Book Review – We Are Displaced by Malala Yousafzai (& the incredible girls she’s met around the world)

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In 2015, there was one film I had to see at that year’s London Film Festival and that was the documentary film, He Named Me Malala, which tells the incredible story of Malala Yousafzai and her family. It was a stunning film (read more on that here) and afterwards Malala herself joined us by live feed to talk about her life and her passionate campaigning for education for all girls. Hearing her speak was a privilege and I hoped one day that I’d have the chance to see her at an event in person.

Last night I had that opportunity, as Malala was to give a talk at London’s Barbican Centre to coincide with the release of her new book. I arrived an hour early and immediately started reading. By the time the conversation with Malala began, I’d already read half of it and by the time I went to bed last night, I’d finished all 212 pages and immediately felt the need to write about it.

Malala’s story is well known in 2019; her courageous campaigning for the education of girls, while still a child herself, when the Taliban declared it was un-Islamic for girls to go to school, the horrifying attack that left her fighting for her life and her recovery in Birmingham, England, the city she and her family have made their home since 2012. Yet, what makes Malala such an inspirational young woman is the fact that everything she has been through has only made her stronger and more determined to fight for the causes she passionately believes in and this book is only the latest contribution she has made to such important global issues.

 

We Are Displaced is a book about the realities of life as a refugee, or displaced girl, in the 21st century. As Malala explained at the talk last night, as of 2017, there are 68.5 million people who were forcibly displaced worldwide, 25.4 million of which are considered refugees (many are displaced within their own countries, rather than seeking refuge in another one) and that was why she choice this title; so that it encompasses all of these stories.

Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, co-founder of the Malala Fund and student at Oxford University, Malala is already busier than most 21 year-olds, so why did she write this book? She was quite clear – she found it impossible not to, in light of the realities of the world we are living in. We all may hear a lot about the numbers of refugees, whether those trying to cross in to the UK, or those at the Mexican border, Trump’s wall, or those fleeing war zones around the world, such as Syria. What we don’t hear enough about are their stories, that they are ordinary people. Where have they come from? What have they suffered? What are their hopes for their future? Through this book, Malala brings a handful of these stories in to our lives and our hearts.

The book is split in to two parts; in part one she sets out her own story, first of displacement within Pakistan, when her family had to flee the Swat Valley to other areas of their country to survive the fighting between the Taliban and the army. She talks powerfully about that experience, of having to leave so much behind, the fear of being killed and the sense of not belonging, as they moved from relative to relative during those few months. She then moves on to her family’s move to England following her attack and the conflicted emotions she has felt in the UK, talking about the relief and gratitude she feels towards her new city, but also the powerful sense of yearning for her home, for the place she never wanted to leave.

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Malala Yousafzai talking about We Are Displaced last night in London

Through her incredible work, championing the importance of education for every girl in the world, Malala is a woman who people have heard of everywhere and by travelling to meet other girls displaced from their homes across the globe, she has been able to hear many other stories and in part two of We Are Displaced she shares some of those with us. Each story begins with an introduction from Malala about how she came to meet this particular girl and then the story itself is written by that girl (with the help of translators where necessary).

They are stories of girls from Yemen, Syria, Iraq, The Congo, Myanmar and South America, who have each endured traumas I can’t even comprehend. Yet, what shines through their words is a sense of their bravery and strength and a determination to secure a better life for themselves. What’s also clear is just how important education is to them. Those of us in countries where it’s a given that girls go to school, take it for granted, but these young women talk about finding a sense of freedom and a future through learning. The phrase knowledge is power has never seemed so appropriate.

It’s also the knowledge this book gives to the reader that is so important. Yes, these girls have needed to seek help from somewhere that is not their home, but they put all of the images and talk of immigration and refugees that we hear on the news and social media in to perspective, in a very real and human way. They are just like us and they deserve our compassion and our help.

You cannot fail to be moved by their stories as you read their words. You read about young sisters, Zaynab and Sabreen, separated and starting on different paths; of a young Syrian girl in a camp in Jordan, who went tent to tent to try and get girls to go to school; of Marie Claire, who after fleeing The Congo with her family, watched her mother be murdered in Zambia by those against refugees coming to their country, who now attends university in the USA and many more, including a glimpse in to what it’s actually like to cross the Mediterranean in a small boat, or to reach the Mexican border when trying to join relatives already in the USA.

In addition, to give other perspectives of what it’s like for refugees, Malala has included two stories from those involved in helping them. One is the CEO of the Malala Fund, Farah, who herself was a refugee, but was very young when her family moved to Canada from Uganda. She has a fascinating insight in to growing up in a country that feels like home, yet still having to deal with the perceptions of others around you. The other contributor is Jennifer, who helped settle Marie Claire and her family in America. Her perspective, as a Westerner, is incredibly powerful in reminding us how lucky we are and also emphasises the difference any help we can give makes to people trying to start a new life in unfamiliar surroundings.

Listening to Malala speak so eloquently, intelligently and passionately about these girls and her goal to see every girl complete 12 years of free, safe and quality education was a privilege and utterly inspiring. She makes you want to make a difference and reading this book is just one way we can all start to do that, by spreading a greater level of understanding about the realities of the lives of refugees and displaced persons, as well as contributing money to causes that are providing vital help (the proceeds of this book will be used to support Malala Fund’s work, so buying a copy really will help). I can’t emphasise enough how important this book is. Every world leader, politician and citizen should read it.

