“Even Heaven Is Not Home”
Acclaimed author Khaled Hosseini ’88 was back on campus last week, talking Sea Prayer and the plight of refugees around the world.
Khaled Hosseini ’88 believes humans, as a species, are wired for metaphor. Meaning, storytelling is at the heart of all human endeavor. Stories are used to build economies and start and end wars. They liberate oppressed people and justify genocides. Stories are powerful things, he says.
And Hosseini was back at Santa Clara University this past week to share his latest story: Sea Prayer, a short but powerful illustrated book inspired by a photo of Alan Kurdi, a toddler who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea while his family fled civil war in his native Syria. Rather than read from his fiction, though, Hosseini shared with the audience in the de Saisset Museum his essay “Refugees are still dying. How do we get over news fatigue?” Then he joined Santa Clara Magazine editor Steven Saum for a conversation and took questions from the audience. Here are some highlights.
Steven Saum: To start, I’d like to discuss your personal connection to the story of refugees. Your family came to the United States not because you chose to but as an unwilling migrant. Tell me about that experience.
Khaled Hosseini: My family and I were living in France in the late ’70s. My father was a diplomat and he’d been posted to the Afghan Embassy in Paris. It was a four-year assignment. So we left everything in Afghanistan in 1976, believing that we were coming back in 1980.
But I remember the moment our life flipped. It was in December of 1979. We were home in our little apartment watching TV and there was a break in the program and this update came [on the news] and what we saw on that little black and white screen were Russian tanks rolling into this country that nobody had heard of—our homeland, Afghanistan. I remember an exchange of looks between my parents—and I realized in that moment, in a kind of a visceral way, that I think our life has just been turned upside down. And at that moment, suddenly everything we had owned, known, experienced, before that became a part of a past in a way and the future looked open and uncertain and scary.
Saum: You often cite the fact most refugees don’t migrate somewhere hoping to stay there forever, but they want to go home someday. Was that a hope you and your parents had?
Hosseini: I was talking to a Syrian refugee in Lebanon this past June. And this report had come out that nine out of every 10 refugees in Lebanon wanted to go home. They couldn’t go because of security issues. And he said to me, “Look, even heaven is not home.”
Over and over again this is something I’ve seen. I think my parents, for them not going home was a tectonic disaster, because they had established identities. They had homes. They had careers. They had property. They had roots and an entire community they belonged to. And for them to have all of that sort of wiped off the map in one fell swoop was a real blow, and very difficult.
But I think we understood that for us, going back home would be very difficult. We had a number of family members who were shot. People who were put in prison. My uncle was tortured. I have cousins who were shot. Colleagues of my father who did go back who were killed. So the idea of going home—we were in the same predicament as so many refugees are in the world today.
Saum: Sea Prayer is a book of father to son. How different was it for you writing a book that has that very clear narrative focus?
Hosseini: It actually felt quite natural. I feel very much in my element writing about parents and children and families, being an Afghan, and family being such an important and central part of your identity.
When I saw that photograph of the young boy lying face down—part of what gives that photograph power is that he’s lying face down. You can’t quite see his features, so it’s very easy to project the face of someone you love onto that little body. Like your own children. And so for me the entry point into this story was always going to be as a dad. And I kept trying to imagine what his father must have been going through watching his son’s body being picked up from the water by a Turkish soldier. Somebody who didn’t know Alan’s name or the sound of his voice, or his favorite toy … As a dad those are the things that immediately rush into me when I see something like that.
And so I wanted to pay tribute to that family, but as I said, also to the thousands of others, both before and after him, who tried that journey, and so may have perished.
Saum: The father says, “All I can do is pray.” We’re no stranger to prayer here at a Jesuit University. And, I’m curious—when you’re inhabiting the head of this father, what prayer means to you.
Hosseini: I’m not a particularly religious person. So I want to be forthright about that. I don’t pray daily in any conventional sense, but prayer has had a presence in my life regardless. And when I was younger, in boyhood, I used to think of prayer as holding enormous magic power, almost like a magic coin you toss into a divine vending machine, and then you select what result you want to see.
