Malala Yousafzai captured the world’s attention after she was shot by the Taliban for her advocacy of gender equality. In her latest book, We Are Displaced: My Journey and Stories from Refugee Girls Around the World, Yousafzai writes about being forced to live in England and then devotes the remaining space to the stories of girls and women who also fled their homes.
Those stories portray a range of feelings and experiences: guilt and gratefulness, death and survival, loss and opportunity. A refugee’s journey, simply put, is complicated. Contributors, who are from Colombia, Iraq, Syria, and other countries, use only a first name.
“We need to remember that most [refugees] are women and girls, and they are really vulnerable but they are also resilient so we need to join them, support them, and stand up with them,” Yousafzai told Mashable. (Around of all refugees are women and girls, according to the UN Refugee Agency.)
President Trump and his administration have done the opposite, drastically lowering the number of refugees allowed to enter the U.S. and shutting down the government to build a border wall. The president has also used hateful rhetoric to talk about immigrants and refugees, describing them as violent criminals.
Of the 68.5 million people who are displaced worldwide, 25.4 million are fleeing conflict and persecution, according to the UN Refugee Agency.
There are several misconceptions about what it means to be a refugee, and many of those are debunked in We Are Displaced. Here are five things Yousafzai wants you to know about life as a refugee.
1. Being a refugee is a hard, emotional journey.
When thinking of the hardships refugees undergo, we think of their physical journeys, but the emotional cost is just as difficult. In her book, Yousafzai acknowledges that while she feels grateful the United Kingdom welcomed her family, she also misses her friends, Pakistani tea, and hearing Pashto spoken in the streets.
She says the experience of leaving her home in Pakistan is difficult to put into words, but she remembers distinct details that explain why she had to leave in the first place. When the Taliban occupied her town and the government ordered an evacuation, she saw people on the roads, some with no shoes, fleeing in pursuit of safety. Refugees in similar circumstances are at greater risk of mental health issues, such as anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“They don’t know where they’re going. They don’t know where they’ll find a safe space, where they’ll find some shelter, but they do know that it is no longer safe to live in their houses,” Yousafzai says.
Those who survive trips and find safety still long for their homes, communities, and culture.
2. Refugees don’t really choose to leave their homes.
To those who don’t believe refugees must leave their homes, Yousafzai offers advice one would expect from an education activist: read a book (hers is at the top of the recommendation list).
She emphasizes the importance of hearing directly from the girls and young women who put their lives at risk. There’s Ajida, a Rohingya refugee who fled to a nearby forest for several days with her husband and three children because the military and police in Bangladesh surrounded their village. They set houses on fire, raped women and young girls, and killed men. (Ajida and her family now reside in a refugee camp in Bangladesh.) Marie Claire, a young refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, witnessed a mob in Zambia murder her mother.
“When you write it, it’s one sentence: She saw her mother get killed in front of her,” says Yousafzai. “If you take a pause and think about it and imagine what the situation would have been like … horrifying and shocking, you understand that leaving your home becomes the last and only option for you.”
Not only do refugees leave their homes, they also lose their lifestyles and their livelihoods.
“Some people talk about safety and borders and things, but we also have to remember that people who have become refugees … we define them as refugees and define them in numbers, but we often forget that in their own countries, they were teachers, doctors and engineers,” she says.
3. Refugees need more than just physical safety.
Marie Claire, who traveled from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Zambia and then to Pennsylvania, felt unsafe in Zambia. People in the streets and at school would shout things like, “Go back to your country! Why are you here? You don’t belong here!” Contributors Zaynab and Farah also wrote about experiencing verbal harassment and discrimination. Yousafzai says people can help refugees through rough transitions.
“I think the first thing a refugee would ask for is a warm welcome, a smile, and a hug. Nobody likes seeing hateful comments,” says Yousafzai.
Once you open your home and your hearts to them, as Yousafzai put it, connect with them through conversations and listen to their stories.
4. Refugees are so much more than victims.
We tend to see refugees as victims for obvious reasons, but Yousafzai’s book makes the case that they are much more than their circumstances as they fight to reclaim their lives. Zaynab, for example, joined the student council at her high school and put together the school’s girls’ soccer team. Ajida learned to make a stove out of clay to cook rice and lentils supplied by the Bangladeshi government. Then she sold them to the Love Army, a humanitarian organization.
“That’s why I call these stories inspiring stories. Refugee stories, they’re not just stories of grief and sorrows,” she says. “These are stories of inspiration, resilience, triumph, as well — how these girls have overcome these difficulties.”
5. The opportunity to learn can be transformative for refugees.
Yousafzai says that many of the girls she’s visited in refugee camps across the world are dedicated to their education and are determined to become professionals, like journalists or doctors. Muzoon, who is passionate about refugees getting an education, convinced a 17-year-old girl at a refugee camp in Jordan to get an education instead of marrying a man in his 40s. Together, Muzoon and the teenage girl hope to be the “ripple effect” and inspire others to go to school.
“Even in that whole situation, where things don’t make sense, they still have hope and dreams,” says Yousafzai.
She also has advice for those who want to help, beyond buying her new book (which supports girls’ education).
“It is time that people learn more about refugee girls’ stories and get inspired, but also do something in their communities if they can, whether it’s helping one individual, doing something through social media, campaigning, or joining organizations, or working for refugees. Every act that you do matters.”
WATCH: Canadian mother and daughter open their home to 43 refugees
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