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Hosseini '88 Reflects on Personal Journey, Refugee Crisis in SCU Talk

Kite Runner author explores “core experiences that unite us as people

By Riley O'Connell '19
Khaled Hosseini at podium

As a guest of The Santa Clara Review and the Department of English’s Writing Forward Reading Series, Dr. Khaled Hosseini ‘88 visited campus on November 8 to speak on writing, the refugee crisis, courage, and his latest work, Sea Prayer.

A refugee who left Afghanistan with his family as a teenager to seek asylum in the United States, Hosseini writes stories of human connection, suffering, and courage — all themes he feels are prevalent in today’s political climate. Recalling his own experiences as a teenager, witnessing Russian tanks rolling into Afghanistan, Hosseini said, “At that moment, suddenly everything we had owned, known, experienced before that became a part of the past in a way, and the future looked open and uncertain and scary.” His parents’ inability to return home was, for them, “a tectonic disaster.”

The predicament Hosseini and his family faced over thirty years ago, he observed,  is not unlike that faced by refugees today. For this reason, he chose to spend the first 20 minutes of the event reading not from his published books but from his experiences this past summer in Lebanon and Sicily with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). There, he met and spoke with refugee families who had successfully made the “incredibly perilous attempt” at crossing the Mediterranean into Europe.

“I think we are farther away from understanding refugees than we were even a couple of years ago,” he said, attributing this to the “toxic and, at times, outright vicious” politicization of displacement. “I think we have a poorer understanding of who refugees are, what they face, where they come from.”

In giving a face to the refugee crisis, Hosseini spoke particularly of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy whose drowning in the Mediterranean made global headlines in 2015 through Turkish journalist Nilüfer Demir’s photograph of the boy’s body washed up on a beach. The boy’s death was what inspired Hosseini’s most recent book, Sea Prayer.

“Part of what gives that photograph power is that [Alan Kurdi] is lying face down. You can’t quite see his features, so it’s very easy to project someone you love onto that little body, like your own children.”

While he only got into writing professionally after two degrees and ten years practicing internal medicine, Hosseini has written three New York Times best-selling novels: The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns, and And the Mountains Echoed. Despite his late start as an author, Hosseini has always had a passion for writing, calling it “essential” in an interview prior to the event.

“If I’m not writing or working on a project, I feel incomplete,” said Hosseini. “I feel like it’s a small gift that I’ve been given and a modest means of communicating with other people.”

Hosseini and his family came to the United States in 1980. His family’s path to the U.S. was circuitous, including stints in Iran (1970), a return to Kabul (1973), and Paris (1976). Unable to return to Afghanistan following the April 1978 Saur Revolution, Hosseini's family sought political asylum in the U.S. soon after the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan began.

When the family settled in San Jose in September 1980, Hosseini, then aged 15, did not speak any English. Just four years later, amid continued financial struggles, Hosseini began at Santa Clara.

In an interview prior to his public presentation, Hosseini shared that, in his years at SCU, his collegiate experience was perhaps best marked by a test his first year in Professor Atom Yee’s organic chemistry class.

Having received the highest grade on the test, Yee invited Hosseini to the board to solve a particularly difficult problem for the class. After he solved the problem, Hosseini said, Yee “put his arm around me...and started talking to the class...about the makeup of the country, and he said, ‘Don’t forget, it’s always the immigrants. And so much of what this country has built has been on the shoulders of immigrants.’ And it was something that I didn’t realize I needed to hear at that point, but it meant a lot to me because I always felt different from a lot of the kids on campus.”

Yee was not the only professor in the College of Arts and Sciences who reached out to Hosseini. A few days after Hosseini told Prof. William Eisinger (Biology) about the struggles he faced in paying for airfare to his medical school interviews, Eisinger gave him a check from SCU to cover his travel expenses. “That was very, very meaningful to me, and when we talk about why you should come to Santa Clara, I’ll never forget that. You’re a person here, your voice will be heard.”

Khaled Hosseini laughing

These days, Hosseini uses his voice and position as a storyteller “to highlight the core experiences that unite us as people,” especially in the times of “great division and mistrust and skepticism” we live in.

“Think about expanding your sense of community,” he encourages SCU students. “Embrace being an organic member of that bigger community and...look toward solutions with a critical eye and a curious heart.”

All proceeds from the event directly benefited refugee families through the Khaled Hosseini Foundation.

Watch the reading and Q&A with the Santa Clara Magazine editor Steven Saum.

 

About the Writing Forward Reading Series

The Writing Forward Reading Series (WFRS) is a collaborative program between The Santa Clara Review and the Department of English’s Creative Writing Program, designed as a quarterly, high-profile reading series that brings to campus notable creative writers with international, national, and regional reputations.

SCU students majoring or minoring in English and/or Creative Writing and those working at The Santa Clara Review from a variety of majors are actively involved in planning and organizing the series, in close collaboration with faculty. This involvement gives undergraduates hands-on experience with the fields of writing, publishing, and public relations, while also ensuring that the series continues to speak to our campus population.

In the past, the WFRS has brought to campus such writers as Viet Thanh Nguyen, Robert Hass, Juan Felipe Herrera, Tobias Wolff, and Reyna Grande.

Direct questions about the series to Kirk Glaser.