Why I Write… About Refugees

At my mother’s naturalization ceremony in 2003, she was given a small United States flag made of rough cotton stapled to a plain wood pole.

She keeps this flag, still, in a wooden basket that sits atop my parent’s fridge and stores paperwork and bills. Scattered around the kitchen and beyond are other distinctly American artifacts, like my mother’s beloved countertop popcorn maker and a rubber ashtray my father got in the mail from Marlboro for his birthday. There are Bosnian artifacts, too—like a traditional copper coffee set, the džezva never used, on display in the living room, and a copper repoussé, made by my father’s uncle, depicting a barefoot Bosnian woman collecting water in a bokal. Among all these things are two people, my parents, who navigate their lives in similar duality: there is Bosnian coffee, thick and aromatic, made on the stove each morning and evening; there is Thanksgiving dinner and a fresh Christmas tree each winter; there are Saturday mornings spent making long-distance phone calls to grandparents and uncles and cousins; there are Sunday mornings spent lazily watching Nascar races.

Navigating this duality in my own life has often come in the form of writing to make sense of my identity, to parse through things I have cobbled together from each culture to make a person who is distinctly me. It seems those of us who live such dual lives are often compelled to tell stories, our own and others’, to illuminate the private experiences essential to our being that are hidden from the world’s eye because they don’t conform neatly in a convenient narrative. And telling stories, writing stories, is, as Joan Didion once put it, “the act of saying, I.”

In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. Its an aggressive, even a hostile act. -Joan Didion, “Why I Write”

A few weeks ago, my phone lit up with a text from a friend asking, “Why is writing so hard?”

“Because it’s personal. Like a piece of your soul,” I wrote back without a second thought.

What writer hasn’t grappled with the sheer boldness, the tenacity of saying “I, I, I”? You ask yourself if your thoughts are important, unique, valuable enough to impose on the world. You must fight against the urge to make yourself small. Here, of course, I have struggled like many before me. But I also recognize the immense privilege it is to experience that struggle, to have the freedom to write, to use my voice, that I can be in a position to question if what I write is valuable. There are countries, like North Korea, Cuba and Afghanistan, where freedom of speech is either limited or challenged; and of course, there are life circumstances like refugeehood and forced displacement that by their very nature silence those affected. All of this has left me asking myself in the last few years: Why do I write?

This blog is my answer: a digital storybook, assembled by one former-refugee storyteller seeking to amplify the voices of others. You’ll find stories of refugees, asylum seekers and those who advocate for them, in their own words; you’ll find my musings on refugee law, protection and policies contextualized by the lived experiences of those whose lives have been shaped by them. I hope these stories and musings, most of all, humanize and individualize refugees and migrants.


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