Viet Thanh Nguyen and Khaled Hosseini share their refugee insights regarding Afghan refugees and the parallels to Vietnam.
Award-winning novelists Khaled Hosseini and Viet Thanh Nguyen are both refugees themselves and have invaluable insights into the plight of Afghan refugees and the historical parallels with Vietnam. Worth watching their conversation with Bianna Golodryga about the “moral debt” America owes.
Watch the interview on Facebook or read the transcript below.
Bianna Golodryga: What happens now to these women? What are your greatest fears that whatever accomplishments we’ve seen over the past 20 years may now come for them?
Khaled Hosseini: That’s one of my, I think, greatest concerns. Any society that deprives half of its population, it’s women, of any active participation in public life is doomed. Over the last 20 years, at least in urban pockets, it wasn’t true of the entire country, but in pockets like Kabul women achieved a great deal of progress. They were able to work in the media, in healthcare, in education. They represented their constituency in the parliament. They worked as provincial governors, in the police force. So while those may not impress your average listener, it is a great, great difference for women in Afghanistan. And one of the real markers of how sincere the Taliban are about their newly found moderation is how they will approach women and how they will treat women’s rights. That remains to be seen. I personally am deeply skeptical and worry for those gains that women have made in Afghanistan for the last 20 years.
Bianna Golodryga: You’re right to be skeptical, given the history and now the warnings that the Taliban is issuing for women to stay indoors so that the men can “be taught properly how to address and treat them”. But as you said, we will be closely monitoring how women in particular are treated under Taliban rule. Viet, some of the most heartbreaking images that we’ve seen, and this is just a few of course, many will come over the next few weeks and months, and that is family separations. Children being separated from their siblings and their parents, and this is something that’s deeply personal for you. You and your family escaped in 1975, I believe, one of 120,000 Vietnamese who had escaped then and fled to many countries, most to the United States. You were separated from your family early on as a child. And I want to play for you sound that our Sam Kylie had just interviewed a family on the ground who may have experienced something similar to yours.
Sam Kylie: For most of these people, this is a moment of celebration in terms of their freedom, but also bittersweet because of what they’re leaving behind. That bitterness is immediate to [Hosna 00:02:31]. Her brother, [Haida 00:02:32], who has a visa for the US, has been trapped outside the airport. She’s moments from flying. Marines, do their best to help as he’s close to a gate still controlled by the Taliban. But her plane is due to take off, and she’s swept away with her younger sisters to a new life not knowing if her brother will ever join her there.
Bianna Golodryga: Viet, you hear that. You don’t even know these people, but I’m sure you can relate. And there are many emotions that go through you right now. Can you talk about that?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Sure. Thanks for having me. I think that I have been so heartbroken and so moved by watching what’s been happening in Kabul and the rest of Afghanistan and to the Afghan people, because it does bring back so many memories of what myself and many, many other Vietnamese people experienced in 1975 and in the decades afterwards. In the case of my family, when we fled, we left behind my adopted sister. My parents would not see her again for 20 years, and I wouldn’t see her for 30 years. And when we came to the United States to a refugee camp in Pennsylvania, I was separated from my parents for a few months as well. And my separation was temporary, but it was still really very painful. So when I hear stories like this and see stories like this, I know that wars destroy families, wars create refugees. It’s inevitable.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: And seeing stories of separation and loss are heartrending. But we have to understand that this is going to happen to so many families. There are already reports of unaccompanied children arriving in the United States. We hope that they will be reunited with their families, but there will be a huge emotional toll on these parents and their children.