I’ll leave the last words to Malala:

“Do what you can. Know that empathy is key. And that acts of generosity both big and small make a difference and help the world heal from its wounds.”

We Are Displaced is published by Orion Books and is available now from all book stockists. For more information on Malala Fund, visit the website: https://www.malala.org

 

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Film Review – He Named Me Malala (2015) – the story of a truly inspirational young woman


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“Believe in yourselves.

Believe in your dream.

Nothing can stop you if you are committed.”

Those were the inspiring words for school students that ended last week’s incredible UK premiere event for He Named Me Malala, spoken via video feed from the young woman whose story has captured the world.

Three years ago, on 9th October 2012, at the age of 15, Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by the Taliban on her way home from school in her home in the Swat Valley, northern Pakistan. Her crime – having the courage to raise her voice in support of education for girls everywhere and her own right to continue to go to school (which had been banned by the Taliban in her region). It was a shocking event and it was feared Malala would die or never recover from her horrific ordeal.

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Malala and her family

Malala did survive and this documentary film, charting her life (and that of her parents and two brothers) since that day in 2012, is a testament to her determination to not only survive, but to raise her voice louder than ever in support of a cause for which she has so much passion, following the example of her father, who was also a school owner and activist in Pakistan. Hers is a remarkable story and this is a truly remarkable, moving and inspiring film.

Director Davis Guggenheim (best known for films An Inconvenient Truth and Waiting for Superman) was the only director approached by the producers, who felt his style of filmmaking would enable him to put the family at ease. As well as filming the family at home, doing all the everyday things any family does, a lot of the content for the film is a result of his long conversations with them, after he arrived with no notes and just a microphone and let them open up to him. Parts of these conversations form narration of the film, which he describes as a pictorial expression of these quiet conversations.

It was also interesting to learn at last week’s Q&A (with the producers, director and Malala’s father Ziauddin) following the London Film Festival screening of the film that initially the plan had been to make a mainstream feature film of Malala’s story. However, on meeting her and her incredible family (her younger brothers are stars in their own right in the film, bringing moments of fun and laughter to the screen, as they talk about their sister), producer Laurie MacDonald felt no one could play Malala and that capturing this special Muslim family for a larger Western audience would perhaps be even more powerful.

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Malala & director Davis Guggenheim

It was absolutely the right decision. The greatest strength of the film is how immediately you connect with Malala and her family. Now living in Birmingham, they have had to leave their home, friends, country and part of themselves (especially her mother) behind because Malala and her father had the courage to speak out. The Taliban have publicly said that if she returns they will kill her. A fictionalized depiction would have taken part of the story’s power away from it and with someone as inspirational, funny, intelligent and eloquent as Malala at its heart I can’t imagine anyone else conveying her message better than she can.

Early on the director also decided on another element for the film that I loved. This was to weave the history of Malala’s family and her heritage in to the documentary, stories that couldn’t be captured in normal documentary fashion. Instead, with the help of Image Nation and an animation team, the stories of Malala’s parents as children and herself growing up in the beautiful Swat Valley before the Taliban are brought to life through animated scenes, which leap off the screen as if pastel paintings. Guggenheim spoke of how hearing Ziauddin remember stories was like a storybook and he wanted this to form part of the film. It works superbly, with these stories of the past, interwoven with the documentary moments from the present, as we see Malala adjusting to life and school in the UK, enjoying simple pleasures with her family at home and travelling across the world to meet world leaders, refugees and school children in places such as Nigeria.

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Q&A at the BFI with Malala via live link and Laurie MacDonald & Walter Parkes (producers), Davis Guggenheim (director ) and Malala’s father Ziauddin

The film in fact begins with such a scene, as we hear the story of the girl Malala was named after Malalai of Maiwand, who in the 18th century inspired the Afghan fighters not to give up in their fight against the British. She led them to victory with her courage, risking her life and was shot during the battle. It’s an astonishing beginning to learn that this young woman from Malala’s Pashtun culture’s past was her father’s inspiration for her name, when their stories have such striking similarities.

He Named Me Malala is very much a story of a father/ daughter relationship. After the screening Ziauddin spoke about how you can inspire your children and in a patriarchal society in which women are deemed to be property, when he named Malala, he meant it. He did not clip her wings. In the film, we hear his fear that on waking after the shooting she would blame him for letting her take such risks. In fact Malala calls him her inspiration and is pleased that he did not stop her from doing what she felt she had to do. She spoke last night that this is not just her story, but that of lots of other girls. The point is she isn’t unique, she is one of many and she wants everyone to learn and to help enable every girl to have an education.

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At it heart, the film is about the bond between father and daughter

As one audience member raised last night, documentaries tend not to get the wider public attention that feature films receive, but I hope very much that the producers’ determination, together with the strong support they have from Fox Searchlight, means that He Named Me Malala will see the wide release it so deserves including, I hope, in schools across the world, to help educate a new generation. I strongly believe that everyone, no matter your age, race, religion or background should see this film. It will make you laugh and cry, while inspiring and educating you. The world is lucky to have such an important role model as Malala Yousafzai.

He Named Me Malala was released in the United States on 9th October and in the UK on 6th November. For more details about the film and about the Malala Fund organization and the #withmalala campaign, visit its website. http://www.henamedmemalalamovie.com/