A staggering 110 million people are currently displaced around the world – more than ever before, according to a report released by the NGO. United Nations Refugee Agency in January. At a time when refugees are widely perceived as a huge, anonymous and threatening entity, the book What We Remember Will Be Saved: A Story of Refugees and the Things They Carry, published in September, puts faces to the masses and is timely. named remember the human stories behind the numbers.
Stephanie Saldañajournalist and academic of American and French nationality, recounts with poetry and compassion the heartbreaking odysseys of six women and men forced to flee their homes because of the Syrian civil war.
How quickly an entire life can change was a big surprise to me.
Over six years and nine countries, from Aleppo to Amsterdam, the author, who spent most of the last two decades in the Middle East and speaks fluent Arabic, unearthed their individual stories. It is not only a testament to the resilience of refugees, but also a call for empathy.
A difficult but important read, the book makes it abundantly clear that no refugee leaves their home or community voluntarily and that “the things they carry” are rarely physical in nature. Instead, memories and keepsakes take the form of music, recipes, and language: an embroidered dress, eggplant seeds, and childhood songs.
In this sense, Saldaña’s book also offers a timely exploration of the importance of intangible cultural heritage. Fittingly, the UNESCO convention to protect them celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. Parliament spoke with the writer, who divides her time between Bethlehem and France, while she was on a book signing tour in Seattle.
What made you want to write this book?
Many reasons, some very personal. As I had lived in Syria at the start of the war, these were my neighbors, friends, teachers… I was really frustrated that the media only spoke of refugees as victims or as a threat. I wanted to share stories the same way Syrians and Iraqis talk about themselves: as people who are actors in their own stories, making choices, saving things, and caring for their families. There were two different points of view: one from outside the war and the other from people living through the war. I wondered what would happen if people could hear their stories.
Why focus on Iraqi and Syrian refugees?
Someone else could have written a book like this about many other countries. I decided to focus on places where I could understand the situation better and where I could talk to people in their language.
You managed to interweave all these stories…
I wanted to show the way communities interact with each other, as well as their diversity. That’s another thing that frustrated me: people talked about Syrians and Iraqis as if they were all the same. We did not understand the fact that they speak different languages, that they have different religions, and that this diversity was being destroyed by the war.
The weather, the smells, a passing dog – the stories you tell convey an incredible level of detail. How did you achieve this?
I’ve spoken to them many times, and because I do it in Arabic and have been to the places they mention, there’s this kind of familiarity. But it’s also a wonderful culture of storytelling. They know what makes a good story, and that makes it easier.
Was it difficult for them to open up?
One of the beauties of the book is that it’s not about what people lost, but what they saved. In this way, I think people were proud to talk about what they had saved and how they were helping their communities during the war. Of course, what they lost also comes out, but by being survivors first rather than victims.
There appears to be a growing lack of empathy in the West towards refugees. Why is that?
One of the things people often say about my writing is that I humanize refugees. And I always say: no, they are already human. Some people are no longer able to see refugees as human beings. I guess they do it out of fear, but it’s something that has never made sense to me.
There is a powerful moment in the book where you experience this dehumanization firsthand, when you access a refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos.
From the moment I was on the other side of the fence, I had the impression that people were looking at me, as if I didn’t exist; it was really, really shocking. This whole experience was mind blowing. I will never forget him. I just couldn’t believe that Europe treated human beings this way, and they didn’t even try to hide it. Hearing the stories of these people, how they had escaped the horror of Isis, survived a sea crossing and thought they had finally found safety, (eventually) sleeping under trees and covering themselves with rubbish to keep warm . It was incredibly cruel.
Throughout the book it becomes clear that it is not necessarily material things that people carry with them. Is this a common point that you found?
A lot. When leaving, I imagined that people would have brought items with them, but often they have to leave so quickly that they can’t even pack a bag. Especially on Lesvos, it was amazing to see people realize that what they still had – who they are, what they can offer – was something within them.
What surprised you most about these conversations?
How brave people are: the courage to go to completely new places and start again. And I was really surprised by how quickly this all happened. There were things I thought I knew, but when I asked, “What did you bring with you?” (it quickly became clear) I didn’t understand the war. You don’t have time to pack your bags. How quickly an entire life can change was a big surprise to me. It never ceases to amaze me how unique each person is and how kind and good they remain even when people are cruel to them. I think of them when I get bitter.
It struck me that people wait until the last moment to flee when their lives are in danger, and even then some still come back…
Yes. In the meantime, we learned something tragic: those who tried to stay in Syria were punished. And for those who fled after 2015, it was much more difficult (to obtain resettlement). The lesson seems to be: the sooner you leave a war, the more likely you are to get resettlement. The longer you wait, the harder it will be for you. This is also very worrying.
What did you learn from writing this book?
I know now that if something like that happened to me, I would think of my family and only then of everything I could save. Another thing I learned is that we see ourselves as being outside of history. We believe that the trauma that migrants and refugees experience comes from their own country. What I learned from talking with them is that a lot of their trauma has to do with how they are received or not received when they arrive. It’s time to take responsibility for the fact that we are included in people’s lives. There is a responsibility there.
What We Remember Will Be Saved: A Story of Refugees and the Things They Carry
Author: Stéphanie Saldaña
Publisher: Broadleaf Books