Q&A: Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner, keen to help refugees

News Stories, 16 February 2007

© UNHCR/T.Irwin
Former refugee Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner, at Kounoungou camp in eastern Chad.

WASHINGTON, United States, February 16 (UNHCR) Khaled Hosseini was last year named a Goodwill Envoy to the UNHCR office in the United States. The Afghan former refugee's first novel, The Kite Runner, is an international best-seller. He talked recently with Tim Irwin, UNHCR's senior media officer in the US. Excerpts from the interview:

How did you and your family leave Afghanistan and come to the United States?

My family left Kabul in 1976 because my father was a diplomat and he was assigned a post in the Afghan Embassy in Paris. While we were in Paris, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan [in December 1979] so my family applied for political asylum from France to the US. We were granted asylum in 1980. My family moved from Paris to San Jose [in California] in 1980 as the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan escalated and we've been living in the States since then.

What were some of the early difficulties you faced in the United States?

The difficulties were that my folks were educated professionals back home. My mother was the vice-principal of a large high school and my father was a diplomat. The adjustment was difficult for them initially, coming to the States and being on welfare and having no jobs, with five kids. There were some difficult times financially certainly, but also from the standpoint of self-image and identity.

There weren't many Afghans in the area at the time, although that community began growing throughout the 1980s, so I also think there was some loneliness on their part. Many of their friends were left behind and their family members, but I think they adjusted pretty well. They started to work almost immediately and put us kids through school, but the first two or three years were pretty rough on them.

Do you think The Kite Runner has brought greater attention to Afghan refugees?

I hope so. It certainly has brought greater attention to the whole Afghan situation. I frequently get e-mails from readers who will tell me that after reading the book they have a much better sense of Afghanistan as an existing country and a more personal relationship with the country and its people.

Have you been back to Afghanistan recently and, if so, what were your impressions?

I went to Afghanistan in March 2003, a few months before the book was published. I had left 27 years earlier, so I came back to a vastly different city. Just from a physical standpoint the infrastructure was destroyed. A lot of Kabul was destroyed, or just badly neglected. I found a lot of the same things that I had written about in my novel: a lot of widows and orphans, people who had been injured in war, veterans of war, cripples, and people wandering around the streets.

There was also a real presence of guns and military, which I didn't remember from the 1970s. The city is much more crowded than I remember, much more polluted than I remember. In 2003, there was still a sense of pretty good optimism in the city and the people were running around contributing to various projects. I haven't been there since 2003, so I don't know if it has changed.

How did you come to be a UNHCR Goodwill Envoy?

In June 2006, UNHCR gave me a humanitarian award which I was very honoured by. I came and spoke at the World Refugee Day [ceremony on June 20] in Washington, DC and shortly thereafter UNHCR contacted me to ask if I was interested in a working relationship with them as a goodwill envoy. For me it was, in many ways, a perfect vehicle for something that I'd been looking to do for a long time.

Being from Afghanistan, a country with one of the largest refugee populations in the world, it has been an issue that was very germane and an issue that was very dear to my own heart. It was also an issue where I felt I could make some kind of difference in some capacity. So when UNHCR contacted me to work with them and to raise awareness of the issues relating to refugees, be they Afghan or Darfurian or wherever else, I was thrilled and I felt that this was a really great vehicle for me to do some humanitarian work.

You recently visited refugees in eastern Chad. What were your impressions?

You can read about the tragedy of Darfur and see it on television, but to actually shake the hands of, and speak to, people who have been personally affected by the atrocities in Darfur is a vastly different experience. I got to meet some refugees while I was in eastern Chad and to hear their stories. It was really overwhelming how appalling it is, what has happened to these people back home in Darfur, and the things that they have had to endure. The whole magnitude of the disaster in Darfur hit home to me in a very personal way after having met these people and sitting down and speaking with them.

I also came away with a feeling that the humanitarian staff, including those from UNHCR who are working in eastern Chad caring for these people, are doing it at very significant peril to their own well-being. The situation in eastern Chad is a lot tenser than I had anticipated. With the ongoing fighting between the rebels and the government troops, the situation was very unstable. I was only there for a week, so I have a great deal of admiration for the humanitarian staff working on the ground day-in and day-out and living with that instability.

Those are my two major impressions, but I also came away with a better sense of just how complex these conflicts are and how deeply entrenched they are by ethnic identities. The sides keep shifting and it is very difficult to keep track of all the different parties.

Tell us your thoughts on the medical teams you saw in action in Chad.

As a doctor myself, I can only imagine what a difficult situation these doctors are working in. They are caring for people under very extreme situations. They have really limited resources in terms of laboratory diagnostic tools. They are dealing with a population that is very large and exposed to the environment, who get all sorts of maladies. I was very, very impressed by the skill of the physicians that I saw and by their ability to manage the population.

They are also in a very difficult situation on the ground, meaning that they are not only taking care of the refugee population and the local Chadians, but they often have to deal with injured rebels, Chadian soldiers, and bandits. They have to take care of them, no questions asked. Several times I questioned whether I would be able to function as a physician under those conditions, so I was left with a great deal of admiration for them.

What's next on the calendar in your work with UNHCR?

I've been asked to make public appearances on behalf of the refugee cause and to serve as a public advocate for refugees around the world. It will be my privilege to try to capture public attention and to use my access to the media to give voice to victims of humanitarian crises.