Polling conducted in 2018 found that three in ten Brits think refugees get too much help in the UK, compared to just 18% who think the opposite. The older you are, or the more right-wing you are, the likelier you are to think that refugees receive too much assistance. Culture Wars divide us in so many ways – on Brexit, Trump, welfare, the environment. They now count among their victims our feelings towards people forced from their homes.
Malala is a household name, a Nobel prize-winner and a hero to millions. Her new book, “We Are Displaced”, is a short and compelling attempt to bring us back to basics in how we think about refugees. “I wrote this book,” she says, “because it seems that too many people don’t understand that refugees are ordinary people.”
Human stories vs overwhelming numbers
She sidesteps debates about how to manage “caseloads” of refugees in favour of something much more direct – humans speaking to the humanity of other humans.
The first half of the book tells her own powerful story of flight from the Taliban in Pakistan. In the second half, she offers the stories of other girls from around the world who have also had to flee. These stories bring home the aching sense of loss that refugees feel, not just of people and places but of sounds, smells and tastes, and the constant “worry about being a burden on others”. But, like Malala herself, the girls and their stories also embody profound hopefulness.
“I don’t have many happy memories,” says Marie-Claire of her childhood in the Democratic Republic of Congo, “beyond playing with other kids in our village during the rare quiet moments between unspeakable violence”. Marie-Claire describes a childhood spent in constant flight and fear, running through the bush at night and hiding during the day. Eventually, she is resettled to the US where she has to argue her way into high school, determined to succeed despite her years out of education. The moment when she graduates is overwhelming.
Telling individual tales is exactly the right approach. In our time of plummeting trust, where even charities and national news organisations are listened to only sceptically, personal testimony as a way of communicating truth has greater power than ever.
At 68.5 million, there are now more forcibly displaced people in the world than at any time since the end of the Second World War. For those who find large flows of people threatening, this is unsettling. Although the vast majority of these people live in poor countries, clearly some make it to places like the UK, where, through their vulnerability and greater needs, they necessarily make claims on both our resources and our compassion.
Yet unsettling as they may be, these numbers are reality – the lived reality of actual people, as “We Are Displaced” makes clear. They are a predictable consequence of wars and persecution which, while not the fault of your average citizen, are also not facts that can somehow be wished away. How we respond to this reality partly defines us as a society.
Work for all of us
We live in a time of uncertainty and diminished confidence in the ability of our leaders to manage the world in which we all find ourselves. However, all of us are nonetheless fundamentally humane, with strongly felt instincts to protect and support people more vulnerable than ourselves. There is a vital job to do to find ways to give full expression to those feelings, and also to protect them from the instincts that can pull us in the opposite direction.
How can people be encouraged not just to want to make a difference but to feel that they can? This is an urgent task, for which Malala – with her advocacy for girls’ education everywhere – is blazing a trail. But this is not just work for heroes; it should be work for all of us.