belief that we all have ‘eternal shine’, something that radiates in Sea Prayer and the stories that Hosseini has experienced.

One of the most poignant moments of the evening was when Hosseini was asked what he would say to politicians if he could speak to them directly. The first, something of huge importance in both Hosseini’s novels and his own life, was the sanctity of families. The second is the Universal right to refuge, that must be granted, and the third, the universal right to be treated with dignity and respect. These people are not coming to ‘take our jobs’, they merely seek safety.

Hosseini was refreshingly honest and well received by the passionate audience, many of whom, when asking questions, said that they themselves were either refugees or ambassadors like Khaled himself. He admitted that his work is not unselfish, as he has found that his inner fulfilment comes from helping other people, explaining why he was a doctor before becoming a writer. He was also admirably humble, with a strong perspective of his role, not to assume power in Afghanistan where he didn’t personally experience such political turmoil, in which women and children were particularly hit. This is perhaps why he was most proud of A Thousand Splendid Suns, as he voiced the inhumane hardship that women in particular went through under the Taliban.

Hosseini’s greatest achievement is how his novels have become a platform to connect people, speaking for those who don’t have a voice around the world, refugees and women, especially in the exquisite A Thousand Splendid Suns. His talk, though somewhat predictable, was enlightening, thought provoking and utterly inspiring. His own charity, The Khaled Hosseini Foundation, has since raised over 1.7 million and provided education for over 12,000 students.

Sea Prayer was published on 30th August.

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