Bianna Golodryga: Viet, I should let you both know I came to the United States of as a refugee from the former Soviet Union. I was not even two years old. But something that constantly crosses my mind is this idea, and I think it comes from a good place, of those who are supportive of refugees coming, who are proponents of it, argue that refugees contribute so much to the economy. They open more businesses. They are good citizens. They give so much. And I just wonder, I know it comes from a good place, but do you think, Viet, that it adds more pressure on refugees as opposed to just any other citizen whose only obligation is to be law abiding and pay their taxes?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I have said many times that I believe in an America that is equal for all, including the right to be mediocre. So refugees and immigrants can come to this country and be mediocre, just like every other American. This is a human expectation. And of course, we have seen so many stories of the exceptional refugee, the exceptional immigrant, people like Khaled and myself who have become successful. And that story is important of course, because we do want to emphasize to a lot of Americans that refugees and immigrants can contribute economically and socially just like every other group, but we’re just human beings. And we should have the opportunity and the right to fail or to simply be average like everyone else.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: And part of what we do as novelists, or at least myself, is to look at the human condition. And in the human condition, we are all flawed. So I grew up in a Vietnamese refugee community in which there were many, many flawed people in the 1970s and 1980s because they were human. But also because they were deeply traumatized by their refugee experience. And that is something that I think many people are not ready to hear. We’re focused so much on what’s happening now, but part of the reason why I’m so affected is I think that we will see so much emotional devastation and trauma inflicted upon many, many Afghan people for decades to come.
Bianna Golodryga: And you talk about your own parents, Viet, who came here and didn’t even have time to go to your award ceremonies or know much about your writing growth and strength and accolades that you achieved because they had been so busy working and opening a business.
Bianna Golodryga: Khaled, the responsibility that you say America holds right now, you don’t hold back. And you write in the New York Times that the US has been calling the Afghan people, our partners for 20 years. We cannot allow our partners to be murdered, to be in prison, to be beaten and tortured and persecuted now that we have left. We have a moral obligation to follow through. Are you concerned, especially given this timeline, this August 31st timeline, self-imposed by President Biden, but there does seem to be indication that there could be American troops that come in harm’s way if in fact they stay longer. Are you concerned that that moral obligation won’t be fulfilled?
Khaled Hosseini: I am. Look, I do believe the US has a slam dunk, moral obligation to evacuate those Afghans who risked their lives for US troops, who assisted and protected US troops for years. That’s what support the troop means. It’s more than a slogan. That’s what those folks did. And for their services, that do deserve that the US keep its pledge to them and evacuate them because they’re now targets for the Taliban. But we are talking about evacuation. We’re also talking, I heard the words of the Albanian Prime Minister earlier, and I appreciate so much what he said. And I thank him for his solidarity. And I also and applaud those countries that have stepped up and said that they would welcome Afghan refugees. But look, we’re talking about resettlement here. And resettlement is an option for just a narrow portion of refugees. It’s a slow, tedious process that benefits only less than 1% of refugees, and those are the most at risk and most vulnerable.
Khaled Hosseini: I’m also gravely concerned for the entire other population of Afghans, who will not benefit, who don’t have special visas, and who will not benefit from resettlement. Already, we’re seeing inside Afghanistan more than half a million people have been displaced internally since the start of the year. That has created a significant humanitarian crisis. Right now, the displacement is inside the country, but it is entirely conceivable that given the changing realities on the ground, that those people will opt to head for an international border. And should they do so, it’s vitally important that number one, neighboring countries keep their borders open so that refugees, Afghans, can have access to territory, to emergency services, and to asylum procedures.
Khaled Hosseini: And Number two, the international community, which includes the US and its partners, do everything they can to help and support those neighboring countries in a spirit of solidarity and burden sharing. And three, that we fund those organizations that are on the ground to provide emergency services and legal protection to displaced Afghans like UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and others.
Bianna Golodryga: Can you talk a bit about the work that you’re doing with the UN?
Khaled Hosseini: Sure. I’ve worked with the UNHCR since 2006 as an asylum seeker in the United States. I feel a personal kinship with the plight of displaced people, and so I’ve been advocating for refugees essentially since 2006. I’ve traveled to Afghanistan a number of times and visited with those folks who have returned to the country after the fall of the Taliban. And so I’ve seen the work that organizations like UNHCR do on the ground. It’s absolutely essential. Right now, the organization has access to two thirds of the districts in the country and most of the provinces, but security is making work difficult. But they are implementing partners on the ground. And I understand that they are delivering critical services to Afghan people. So right now, the focus is on those Afghans who are at risk inside the country, who don’t have a special visa, who don’t necessarily qualify for resettlement. Those Afghans who are at risk inside the country, that they can move to a safe place elsewhere inside the country or to an international border, if possible-