Here are some numbers about Afghan refugees:
- 2 million Afghan citizens were displaced by violence in 2015.
- 5 million are awaiting repatriation or citizenship in Pakistan, but the government there is starting to force the refugees back to Afghanistan.
- 1 million wait in Iran and are enduring increasingly rough treatment and deportation.
And here’s why we can read those sentences and glaze over: because our brains can’t comprehend the millions of stories in the refugee crisis.
That’s why one photograph, of one drowned toddler and his two tiny shoes sparked more outrage than the daily tally of refugees. That photo told a story that had been incomprehensible.
Novelist Nadia Hashimi, who is of Afghan descent but grew up in New York and New Jersey, wanted to tell one family’s story, to show the humanity in the humanitarian crisis that is the migrant emergency.
Hashimi centered her 2015 novel, When the Moon is Low, around a schoolteacher, Fereiba, who lives with her family in Kabul until the Taliban imprison and kill her husband. She and her children escape the violence of Afghan’s capital and endure boat trips in the dead of night, border crossings, predatory smugglers, hunger, cold and exhaustion in their quest to reach family in London.
In the prologue, Hashimi writes in the voice of Fereiba, who is lying in a hotel bed with her children: “One day, we will not look over our shoulders in fear or sleep on borrowed land with one eye open or shudder at the sight of a uniform. One day we will have a place to call home. I will carry these children — my husband’s children — as far as I can and pray that we will reach that place where, in the quiet of their slumber, I, too, will rest.”
Hashimi will read from that novel June 26 as part of a program HoCoPoLitSo is producing with the Columbia Festival of the Arts’ summer festival. The Toronto Star wrote of When the Moon is Low: “A heartfelt story of courage amidst a world short on compassion.”
Hashimi’s own story is compelling. Her mother grew up in the 1960s and ’70s in a modern Kabul, going to college, wearing mini skirts, listening to music with her friends. When the Soviet invasion was imminent, her mother migrated to the Europe, then got her master’s degree in engineering. Her father emigrated to the U.S. to seek his own education. Afghanistan, under the influence of the Taliban and extremist warlords, forced women to cover, divided families, reinstituted child marriage and outlawed women’s education.
Now a pediatrician from Potomac with four children, Hashimi has written three novels in four years. When she traveled to Afghanistan after the publication of her first two novels, she found it much changed from her parents’ stories. The years have not been kind to her parents’ home country, she told an audience at the Miller Library earlier in April. Since 1970, life in Afghanistan has become especially hard for women — who were for years forbidden to work, go to school or walk unaccompanied — and she wanted to tell those stories.
When the Moon is Low is particularly topical now, in the midst of the ongoing wave of migrants seeking a better life than in their turbulent, violent native land.
Foreign Policy, in a fascinating piece about the responsibility of America in the twisted history of Afghanistan, wrote, “The case of the Afghans, one of the world’s largest refugee communities and the second-largest group – behind Syrians – to arrive in Europe recently, should serve as a reminder that the origins of today’s predicament are neither recent nor confined to the refugees’ home countries.” (Full article.)
America and its policies bear responsibility for the refugees struggling to reach a peaceful place. We should not ignore the crisis, neither its numbers, its images nor its stories. Join HoCoPoLitSo and the Columbia Festival of the Arts on June 26 to hear Hashimi read from When the Moon is Low, and a sneak peek at her upcoming book about the stories in a women’s prison in Afghanistan, House Without Windows (August 2016).
— Susan Thornton Hobby
HoCoPoLitSo board member
and recording secretary