We are Displaced: My Journey and Stories from Refugee Girls around the World

Book Review by Shabir Ahmad Mir

Book Name: We are Displaced: My Journey and Stories from Refugee Girls around the World
Author: Malala Yousfzai
ISBN number: 978-0-316-52364-6 (hardcover)
Year of publication: 2019
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company, New York
Reviewer: Shabir Ahmad Mir


“You educate a man; you educate a man.
 You educate a woman; you educate a generation”

 Brigham Young


“We Are Displaced: My Journey and stories from Refugee Girls Around the world is a substantial souvenir from one of the world's most prominent young activists and the youngest ever Nobel Prize Laureate, Malala Yousfzai, known for fighting for girls' right to education in impoverished countries that have experienced ghastly war atrocities and human rights violations. She truly represents the mores and standards of what the 18th century British proto-feminist; Mary Wollstonecraft calls ‘A vindication of the rights of women’. She came into the public spotlight around 2013, surviving a bullet to the head when the Taliban decided to retaliate her activism. Her unflagging support for the education of girls (which nearly cost her life) is evident throughout.

Shabir Ahmad Mir
Yousafzai shares the survival stories of female refugees from around the world. At the age 11, she suffered the slings and arrows of displacement when the Taliban forced her family to leave their idyllic home in the Swat Valley and join the ranks of Pakistan’s Internally Displaced Persons. Yousafzai recounts the agony of leaving behind her “the frolicking world, fraught with friends, and pet chickens” and the dismay at interrupted schooling. She also vividly describes the horror of seeing schools reduced to rubble as a result of bombings, an experience that both politicized her and forced her family into exile in England. In chapter 2, she expresses it piercingly:

“I was eleven when the Taliban started bombing girls’ schools throughout the Swat Valley. The attacks happened at night, so at least no one was hurt, but imagine arriving at school in the morning to find it a pile of rubble. It felt beyond cruel”.

The author devotes only about a quarter of the book to her own story; the remainder is a collection of oral histories from displaced women and girls from countries ranging from Yemen to Colombia to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Each refugee’s tale of survival is equal parts devastating and inspiring, and the narrators do not shy away from the complex, contradictory experiences of fleeing a homeland. The narratives are filled with emotionally specific descriptive details that render each voice powerful and unique. In the prologue, Yousafzai specifically states that her purpose is to transform refugees from nameless, faceless statistics into who they really are: humans whose identities are more than just their displaced status.

She succinctly reveals the purpose behind writing the book:

“I wanted a variety of stories [in my book]. I wanted people to know a Syrian refugee girl. I wanted people to know a Columbian refugee girl. A girl from Guatemala, who had no choice, became an orphan, and had to leave her country for her own safety. I wanted people to know of girls in Yemen, of girls in Uganda, and also the people who welcomed them”.  

Malala's experiences of visiting refugee camps caused her to reconsider her own displacement — first as an Internally Displaced Person when she was a young child in Pakistan, and then as an international activist who could travel anywhere in the world except to the home she loved. In We Are Displaced, Malala not only explores her own story, but she also shares the personal stories of some of the incredible girls she has met on her journeys — girls who have lost their community, relatives, and often the only world they've ever known.

She begins the book with an epigraph from the Somali born British poet Warsan Shire, talking about what makes people become refugees, declares that nobody flees home unless that home has become a shark’s mouth, a dangerous place ready to consume them. In short people only become refugees when they have no other choice. The epigraph that has been extracted from Warsen Shire’s poem and conformed judiciously by Malala Yousfzai.

no one leaves home unless

home is the mouth of a shark.


you only run for the border

when you see the whole city

running as well.


Following Warsan Shire, Malala Yousfzai through the employment of the metaphor ‘Shark’ unveils anguish over her yearning for the ‘Swat valley’ that she fervently calls Switzerland of the East.

“When I close my eyes and think of my childhood, I see pine forests and snow-capped mountains; I hear rushing rivers; I feel the calm earth beneath my feet. I was born in the Swat Valley, once known as the Switzerland of the East. Others have called it paradise, and that is how I think of Swat”.

‘We are displaced’ by Malala Yousfzai delineates the story of eight young girls and two women who have been internally displaced and those who have helped make the life for these refugees easier in their country. According to the 1951 Refugee Convention of UNHCR, a refugee is defined as “Someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or Political opinion.”

