Q&A: Novel springs from journalist's concern for Afghan children

News Stories, 20 February 2012

© Courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing
Journalist and author Caroline Brothers' novel “Hinterland” tells the moving story of two Afghan children who undertake an epic journey to Europe in search of safety and a better life.

PARIS, France, February 20 (UNHCR) Caroline Brothers is a senior journalist with the International Herald Tribune and The New York Times. She lives in Paris and has just had her first novel published. "Hinterland" tells the story of two children, Aryan and his younger brother Kabir, who undertake an epic journey from their native Afghanistan to Europe in search of safety and a decent life. The Australian writer was recently interviewed by UNHCR Senior Public Information Officer William Spindler. Excerpts from the interview:

You have been reporting on asylum and immigration issues for several years. Why did you decide to tackle these issues through a novel?

At the time I was writing Hinterland, I had a very strong feeling that there were voices missing from the debate. The issue of migration seems to challenge people in Western societies in visceral ways everyone has an opinion yet it seemed very hard to hear from those on whom the debate centred.

So the novel grew out of curiosity and the desire to make those voices heard, and to put their narratives back at the centre of the conversation. I also felt there were very fundamental things at stake and I wanted to consider those things in a quiet space, away from all the shouting, where I could look at the subject and pare it back to its very elemental components.

I think it was when I discovered, to my astonishment, that children were caught up in the misery and mess of adult clandestine migration that the story started to feel urgent to me. I felt I had to try to reach people on a level that was different from the pages of the daily news. I wanted them to spend some time with my characters, and perhaps try on a point of view that is not easy to gain access to otherwise. There is not much room in a newspaper article, and I felt a novel might be the best form to carry some of the weight and some of the emotion of their stories.

How did you become interested in the subject of unaccompanied Afghan children in Europe?

I spent several days on assignment in Calais with a wonderful photographer from Magnum, Susan Meiselas, and there and in Dunkirk we met two Afghan kids who were just eight years old. They were travelling with a relative one with an older brother, the other with an uncle or cousin. I didn't realize at that stage that they were part of a wider phenomenon of Afghan kids in transit across Europe, but I think they sensitized me in a sort of unconscious way to their presence.

Later, back in Paris, I saw young Afghans squeezing through the rails to sleep in a park in the street where I lived, and I started asking questions and learned that a small shelter had been set up for those who were underage. When I finally got to meet them and talk with them, and when I started looking into the asylum statistics that were starting to be recorded by age as well as nationality, that was when I realized that I had come across something much bigger than I had originally guessed.

What motivates these children to make such a dangerous trip? What are their fears and dreams? Do they have a realistic idea of what awaits them here?

I must have had conversations with dozens of these boys while writing Hinterland, and every case is different. Some of the boys I spoke to recently were motivated to leave by untenable situations where they were living before they set off in precarious situations in Iran or Pakistan, or facing an increase in violence in their home provinces in Afghanistan. Some kids have been sent out of Afghanistan as soon as they acquire some level of autonomy, by parents who want to get at least one child to safety or out of the way of the Taliban. Others have escaped to Iran, and move from there under their own volition to Turkey, then Greece and so on, working along the way and pushed onward by the hope that life will be more viable in the next country.

Many of them have worked in tough jobs and dream of going to school. I was initially sceptical of that desire for schooling until I realized that it was not just something they had been told to say by smugglers or others on the road. They frequently come from families who prize education, and they are acutely aware of how much they have missed already. Even boys who have had no schooling at all have often had someone teach them a little English from a book, so their motivation if they do get into school in Europe is often very strong. Some come with very high hopes they want to be doctors, architects, computer engineers, pilots for them Europe is a magical place where everything must be possible. Most have only the vaguest idea of what to expect. For some the path will be very tough, but there are also a number of very impressive success stories.

How do you think these children can be helped?

There are the immediate things and the longer term things. Beyond a night shelter and eventually a day shelter, they need help developing a life project that takes into account what they themselves want or need to do otherwise it is impossible to stabilize them. They urgently need education, and ideally an education that will help them make up for the schooling they have missed, rather than being put in an education stream that will fail them. Some will succeed in apprenticeships if given the chance others could go further scholastically but are often pressed into trades that make them self-sufficient. They need sponsorships, scholarships and apprenticeships. Above all they need to be given a chance.

What are the differences between writing fiction and journalism? Do they impact readers in different ways?

Every work of fiction is a journey that requires a leap of faith on behalf of the reader, for whom the writer has to create a world and an individual subjectivity that has to be credible to them. Often fiction casts its spell by focusing on the emotional, the sensory, the inner life of a character, where journalism has much less space for those things.

Fiction distils its truth almost like an emanation, rather than trying to establish it via the layering of argument, fact and proof. Journalism needs to touch a lot of bases so that all sides and as many angles, counter-arguments or points of view as possible get heard. It acts on the rational mind whereas fiction reaches into another place and leaves more room for ambiguity.

