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Gut wrenching stories: Malala Yousafzai (with Liz Welch)

EducationWorld July 2020 | Books

We are displacedWe are displaced: My journey & stories from refugee girls around the world – Malala Yousafzai (with Liz Welch); Weidenfeld & Nicolson; Rs.399 Pages 212+xi

Displacement — within and across countries — of large numbers of people, owing to political instability or civil strife, is a fact of contemporary life. UN statistics indicate that nearly 70 million people or 9 percent of the world’s population are displaced at present, of whom more than 25 million are classified as refugees. The human suffering such displacement causes — and the heroic way some affected individuals and groups overcome it to give humanity a message of hope in a sea of gloom, strife and pain — is usually ignored. This volume is a corrective in that regard.

Malala Yousafzai’s personal story is well known. But in addition to the narrative of her own journey, she presents in this volume the stories of nine other young women from around the world, recounted in their own words, to give us a more complete picture of suffering and its sublimation.

To sum up Malala’s story first, her father, Ziauddin, ran two schools in Mingora town of Swat Valley in Pakistan, one of which was for girls. It was from him that Malala first learnt of the Taliban, whom her father first thought of as “more of an annoyance than a real terror”. This viewpoint was soon changed by events.

As Malala understood relatives. This is where Malala understood the true meaning of “internal
displacement”. She was in her own country and with her family, “and yet I still felt so out of place”. At the local school, “I spoke too much and did not look down when the teacher entered the classroom. I wasn’t being disrespectful; I was just being myself, not shy in the classroom, but always polite. I asked questions, like all the boys, but was the last to be called on,” she recalls. When peace gradually returned to Malala’s hometown, her family still had to spend weeks in displacement before returning home. In the process, Malala realised that “to be displaced, on top of everything else, is to worry about being a burden on others”. She says she “knew, even as a 12-yearold girl, that the home I knew no longer existed except in my dreams”. It was to become obvious soon that the Taliban had not been destroyed. it, the Islam the Taliban wanted to enforce “was not our Islam”. Their radical fundamentalist ideology “attacked our daily way of life in the name of Islam… most of all, they tried to take away the rights of women.” Soon after they gained influence, they declared that educating girls was un-Islamic.

When the Taliban issued a decree closing all girls’ schools and then began to bomb girls’ schools in the Swat Valley, 11-year-old Malala began writing a blog for BBC Urdu, and this helped get the story across to the outside world. She also joined her father in TV and radio interviews, which forced a temporary truce to the extent that the Taliban lifted the ban for girls up to class IV.

That relief proved shortlived. When relations between the Taliban and government authorities in Pakistan worsened, the latter, perhaps sensing that a war-like situation would soon prevail in the Swat Valley and it would no longer be safe for civilians, ordered evacuation of the valley. Malala’s family had to move to another town, Shangla, three days of uncertain travel by road, to live with relatives. This is where Malala understood the true meaning of “internal displacement”. She was in her own country and with her family, “and yet I still felt so out of place”. At the local school, “I spoke too much and did not look down when the teacher entered the classroom. I wasn’t being disrespectful; I was just being myself, not shy in the classroom, but always polite. I asked questions, like all the boys, but was the last to be called on,” she recalls.

When peace gradually returned to Malala’s hometown, her family still had to spend weeks in displacement before returning home. In the process, Malala realised that “to be displaced, on top of everything else, is to worry about being a burden on others”. She says she “knew, even as a 12-yearold girl, that the home I knew no longer existed except in my dreams”.

It was to become obvious soon that the Taliban had not been destroyed. They had only been scattered. Malala went back to speaking up for girls’ education. She also built up a media platform for that cause, and began, in her young mind, to imagine a future for herself as a Pakistani politician “speaking up for girls’ education and peace”. That visibility was reason enough for the Taliban to strike back, and she was targeted and shot. 

The next thing Malala knew, she woke up in a hospital bed in a foreign country, with doctors and machines working in tandem to keep her alive. But her spirit did not break. The last chapter of her memoir Caught Between Two Worlds, describes her new life in Birmingham, England, wedged between “a deep longing for the warmth and sunshine of (the old) home” and “feeling as if we had landed on the moon — everything looked, smelled and felt different”. Malala soon realised that it was going to be hard for her to go back to Pakistan, but she recognised also that the Taliban had failed in their mission. “Instead of silencing me, they amplified my voice beyond Pakistan.” People worldover wanted to support the cause for which she was passionately fighting. The relentless activism she had begun in Pakistan would continue from her new home.

As part of that continuing activism, Malala brings together moving and inspirational stories of nine other young women, and their travels and travails encompassing 16 countries (Bangladesh, Canada, Colombia, the Congo, Egypt, Guatemala, Iraq, Italy, Jordan, Mexico, Myanmar, Syria, Uganda, the United States, Yemen, and Zambia). Here is a gist of those stories, which have to be read in full to grasp their import.

Zaynab and Sabreen, sisters of mixed African parentage, had a diametrically opposite experience going from their home in Egypt to the United States, seemingly on account of capricious authority which readily grants one of them a visa, while refusing it to the other. Muzoon, a 13-year-old Syrian girl in a refugee camp in Jordan, is able to convince other girls in the camp that schooling is a better option than waiting to be married to older men, which is the only other option their lives offer them. Najla, a Yazidi girl from Iraq, survives the horrors of an ISIS attack and fights her father — and orthodox community values — to resume schooling.

Maria, the daughter of a farmer, lost her father at the age of four to a militants’ attack and is forced to flee her home in the Colombian countryside with her family, to live in a makeshift camp in Cali city for the next three years. She then joins a theatre group for children set up by a community organisation and ends up as a 16-year-old, making a documentary about what it means to be displaced.

Marie Claire escapes the violence of her native Congo to enter Zambia as a refugee at the end of a three-year journey, where she endures insults and mistreatment by other children at school before she witnesses a vigilante attack on her home, which kills her mother and deeply wounds her father. The family is then fortunate to be accepted, after a wait of several years, to live on refugee status in Lancaster, PA, USA, where, in a happy ending, Marie completes her final year of schooling and graduates from high school just six months after arriving, having convinced the school authorities to admit her against heavy odds.

Ajida, a young Rohingya woman from Myanmar, is forced to run to an open-air camp in neighbouring Bangladesh with her husband and three children to escape a military attack. Her family remains stateless and homeless and has had to shift camp from the river plains for fear of floods, to treacherous mountains, with little external support.

The story of Farah from Uganda now settled in Canada, is told in retrospect. She is now a project administrator helping girls’ education in Uganda, but her family had been victim of Idi Amin’s forced exodus of Ugandans of Asian origin, back in 1972, when Farah was two years of age. They had tried so hard to assimilate into Canadian life that until she became an adult, Farah had no idea of her origins or of the tyranny that forced their exile from Uganda. She ends her story poignantly: “I still struggle to find out what I will do for the country where I was born. While I often feel as if my country gave up on me, I have never given up on it.”

For a true appreciation of what these brave women have endured and achieved, you have to read the book. Their lives will surely comfort the displaced multitudes in our uncertain and dangerous world.

Dr. Mohan Raj (The Book Review, February- March)

Also read: Explaining suffering & pain

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