We Are Displaced: My Journey and Stories from Refugee Girls Around the World
Written by Malala Yousafzai
Little, Brown, 2019, 218pp
Malala Yousafzai shares an autobiographical account of her experiences as a displaced person, political target, and ardent activist for girls’ education and for refugees worldwide. After telling her own story, she introduces the first-person accounts of nine refugee girls whose journeys to freedom from discrimination, war, poverty, and persecution were or continue to be fraught with danger and hardship. The autobiographical and biographical perspectives in this book increase the impact and poignancy of the plight of refugees and create opportunities for readers to develop empathy and seek action on behalf of others.
Malala began her activism as an eleven-year-old girl growing up in time of political turmoil in Pakistan. Malala’s father ran a chain of schools and encouraged Pakistani girls, including his daughter, to get an education. When the Taliban took over the Swat Valley where Malala and her family lived, they banned schooling for girls and then closed all girls’ schools. Malala fought back. Using a pseudonym, she authored a blog for the BBC Urdu. In her posts, she wrote about life under Taliban rule, violence and misuse of Islamic teachings, and focused her advocacy on the importance of schooling for girls.
Her outspokenness for female education and peace made Malala a political target. She was shot by the Taliban. A week later, while still in a coma, Malala was airlifted to the United Kingdom where she underwent surgery and treatment for life-threatening injuries. Her family, fearing further reprisals, followed her to the U.K. With the support of her parents, Malala restarted her activism by visiting resettlement and refugee camps, advocating for the young women whose courage, bravery, and resilience she admired, and bringing awareness to the uncertain lives of refugee girls from around the globe. In 2014, at the age of seventeen, Malala earned the Nobel Peace Prize, the youngest person ever to earn that honor.
The refugee girls’ first-person stories in this book are unique and highlight the dangers faced and courage needed to be a displaced person in the world today. The table of contents lists the girls’ names and a phrase that represents her experience. Malala introduces each chapter with how she came to know each girl.
Zaynab and her sister Sabreen are Yemeni refugees whose journey from their war-torn country separates them and takes their lives in different directions. Muzoon flees the war in Syria and influences the life choices for other girls living in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. Najla was internally displaced in Iraq due to the persecution of Yazidi people by ISIS. Similarly, internally displaced in her home country, María made a documentary film to share the struggle of Columbian people displaced by civil war. Analisa, an unaccompanied minor who escaped from violence in Guatemala, seeks asylum in the United States. After escaping violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Marie Claire and her family were unwanted in Zambia, applied for refugee visas, and ended up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where she graduated from high school after just five months. (Malala includes a chapter about Jennifer, the Pennsylvania-based refugee volunteer who became the “American mom” to Marie Claire’s family.) Ajida, a member of the Rohingya, a persecuted Muslim minority group, escaped from Myanmar to Bangladesh. The final story is Farah’s who fled with her parents from Uganda when she was just two-years-old. Farah shares how she has experienced bullying and prejudice as a Muslim African with Indian heritage living in Canada, yet feels “refugee gratitude” for the life choices she was given by her parents’ decision to risk leaving their home.
Malala’s voice and the voices of the refugees are forceful in this book. Readers will feel the strength of Malala’s convictions as well as the fear she experienced as a political target and the courage she displayed from a very early age. Young readers will be inspired by her activism and the refugee girls’ first-person narratives. Authentic, vivid descriptions invite readers to live through the experiences of each refugee girl and feel the courage it takes to survive as a displaced person in a troubled world. The final pages of the book include photographs of the refugee girls who contributed their stories, Malala, her family, and the Swat Valley. The proceeds from this book support the work of Malala’s Fund (https://www.malala.org).
In a closing section, “How You Can Help,” Malala offers statistics from the United Nation Refugee Agency. (https://www.unhcr.org/en-us). There are 68.5 million “forcibly displaced persons” in the world today. Forty million people are internally displaced within their own countries; 28.5 million are refugees and 3.1 million are asylum-seekers (https://www.unhcr.org/en-us/figures-at-a-glance.html). The narratives in the book combined with these staggering numbers affirm that the plight of displaced persons is an international crisis in search of a global solution.
In the epilogue, Malala tells how she felt returning to her home six years after she was attacked by the Taliban. In March 2018, she and her family traveled from the United Kingdom to the Swat Valley. Along with the stories of the young female refugees in We Are Displaced, Malala’s emotions confirm the quote with which she opens the book:
no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark,
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city
running as well.
–Warsan Shire, “Home”
Educators can pair this book with Malala Yousafzai’s other autobiographical books, including I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban (2015), Malala’s Magic Pencil (2017) and the Spanish language edition, El lápiz mágico de Malala (2017). In pairings with biographies written about Malala by other authors, readers may note whether there are differences in how they empathize with Malala’s life story. These titles include Malala: Activist for Girls’ Education by Raphaële Frier (2017), Malala: A Hero for All by Shana Corey (2016), and Who Is Malala Yousafzai? by Dinah Brown (2015).
A text set focused on the rights of children and young adults could help students make connections across cultures and around the globe. Educators may choose to launch an inquiry with the picturebook For Every Child: The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in Words and Pictures text adapted by Caroline Castle with various illustrators (2000). Two books by Susan Kuklin combine biography/autobiography and topical information that can further students’ inquiry into the rights of young children and teens. Iqbal Masih and the Crusaders Against Child Slavery (Susan Kuklin, 1988) is about a “debt-bonded” young Pakistani activist who, before his murder at the age of twelve, brought the world’s attention to the conditions in which children were working in carpet and other unsafe factory conditions. We Are Here to Stay: Voices of Undocumented Young Adults (Susan Kuklin, 2019) includes first-person narratives of the lives of undocumented teens living in the United States today as well as a timeline of U.S. immigration policies and other information.
Judi Moreillon, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign