What does it mean to be displaced? This September marks seven years since the body of Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian child dressed in a red T-shirt and blue shorts, washed up on a Turkish beach. The image that ran on the front pages of newspapers throughout Europe, prompting demands for governments to face what was dubbed the “greatest catastrophe since WWII,” was maybe the only time in recent memory when popular empathy for migrants clearly surpassed disdain or animosity.
For about a month after the picture aired, as Alan lay face down in all of our consciences, there was a sense in European capitals that a new approach was desperately needed; various cities saw rallies with people carrying banners that said: “Refugees Welcome Here.” However, the Paris attacks happened in November, and public opinion grew hostile to “migrants” once more. The horrible accounts of widespread sexual assaults by hordes of young men of “North African appearance” in German cities that new year were used to justify much more ominous rhetoric, culminating in the deliberate and algorithmic scaremongering leading up to the EU referendum.
In the 24 months following the discovery of Alan’s body, 8,500 people died or went missing while attempting to cross the Mediterranean to a safer region; if it hadn’t been for the Italian coast guard’s act of compassion, the figure would have been much higher.
Those lost on Europe’s waters represent only a small percentage of those who are now permanently lost at sea.
At the time of Alan’s death, the globe had more displaced refugees and immigrants than at the end of WWII: 65 million, a displaced country nearly the size of Britain. Many questions are raised by these folks, but one essential one remains: how can you bring the tale of their lives to life? And how can the world’s relatively settled people, living within rather than outside borders, be motivated or inspired to discover the collective will to provide these strangers some type of existence without that link, without a picture of Alan?
Viet Thanh Nguyen analyses it via current historical examples, demonstrating how waves of migration and integration are the natural order of things, not a historical oddity, and exposing how cultures, like humans, rely on novelty and openness for survival. He believes that people who finish last labour the hardest, produce the most passionately, and instil the most innovation – because their lives rely on it.
Nguyen, like the other authors he’s selected to share their stories here, is speaking from personal experience. Before becoming a writer, he was a refugee. He migrated to America with his parents when he was four years old, following the fall of Saigon in 1975.
By that age, he had known – though he cannot remember – what it was like to walk 184 kilometres, to see paratroopers hanging dead in trees along the road, to see his mother and father fight their way onto a boat while others were being shot, to be labelled “other” in military camps in Guam, the Philippines, and Pennsylvania, and to finally settle in San Jose, where his parents, who ran a grocery store, were threatened several times by men with guns.
Along the way, Nguyen’s parents gathered enough money to send him to college. He is currently the chair of the comparative literature department at the University of Southern California, forty years after his journey from Saigon. His first work, The Sympathiser, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. He received a MacArthur genius grant in 2017. His collection of life stories from other refugees who have gone on to become celebrated writers – Marina Lewycka, born in a displaced persons camp in Ukraine before settling in the UK, Aleksandar Hemon, a Chicagoan from Bosnia, Dina Nayeri, born in Iran, raised in America, now living in Britain, and many others – tells us something I believe we all intuitively understand: that those who have travelled the furthest have undoubtedly garnered the most objective viewpoint.