The Kite Runner author on sea crossings, the power of storytelling and the importance of explaining harsh realities to children.
What inspired you to write Sea Prayer, your new book about a refugee father preparing to make a perilous journey across the Mediterranean?
Ever since I saw the photo of Alan Kurdi, the 3-year-old Syrian boy whose body washed up on a beach in Turkey in 2015, I have wanted to write about sea crossings. My entry point into that story was as a father. I saw that photo and I was devastated. I kept imagining his father’s anguish. I kept asking myself what I would do if I had to be the one to see a stranger lift my son from the sand, and have to see photos of that horrible event over and over again.
Why do you think that photo was such a poignant symbol?
It was such a visceral photograph that was a painful reminder of how brutal the Syrian civil war has been. It became a symbol for the unfathomable despair that corners people to make that journey.
The book is an illustrated package created for “all ages.” How vital is it to be able to explain the refugee crisis to children?
Obviously a parent has to make a decision as to what their children read, and has to discuss the book with their children. I want my children to understand the experiences and hardships of other people beyond the borders of their own country.
One of the lines that struck me was when one of your characters said, “If only they saw, they would say kinder things, surely.” Have you found that to be true in practice, in your role as a goodwill ambassador for the U.N.’s refugee agency?
That’s what the Alan Kurdi picture proves. When we’re faced with a story, we are wired as a species to respond. To act. We need to be invited into the lives of others; this is why I’ve written this book. It’s what I see my role at the UNHCR to primarily be–a teller of stories. Stories remain our best teachers of empathy.
You came to the U.S. as a refugee after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. How do you keep Afghan culture alive for your kids, who have grown up in the U.S.?
Well, it’s a challenge because the ambient culture in the U.S. is quite powerful, so you have to make a conscious effort. We are involved in the Afghan community in Northern California. We enrolled our children in Farsi school. They have a good amount of contact with that side of their identity. That’s really important to us, and I think it’s something that’ll enrich their lives.
What can your experiences of integrating into American life teach us about the best and worst ways to deal with refugees?
Refugees and migrants are inherent strands of the American fabric, and it’s worked really well both ways. Recent research looked at over 3 million refugees who have lived in the U.S. since 1975 and found that refugees contribute billions of dollars to the American economy. This is not surprising. Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve seen the industriousness and the resilience of refugees. Although there may be a short-term cost in welcoming refugees and opening the doors, the long-term dividends are undeniable.
How does it make you feel that almost 40 years after you became a refugee, Afghanistan is still at war?
It’s heartbreaking. The Afghan people deserve peace. There is a very young and energized population in Afghanistan that is eager to engage with the outer world. I hope that those young Afghans are given the specific economic and security space to make their aspirations come true. I am encouraged that at least there’s some dialogue about moving toward a peace agreement. No war ever ends unless the opposing parties sit at a table.
This appears in the October 08, 2018 issue of TIME.