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'One of most basic of human rights is to be able to call a place home'


'One of most basic of human rights is to be able to call a place home'

Anita Nair, bestselling author and UNHCR's new high-profile supporter in India, reflects on her family's history of exodus and explains why she is raising her voice in support of refugees.
15 December 2020
Anita Nair in Delhi, India.

Anita Nair, bestselling author of nine novels and a short story collection, was today named as a UNHCR high-profile supporter in India. Prior to her appointment, Nair had been working closely with UNHCR to raise awareness about those forcibly displaced, including highlighting the challenges that refugees are facing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. In her new role, she will continue to bring attention to the situation of refugees in India and elsewhere in the world. Here, she shares her personal reflections on what her new role means to her.   

Twenty-one years ago as I wrote my first novel, I tried to understand what it meant to be exiled from one’s land. All I knew was drawn from hearsay. My paternal grandparents were part of the exodus of Indians who fled Myanmar, then known as Burma, after the Japanese invasion in 1942. Somewhere in the forest on that 1182 km journey from Rangoon to Imphal, an uncle of mine lies buried. My grandmother had been eight months pregnant and she had delivered a premature baby during that long walk and he hadn’t survived. It’s a miracle that she did. My grandfather would tell me that what gave him the impetus to go on was the thought that at the end of the journey was home; a place where he had grown up and where our family had lived for a few centuries at least.

Later in the army camp I grew up, there were people who as children and young adults had left the newly formed Pakistan. It was also the first time that I heard the word refugee used. It wasn’t the same as my grandparents returning to India. They were coming home I was told. But what of a child who hasn’t known any place but one? The land and its people represents home. To this day my father who is 90 years old now talks of his childhood in Burma. He recalls in precise detail the sounds and smells and the feel of rain on his skin. I would hear the firm clasp of memory that striated a word here and an exclamation there. And I realize that not even a writer who is adept at slipping under the skin of characters can truly understand what it means to be a refugee.

Unless you have experienced it firsthand, how would anyone know what it is to flee for one’s life, to abandon everything that is familiar and sacred; to give up the minutiae of the everyday which creates a sense of both security and permanence; to lose your identity even though you are absolutely certain of who you are; to trust in the kindness of strangers because what is the alternative?; to try and recreate a new life from scratch even though you cannot ever stop longing for what you left behind.

I often think of the trauma and suffering caused by displacement and how one of most basic of human rights is to be able to call a place home. When that is snatched away and it happens in various parts of the world on a daily and routine basis, it is as much a moral outrage as the fact that in a world where technology has made so much possible that people continue to starve to death. As for refugee children, they are the worst affected of all because apart from trying to make sense of their own displacement, they have to live with the adults who are battling their own demons. A child is robbed of everything including childhood.

It is this that makes me question again and again the politics of why people are forced to become refugees – the most common reason is persecution — which can take on many forms: religious, national, social, racial, or political. It is this that led me towards my association with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. It is this that drives me to contribute in whatever way I can to raise my voice in support of those striving to help alleviate the situation. On UNHCR’s 70th anniversary, let us stand in solidarity with refugees.