On a flight from Serbia to Sweden, Afghanzada Achekzai drew the suspicion of crew members as he walked more than a dozen times to the bathroom. In the cramped stall, he hurriedly tore and flushed pages from the counterfeit passports that smugglers had created to help him leave Afghanistan.
With each trip down the aisle, he felt his identity fraying, the memories and relationships that made up his life disappearing into the stratosphere.
Achekzai was getting ready to surrender to the state of Sweden and claim refugee status for having faced extreme threats of violence. After hiding for months in basements and hotel rooms, he just wanted to be safe.
But he wasn’t ready for the sleepless interrogations that awaited him.
Achekzai’s harrowing experience is one of 15 personal testimonies that make up Kao Kalia Yang’s profoundly intimate collection of short stories Somewhere in the Unknown World, the previous selection for the Global Citizen Book Club.
Yang spent the first six years of her life as “a stateless Hmong girl in Ban Vinai Refugee Camp in Thailand,” she tells us in the introduction. Her family, especially her grandma, would share memories about their former life in Laos, seeding Yang’s imagination. When her family arrived in Minnesota, she was placed in a school with other refugee children and her ability to empathize grew as she heard their experiences.
Somewhere in the Unknown World is an extension of Yang’s lifelong commitment to the kind of deep listening that helps people see themselves more fully, restoring dignity that may have been buried by the noise of an uncaring society.
For her latest book, Yang invited refugees to share their memories of displacement and resettlement and then recreated them as best as she could in narrative form, a tender and careful collaboration that acts as a powerful counterweight to prevailing cultural stigmas surrounding refugees.
Each chapter is told in the first person, giving readers the sense that we’re sitting in each narrator’s living room, being granted access to a painful personal history over a cup of coffee or tea. By default, the stories involve hardship, loss, and suffering. Although they’re examples of the extreme injustices caused by centuries of colonialism and violence, the chapters largely stay away from polemics. Instead we encounter people just trying to figure out what happened to them and how they ended up in a new country that seems so insistent on homogenizing the present moment, stripping it of the scars of the past.
A recurring theme throughout the book is how refugees are denied the time and resources to process their grief. Once they arrive in the US, refugees must often learn a new language as they scrape together low-wage work to help their families survive. As their trauma gets deferred, it becomes heavier. The book seemingly acts as an opportunity to purge pain and become whole again.
Yang expertly conjures the haziness of memory as the narrators reflect on experiences that happened many years ago and this fuzzy atmosphere makes the pivotal moments all the more startling.
There’s Michael Tesfay, who’s blindsided as a child by the knowledge that his mother is actually his grandmother. There’s Siah Borzie, whose husband nearly succumbs to malaria and starvation as they hide in the bush after fleeing rebel fighters.
And Fong Lee, who’s forever tormented by the image of the small girl begging him to take her baby sister across the Mekong River to Thailand before the armed soldiers arrive:
I had just blown up the raft and was tying my children together when the girl walked toward us. In light of the moon, reflected off the surface of the river, I saw her eyes, big and round in her sunken face. She offered what was in her pot to me before her words came out.
She said, “This is all I have left in the world, this little bit of rice and the little sister on my back. Our mother and father, our aunts and uncles and grandparents were killed in the jungle. We are alone. We’ve traveled for the last five days on our own to get here.”
I said, “I can’t help you. I’m sorry.”
“I can’t help you. I’m sorry.” These words haunt the book, but they’re just as often turned inside-out when moments of grace punctuate the extreme uncertainty, like when Awo Ahmed grabs her brother’s wrist as he slides off the roof of an apartment building.
There are more refugees worldwide than at any point in modern history and many of them are stuck in the limbo of resettlement. They survived wars, political instability, flooding, famine — the broad themes of displacement — but they don’t want medals for heroism.
They want to be able to put one foot in front of the next, sit on the couch and take their shoes off, watch their children ride the school bus, make meals that can feed their church. Above all, they want to live without fear.
By sitting with moments of sorrow and confusion and dread, Yang pierces the false facades of stereotypes that depict refugees as alien and threatening. Out pours the simple hopes and dreams that make up a human life. Somewhere in the Unknown World invites us to recognize ourselves in these stories. Somewhere in the unknown world, this is you and this is me.
Our latest pick for the Global Citizen Book Club is The Book of V. by Anna Solomon.
How does the Global Citizen Book Club work?
Read: Each month, we will handpick a new book to read together, relating to one of our core issues. You can purchase each month's selection at your local bookstore — or, if you're feeling lucky, Global Citizens in the US can enter to win the book here!
Discuss: Each week, we will engage in facilitated discussions with your fellow Global Citizens around major themes, key learnings, and more in our “Global Citizen All-Access” Facebook Group. Join here!
Participate: The following month, we will host a virtual discussion with the author, where you will get the chance to engage and ask questions. You can get a ticket to the event by taking action with Global Citizen and using your points, so keep an eye out on Global Citizen Rewards!