The goodwill envoy
Hosseini was soon offered a platform to match his growing celebrity. In 2006, officials with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) presented Hosseini with a humanitarian award for his depiction of the plight of Afghan refugees in The Kite Runner, and they invited him to speak at World Refugee Day. Hosseini, however, wanted to do more. “I felt that I wanted to speak out, to take some action,” he told the Los Angeles Times in June 2007. Named a Goodwill Envoy by UNHCR, Hosseini traveled first to eastern Chad to visit with survivors of the violence in the Darfur region of Sudan, and later, in September 2007, he visited Afghanistan for the first time since the publication of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns.
For all his fame, one senses that Hosseini—who, more than perhaps anyone else has made the lives of ordinary Afghans, within and without the country, real to the world—has also made it his mission not to let the world forget about his birthplace. Forgetting should be more difficult come December, when the film version of The Kite Runner arrives in theaters in the United States. The studio delayed the film’s release by six weeks after concerns were raised about three young Afghan actors who appear in the film: a scene in which one adolescent boy rapes another might lead to persecution of the child actors in Afghanistan. The studio has offered to move the boys and their families to another country after the end of the Afghan school year in December. But there are no plans to cut the pivotal scene; it illustrates, most poignantly, what it means to stand by and do nothing while another human being is brutalized. Already, this September, President Bush and the First Lady, a fan of the book, invited Hosseini to a screening of the film at the White House attended by Vice President Cheney and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., and ethnic Afghan, Zalmay Khalilzad.
Even so, in an interview with Renee Montagne on NPR’s “Morning Edition” just after his recent trip to Afghanistan, Hosseini described a country still in need of the world’s attention. In village after village, in the countryside outside Kabul, he saw families living in mud shelters or tents exposed to the environment. He met families who spent months huddled in earthen pits, exposed to freezing cold. He described a country where more than half the population doesn’t have access to potable water, and many work for less than $1 per day. Yet, remarkably, Hosseini said, despite a raging insurgency (and resurgent Taliban), increased opium production, joblessness, homelessness and abject poverty, Afghans, nearly 80 percent according to one survey, remain hopeful about their future. “We just cannot afford to give up on these people,” he said.
Justin Gerdes has written on politics, culture, and the environment for Motherjones.com, California magazine, and The Commonwealth magazine. He serves as editor for Flex Your Power.