Kamila Shamsie ’94: Hearing Refugee Story “Felt Like a Gift”
We know him only as “John.” She cannot tell us his real name, nor his country of origin. As she tells John’s story of torture and imprisonment, she uses her finger to draw a line in the air every time his country is mentioned. John’s tale was one of attempted escapes, repeated imprisonment, and torture so brutal that he did not want it published; he didn’t want his children to know the worst details of what he had gone through.
Novelist and writer Kamila Shamsie ’94 visited Hamilton on April 9 to discuss the experiences of refugees, in conjunction with Refugee Solidarity Month, headed by Hamilton club “On the Move.”
Hersheena Rajaram ’19 and Audrey Nadler ’18 started the club two years ago to reach out to the local community and increase awareness about the refugee crisis. The club worked with Professor Erol Balkan to bring speakers to campus throughout April.
During her talk, Shamsie read parts of a conversation she had with a refugee, “John,” whose real name she could not disclose.
“The story she told was so powerful,” Rajaram said. “I hope that students got more insight on the refugee crisis through her talk, because the media kind of dehumanizes the crisis, but her refugee tales bring human emotion into it, like a reality check.” Shamsie's retelling of John's story can be found in Refugee Tales - Volume II, a compilation of refugee stories recounted by well known British authors. Refugee Tales is an ongoing project, co-organized by Professor David Herd from Kent's School of English and the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group.
Shamsie explained that she felt her duty was simply to listen to John, because refugees are rarely faced with someone willing to listen to their story; they are almost always ignored or told to leave.
“There is a power in just listening to people,” Shamsie said. “John told me how much it mattered to him that his story was going to be heard. It’s a thing that we cannot underestimate, because when you are a refugee, your story becomes something the government wants to dispute. They tell you that what you suffered was not enough. Your story becomes a point of contention. It was the most daunting thing to hear John’s story and know I had to do something with the story, but it also felt like a gift that he was willing to tell me something so personal.”
Shamsie emphasized the importance of getting involved in whatever way possible, whatever age you are or skills you have.
“I really appreciated the emphasis on ‘do whatever you can to help refugees,’” Rajaram said. “You can work with your existing skills. You don’t have to wait. If you can write, write something. If you can volunteer, volunteer. And that resonates with On the Move’s mission, which encourages student engagement with the refugee community, especially since we live so close to such a large refugee population.”
Later that evening, Shamsie also read from her latest novel Home Fire, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2017.