These dauntless and valorous-hearts who share their escapades come from Yemen, Iraq, Columbia, Congo, Myanmar, Guatemala, Uganda, and Syria. The book is divided into two parts. The first part begins with Malala’s story of getting internally displaced; after the Taliban vituperated her at the age of fifteen for standing up for her right to education, and then the final move to Birmingham, UK. In the prologue she shares a poignant thought;

“Millions of men, women and children witness wars every day. Their reality is violence, homes destroyed, innocent lives lost. And the only choice they have for safety is to leave. To ‘choose’ to be displaced. That is not much of a choice.” (Malala, ix-x)

Further, this part details in the first person account Yousafzai's experience being displaced. She very candidly gives a blue print of her ostracism and its ramifications. She details the rise of the Taliban in Mingora, Pakistan which led to forced displacement, with her family moving between relatives in the Shangla District and Peshawar. Three months later, they returned to Mingora to find the city wrecked. Yousafzai continued local activism which culminated in her being shot in the head by a Taliban member. She was taken to Birmingham, England, for treatment and forced to remain there and start a new life. She pathetically cogitates over the consequences on the post-displacement that she smells is likely going to happen:

“I am not an emotional person, but I cried that day. I cried for the life I was being forced to leave. I worried I would never see my home or friends or school again. A reporter had recently asked me how I would feel if I had to leave Swat someday and never return. At the time, I thought it was a ridiculous question, because I couldn’t even imagine the possibility. Now here we were, leaving, and I didn’t know when, if ever, we’d come back”.

In the second part of the book, we are introduced to the ten women and girls who pithily cogitate over their escapades, with Malala sharing how she met or got to know about each of them. There is a common thread binding all the stories together, especially the resilience and endurance of women in varied circumstances.

 The book is a chronicle of the voices of the Yemeni sisters, Zaynab, 18 and Sabreen, 16, where Zaynab received her visa for US, her sister was not as lucky and after a hellacious journey of staying ‘at an empty and Gothic warehouse with a concrete floor and no furniture or even blankets’ (73) and travelling in black tinted buses and boats on the rough waters of the Mediterranean she finally makes to Italy. It is the record of Muzoon, a fighter for women’s education in the refugee camps of Jordan, of Najla, who is an IDP in Iraq, who ran away from home to fight for her right to education, of Maria, another IDP of Columbia, who suffered discrimination within the borders of her country due to her colour and accent. This book is a record of Analisa of Guatemala, who in her bid to reach th0e US was transported and kept like an animal for days, of Marie Claire, who could leave the hatred she felt in Zambia, only through the ultimate sacrifice of her mother and also of Ajida, the Rohingya Muslim, who has no semblance of what the future will hold for her children.

The writer of ‘we are displaced’ forthrightly limns a complete picture of the world under Taliban, a world teetering on the brink of decimation. Malala yousafzai judiciously employs characters who represent the world where education has been reduced to sinful folly and those who rush to schools, as an act of culpability. In Part 1, Chapter 1, we come to know the true state of this dispiriting ambience:

Many girls stopped attending classes or left the area to be educated elsewhere when the ban was announced—my class of twenty-seven had dwindled to ten. But my friends and I continued going until the last day. My father postponed what would have been winter break so we could get in as much school as we could. When the day came that my father was forced to close our girls’ school, he mourned not only for his students but also for the fifty thousand girls in our region who had lost their right to go to school. Hundreds of schools had to close.

Malala Yousfzai very resolutely scrabbles to create a space for the girls where they could expound themselves and be heard. In this context, ‘Kancha Ilaiah’, an Indian political theorist and Activist of Dalit Rights, wisely puts it:

Unless the oppressed learns to hegemonize their own self, unless the culture and consciousness of the oppressed is put forward visibly in public, unless this culture is prepared to clash with the culture and consciousness of the enemy in public, a society of equals will remain an illusion.

The book however comprises of emboldened female characters like ‘Muzoon’, a representative of those unyielding and relentless section of girls who struggle fiercely against the restraint, restraint on girl education:

“You and me, we can be the ripple effect, if we go to school, others will follow”

 (Muzoo, Part 2)

Malala Yousfzai proves to be a global advocate for refugees, an advocate for girl’s education. She advocates that “to be displaced, on top of everything else, is to worry about being a burden on others”.

‘We are displaced’ timely and heart- wrenching, asks only for empathy for the thousands of girls fleeing across dangerous terrain towards freedom and school and tries to convey a poignant truth that home can be the enemy. 

References: Yousafzai, Malala (8 January 2019). We Are DisplacedWeidenfeld & Nicolson. p. x. ISBN 9781474610063


Bio: Shabir Ahmad Mir is a PhD Scholar in English Literature at University of Kashmir, Srinagar India. He is a poet and a Book Reviewer and currently working on a project, a novel tentatively tilted; The Abandoned Cities: A Lachrymose tale.202203E,English, Book, Review

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