In the tradition I come from, journalism is very empirical and so the writing reflects that. Hinterland is a very restrained novel, but there are still points where I free the writing up and let it loose, and you don't often get room for that in journalism.





Almost half the people of concern to UNHCR are children. They need special care.

Refworld – Children

Refworld – Children

This Special Feature on Child Protection is a comprehensive source of relevant legal and policy documents, practical tools and links to related websites.

Iraqi Children Go To School in Syria

UNHCR aims to help 25,000 refugee children go to school in Syria by providing financial assistance to families and donating school uniforms and supplies.

There are some 1.4 million Iraqi refugees living in Syria, most having fled the extreme sectarian violence sparked by the bombing of the Golden Mosque of Samarra in 2006.

Many Iraqi refugee parents regard education as a top priority, equal in importance to security. While in Iraq, violence and displacement made it difficult for refugee children to attend school with any regularity and many fell behind. Although education is free in Syria, fees associated with uniforms, supplies and transportation make attending school impossible. And far too many refugee children have to work to support their families instead of attending school.

To encourage poor Iraqi families to register their children, UNHCR plans to provide financial assistance to at least 25,000 school-age children, and to provide uniforms, books and school supplies to Iraqi refugees registered with UNHCR. The agency will also advise refugees of their right to send their children to school, and will support NGO programmes for working children.

UNHCR's ninemillion campaign aims to provide a healthy and safe learning environment for nine million refugee children by 2010.

Iraqi Children Go To School in Syria

The Children of Harmanli Face a Bleak Winter

Since the Syrian crisis began in March 2011, more than 2 million people have fled the violence. Many have made their way to European Union countries, finding sanctuary in places like Germany and Sweden. Others are venturing into Europe by way of Bulgaria, where the authorities struggle to accommodate and care for some 8,000 asylum-seekers, many of whom are Syrian. More than 1,000 of these desperate people, including 300 children, languish in an overcrowded camp in the town of Harmanli, 50 kilometres from the Turkish-Bulgarian border. These people crossed the border in the hope of starting a new life in Europe. Some have travelled in family groups; many have come alone with dreams of reuniting in Europe with loved ones; and still others are unaccompanied children. The sheer number of people in Harmanli is taxing the ability of officials to process them, let alone shelter and feed them. This photo essay explores the daily challenges of life in Harmanli.

The Children of Harmanli Face a Bleak Winter

Erbil's Children: Syrian Refugees in Urban Iraq

Some of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees are children who have sought shelter in urban areas with their families. Unlike those in camps, refugees living in towns and cities in countries like Iraq, Turkey and Jordan often find it difficult to gain access to aid and protection. In a refugee camp, it is easier for humanitarian aid organizations such as UNHCR to provide shelter and regular assistance, including food, health care and education. Finding refugees in urban areas, let alone helping them, is no easy task.

In Iraq, about 100,000 of the 143,000 Syrian refugees are believed to be living in urban areas - some 40 per cent of them are children aged under 18 years. The following photographs, taken in the northern city of Erbil by Brian Sokol, give a glimpse into the lives of some of these young urban refugees. They show the harshness of daily life as well as the resilience, adaptability and spirit of young people whose lives have been overturned in the past two years.

Life is difficult in Erbil, capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The cost of living is high and it is difficult to find work. The refugees must also spend a large part of their limited resources on rent. UNHCR and its partners, including the Kurdish Regional Government, struggle to help the needy.

Erbil's Children: Syrian Refugees in Urban Iraq

Greece: The Refugees' Grandmother in Idomeni
Play video

Greece: The Refugees' Grandmother in Idomeni

From her small house in Idomeni, Greek grandmother Panagiota Vasileiadou, 82, saw first-hand the bare need of refugees desperate for food to feed their children or clean water to shower and wash their clothes. As a daughter of ethnic Greek refugees herself - who left Turkey in a population exchange after the 1919-1922 Greco-Turkish war - she is now doing all she can to help the latest wave of refugees by giving out food and clothes.
Greece: Health risk to refugee children in IdomeniPlay video

Greece: Health risk to refugee children in Idomeni

Some 10,000 refugees and migrants remain camped out at an informal site at Greece's northern border with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The makeshift home is also home to an estimated 4,000 children, the majority of whom are under the age of five. Doctors warn conditions in the camp are becoming dangerous for children.
Syria: Homs war children find home in abandoned hotelPlay video

Syria: Homs war children find home in abandoned hotel

After five years of conflict that destroyed their spacious children's home in Wa'ar, dozens of orphaned and abandoned children had to relocate to a small former hotel in nearby Homs. The abandoned hotel has limited dormitories, no playgrounds or classroom.