Some version of that stayed with me even into as I grew a little bit older, and I lived with the idea of prayer as this mechanism to compel God’s actions, including in my own personal life. And as it happens it evolved over the years, and I’ve gotten, over the last couple of years, more involved in some mindfulness and meditation, and it has a very prayer-like quality for me, because it allows me to be quiet and to be still, and to feel my presence in the physical world, and to feel a connection to the infinite. It helps me feel my own smallness, and my own fallibility. But also the fact that I am a unique expression of creation—like everyone is here. I’m kind of a small miracle that has never been seen before and never will be seen again—as every person and every living thing on the planet really is.
So it’s not technically prayer. But it does help me feel that the divine—however you choose to define that—sits in me and with me, rather than outside of me and in judgment of me. And it feels much healthier for me that way.
Saum: One of the faculty members who teaches here, Mohammed Kadalah, served as a translator for the two journalists who created the series Welcome to the New World—a true graphic novel about two Syrian refugee families—that won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning. That first appeared in January 2017. Have things gotten better in the past year and a half for refugees?
Hosseini: I think we are farther away from understanding refugees than we were even a couple of years ago. The issue of displacement has become so politicized. It’s become so toxic and at times downright vicious, that I think we actually have a poorer understanding of who refugees are, what they face, where they come from. And I think part of the force behind this tide of anti-refugee sentiment that we are witnessing has its roots in this sort of fundamental misunderstanding of who they are.
For instance, one of the common myths—and that’s proven quite a powerful one—is that refugees want to invade the West. And take Western jobs. But if you look at reality, it couldn’t be farther from the truth. You know, less than 1 percent of refugees are ever resettled in the West. The vast majority of refugees never come to the U.S. or Canada or Europe. The overwhelming majority, to the tune of 85 percent, live near home. They live in neighboring countries around their own birthplace. They live in places like Uganda, and Pakistan, and Jordan, and Lebanon—a tiny country where one out of every six people now is a Syrian refugee.
So if you actually look at the facts, it just doesn’t stand up. So I do think we’re a little bit more distanced from it than we should be. And that’s not unique to this country. We’re also seeing it in Europe.
Question from the audience: As a refugee and somebody immersed in the stories of refugees, is there any one common aspect of the refugee experience?
Hosseini: There are different ways I can take this question, there are so many. Well, let’s end, not on a political note—but let me mention this caravan, because it’s in the news. I came here as a refugee, as you mentioned. I was resettled here. Meaning that: As a displaced person myself, I feel a sense of kinship with other displaced people. Like the people in the caravan. I also feel a personal connection to the political and moral leadership that the U.S. has always brought to this issue.
You know, the U.S. has been historically peerless in welcoming victims of forced migration. We accepted more refugees than the rest of the world, combined. The “American Story” has been about opening doors and reuniting families, including my own. On the caravan, on the issue of refugees: It is important to understand that people come to this country for all sorts of different reasons. There are some, yes, that are coming for better opportunity. They are escaping crushing poverty and they want their kids to have a better education. But many people are coming to this country, or showing up to the border, because they are afraid for their lives. Because they are escaping pervasive violence, they are escaping persecution on the basis of their political affiliation, on the basis of their sexual orientation. They are escaping violence and armed conflict.
For those people, going home is not an option, because they no longer enjoy the protection of their own government. They need international protection. As a former refugee myself, I acknowledge that every sovereign state has the right and responsibility to manage its own borders. That is part of the job of our government. There are effective policies that can be used to do that—that uphold refugee rights, that uphold human rights, and uphold national law.
Meeting the challenge of irregular migration should never mean punishing vulnerable families. Especially those who are running for their lives, escaping pervasive violence. Who are showing up after walking hundreds of miles, showing up at our doorsteps looking for international protection that they are legally entitled to. They shouldn’t be met with Kevlar and gun barrels, but they should be met with policies that are based on the principles of compassion and solidarity with their struggles.