Arts & Culture, Opinion

25th March 2021

‘My refugee story’: We Are Displaced with Malala Yousafzai | REVIEW

Fitting faces to the figures, activist Malala Yousafzai met three inspiring young women to talk learning, lockdown, and life as a person displaced.

All too often, numbers can become numbing. 68.5 million, as an estimate of the number of internally and externally displaced peoples worldwide, is admittedly a large one. (Indeed, it’s a population larger than that of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, combined.) Still, somehow it’s easy for it to stay a mere statistic. This is why it’s so important to fit a face to the figures. A human face.

Photo credit: Weidenfeld & Nicolson

Putting a face to the displaced: Malala’s interview was designed to coincide with the paperback release of her 2019 collection, We Are Displaced.

In fact, 23-year-old author, activist, and general feminist icon Malala Yousafzai supplied three, harnessing the power of Zoom as a medium designed to showcase the face, in a 90-minute, Fane-sponsored roundtable on the refugee crisis. There was Zaynab Abdi (@ZaynabAbdi1), Marie-Claire Kaberamanzi, and Muzoon Rakan Almellehan (@muzoonrazan1), otherwise known affectionately as ‘the Malala of Syria.’ They each hail from different countries: Yemen, D.R. Congo, and Syria, respectively. After fleeing conflict in these homelands, they have resettled themselves on different continents; two are now resident in America, another in Britain. What does not differ among these three young women (still all, like Malala, in their early twenties) is an indomitable spirit, an attitude of defiance, of resilience.

‘When people say, ‘’What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’’,’ quips Abdi, ‘that’s my refugee story.’

Malala’s latest collection, We Are Displaced, has given these three extraordinary women the space to tell their stories. Indeed, it features contributions from dozens of refugee women, including Malala herself, who trace the threads of their travails to conflict zones around the globe.

Faces outlined in green squares, under the compereship of Malala, Zaynab, Marie-Claire and Muzoon explained in interview what they expand upon in the book. They spoke of adjustment to their adopted cities; Muzoon in Newcastle assimilating to the ‘impossible’ lingo and missing the sunshine, Marie-Claire in America missing the sister she has not seen for seven years. They spoke of newfound freedoms, even during lockdown, with Zaynab in Minneapolis now nurturing a flourishing talent for football. Most of all, they spoke of progress: all three of them have made the journey from camp to campus in just a few short years. Even in this pandemic plagued climate, they’re enjoying pursuing university degrees, with Marie-Claire clocking up eight hours of online tutorials per day as a trainee nurse, and Muzoon stacking up textbooks of Chinese political history for a current module. In fact, Muzoon reasons that just as food feeds the stomach, education feeds the brain.

Photo credit: Fane/@ZaynabAbdi1

Be there, and be square: Yousafzai, Almellehan, Kaberamanzi and Abdi during the interview.

It’s unsurprising, then, that all three women are passionate advocates of Malala Fund, an international non-profit organisation spearheaded by Malala, promoting every girl’s right to 12 years of safe, free, and quality education. This mission comes after a high-profile attack on the teen by the Taliban in 2012; she had been earmarked as a target by the terrorist outfit simply for her decision, as a girl, to attend school. Hence the motto of Malala Fund: ‘Working for a world where every girl can learn and lead.’

Zaynab, Marie-Claire and Muzoon, the other three sides to Malala’s square, are managing to do just that- even in the midst of a global pandemic. It appears, though, that they are becoming as frustrated by its neverending-ness as the rest of us. Marie-Claire cannot wait to return to face-to-face, practical tutorials, declaring herself a ‘hands-on learner.’ Zaynab has feet itching to get back to communal ‘soccer’ matches, and is reading Barack Obama’s latest, A Promised Land (2020), for fortitude. Finishing up at Oxford uni, Malala has devoted her lockdown leisure time to learning coding and Swahili. Muzoon likes to cook when she’s not hitting the books (if her mother will allow her in the kitchen…).

Snippets like these, insights gleaned from ‘Questions from the Audience’, help to reinforce the fact that figures have a human face. These girls were once 4 parts in a 68.5 million-sized whole. Ever eloquent, Zaynab rounds off the roundtable by underscoring how important it is to let refugees use their won voices: to advocate for them, yes; to appropriate them, no. Every individual is an individual, whose story should be ‘uplifted’, she asserts. Malala’s collection, We Are Displaced, has given her this platform.

Photo credit: Guardian.

Jambo-ree: Malala has devoted part of her lockdown leisure time to learning Swahili.

Ultimately, pronouns are crucial. For Malala’s latest book, it is ‘We’, not ‘They’; it is inclusive, not exclusive. Refugees are telling their own stories, using their own voices, and we should be listening- and reading.

The interview, ‘We Are Displaced with Malala Yousafzai’, can be accessed for free online, at Fane.

The collection We Are Displaced (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) is available to order at uk.bookshop.org, priced at £9.29 for the paperback edition.

Featured image credit: Fane