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Give Them a Voice

Give Them a Voice

By Steven Boyd Saum

The author of The Kite Runner talks writing, refugees, and his hopes and fears for Afghanistan. An interview with writer Khaled Hosseini ’88.
Writer Khaled Hosseini ’88 is the first to say that he is out of his element when it comes to figuring out sophisticated ways to use technology for global good. But as a goodwill ambassador for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), he was very much at home at the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose on Nov. 4 when he was honored with the 2017 James C. Morgan Global Humanitarian Award. He was recognized alongside a group of laureates there to kick off the Tech Awards for Global Good—a year-round program of exhibits and educational offerings featuring social innovators from around the world.

In 2006, Hosseini was named a goodwill ambassador to the UNHCR. Inspired by a trip he made with the organization to Afghanistan, he later established The Khaled Hosseini Foundation, which provides humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan.

Hosseini was born in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1965, and his family was granted political asylum in the United States following the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Army. He studied biology at Santa Clara and went on to medical school. In 2001, while practicing medicine, Hosseini began writing his first novel, The Kite Runner, which became an international bestseller and beloved classic, and has been published in at least 70 countries, spending more than 100 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. He went on to write additional bestsellers including And the Mountains Echoed and A Thousand Splendid Suns.

He took time to sit down with Santa Clara Magazine editor Steven Boyd Saum to talk about writing, work as a goodwill ambassador, and what he hopes Americans will understand about refugees.

 

Santa Clara Magazine: You are being recognized with the Global Humanitarian Award. In your writing, you’re someone who has helped underscore the importance of empathy—and hope. How does that drive the work that you’re doing with the United Nations?

HOSSEINI: To me, the most vital part of this kind of work is that I feel very connected to the world. My job as a writer is to sit behind a computer, for eight hours a day, by myself in a room. But traveling out to refugee camps, and going to places like Jordan, or Iraq—it reminds me of my place in the world, makes me feel reconnected to the issues that we’re facing in the world. And to actually meet, sit, and speak face-to-face with the people who are behind the big stories—the stories of the war, and the War on Terrorism, all these things.

The big narrative has kind of trampled on the stories of individuals. So I see my role as feeling connected to those individuals, those people who are affected by these enormous events—and to give them a voice, and to advocate for them, to understand what those people have lost.

SCM: Does this work connect with what you do as a writer? Is it a different part of yourself?

HOSSEINI: It connects very much, because I write largely about human stories. We learn so much about human nature going to a desert somewhere, outside of a city in Jordan—and then, sitting with people, in a small shack, in 100 degree weather. And to be blown away by the enormous generosity, and kindness, and wisdom of the people you meet. It’s a lesson in human nature.

People always say to me, “Do you feel culture shock when you go there?” I always feel culture shock when I come back. So, yeah, it informs me.

I’ve been writing about these themes of displacement, and new beginnings, and wanting to belong to a greater community, forever. There’s no question, that this work—my travels—has informed me as a writer.

SCM: Are you able to write when you’re traveling?

HOSSEINI: I kind of take that hat off. When I go somewhere, I want to be really present. Because, when you start thinking about writing, you start drifting off into somewhere else. It’s really important to me to be very much aware, and be present, and be receptive to the stories that I am hearing—to really connect with the people that I’m meeting.

SCM: Can you talk about what you're working on now?

Hosseini: I’ve been working on a novel for a while now. I haven't published a book in about four years. So, it’s time. The topic of it, I’ll probably leave off, but I’ve been working on it for quite a while. There’s nothing imminent, I’m afraid, but I’m making progress.

SCM: What about traveling, in the upcoming weeks or months? Where are you going?

HOSSEINI: I don’t have anything planned, although I think a trip to Afghanistan is in the works at some point soon. I haven’t been since 2010, and I really want to go back again and meet some new people. And, then just kind of reevaluate what’s going on there, and to educate myself. I think it will probably be next year. I’ve done quite a bit of traveling this year already. I think the rest of the year, I’ll see if I can get some more writing done.

SCM: Looking back to 2010, the last time you were in Afghanistan: Are you more hopeful? Or less hopeful?

HOSSEINI: I’m hopeful in some ways. I think Afghanistan now has a foundation of young, educated, urban people, who are interested in technology, the environment, human rights, women’s rights, literacy, and so on—all the things that really matter. They are there. They are not everywhere. A lot of the Afghan landscape is very agricultural, and rural. In those areas, access is poor. It’s very hard to bring about change, and that remains a challenge.

In a number of other ways, it’s concerning to me. The war is now in its sixteenth year. It’s the longest war in American history. I would describe it at best as kind of stalemate. It’s the major obstacle standing in the way of that generation being free to bring about the changes that I think Afghanistan needs.

So, it’s a mixed picture of some optimism, but I’m very sober about the very real problems Afghanistan faces: security, the drug trade, the sort of fragile political system. The complexity of the Afghan situation, with all the different actors that are involved there. The different neighboring countries. The role of the United States. A political solution, at the end of the day, is what Afghanistan needs, and we don’t seem to be close enough to democracy.

SCM: What have you seen in your travels recently that has given you hope? Whether it’s on an individual level, or a grand trend—something that stirred your heart?

HOSSEINI: One of the things about going to refugee camps is you see truly, humanity at its worst. You see that sort of unthinkable violence and brutality, and just utter reckless disregard for human beings that lands people in these refugee situations: Force them to leave their homes, live in the bush for days, before they make it across the border. So, we see the worst of it.

We also see the shining best of what people can do. We see tremendous acts of generosity and altruism. My faith in the human capacity to love deeply, and to love selflessly, and to recognize that other fellow human beings are in distress, and to try to help them remains unshaken. I’ve seen so many stories of incredible kindness in these refugee camps.

SCM: What do you think Americans need to understand differently about refugees and their plight?

HOSSEINI: I think the issue has become too politicized. People have used the issue of refugees to try and score political points and to win votes. But people should realize that most refugees are ordinary people who had something happen to them. Nobody chooses to become a refugee. People become refugees because of external forces that impact their lives and force them to make these drastic decisions: to leave their home, leave their communities. Nobody wants to do that. Nobody wants to take their family and put them on a boat, to cross the Mediterranean. These are people who have been the victims; they’ve had to abandon what they own, left behind their homes.

Most refugees are under the age of eighteen. Most of them are women and children. The vast majority of refugees don’t want to live in the U.S., Canada, or Europe. They want to go back home. So, I think, one of the misconceptions is that we’re going to have millions of refugees knocking on our doors. It’s simply not true. Refugees don’t choose their country of destination.

The vast majority of them, if the conditions are right, and they feel safe, they want to go home very much. These, I think, are some of the misunderstandings people have about refugees.

 

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