Refugees Welcome: Exit West

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Refugees Welcome

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Can you believe we are SIX MONTHS into 2019?  June is one of my favorite times of the year, not solely because it’s Spring and the start to Summer weather, but also because I get to talk about a topic that I love very much.  For those who don’t know, I work in the immigration field where my subject matter expertise is asylum and refugee law.   June is World Refugee Month, so I wanted to present some of my favorite books documenting the world’s most vulnerable humanitarian migrants, refugees and asylum seekers.  Every year on June 20th, the United Nations commemorates “the strength, courage and perseverance of millions of refugees.”  The United Nations chose June 20th as the national day of recognition because every 20 minutes, people leave everything they have – their home, jobs, even family and friends – to escape war, persecution or terror.  For more information on humanitarian migrants and World Refugee Day, visit here

For June’s book of the month, I chose author Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West.  Hamid tells the fictional refugee story of Saeed and Nadia.  After meeting in a class at their University, Saeed and Nadia begin their attempt at dating, just as any young college lovebirds would do. However, their curiosity and desire for one another comes at the most inconvenient time, at the beginning of a civil war in their home country.  At first, it’s simple checkpoints by the government’s army and countering militias.  Then, it’s mandatory curfews. Next, there’s no internet, cell phone or television service.  Finally, there’s no city power, clean drinking water or food.  Both Nadia and Saeed hear gunfire in the distance of their respective homes, but it’s not until Saeed’s mother is killed by a stray bullet that Nadia finally takes Saeed up on his offer and moves in with him and his father.  When Saeed makes contact with a human smuggler to help him and Nadia escape their now war torn country, Saeed’s father refuses and the two young college students – who have never left the boundaries of their country – must put their lives into the hands of strangers to help them escape to safe territory.  Exit West tells their year-long story of escaping to safety and the troubles they face along the way.

What I liked…

I thought Hamid did an excellent job portraying the difficulties refugees face during their journey to a safe haven.  Nadia and Saeed made it to several countries, including Britain and Greece, before finally making it to America.  Hamid not only illustrated the strain that escaping war can have on a family, or two people who believe they’re in love, but also the additional challenges that refugees face along their escape route.  Nadia and Saeed had their money taken by a stranger who promised to smuggle them into another country, only to not disappear; they had to live in overcrowded refugee camps and work for little to nothing; and, were even faced with threats by xenophobic protestors. 

I also really enjoyed Hamid’s writing style.  For example, there were instances in almost each chapter where Hamid would throw in a quick paragraph about another character – almost seemingly in a parallel universe – where the author attempts to illustrate how the refugee crisis affects this person.  Hamid attempts to demonstrate to the reader that the current humanitarian crisis affects all of us, in diverse ways.  I thought that these short paragraphs were equally compelling as the main story.

I also greatly enjoyed the character development of both Nadia and Saeed.  Nadia is independent, strong willed, and isn’t afraid to speak her mind.  Nadia wears an all-black veil and gown, similar to a Muslim Abaya, but doesn’t consider herself religious and she doesn’t practice strict prayer like Saeed.  She notes to Saeed that she wears the gown not for religious reasons but almost as protection against unwelcome harassment by men in the streets; that anything contemporary (e.g., jeans and a shirt) would be inviting to some in a misogynistic society.  And even as she travels over the next year, long escaping her home and war, she continues to wear her gown in public.  The gown has religious and cultural symbolism but Nadia’s refusal to pray, or even continue to speak her country’s language, begins to annoy Saeed, as he sees this as a contradiction.  Saeed is much more traditional and doesn’t want to forget where he came from, seeking out other refugees who both look like him and speak his language.  While Nadia understands that they may never see their country again, Saeed doesn’t want to lose hope that one day they will return, searching for ways to hold on to his roots in a new world.

What I didn’t like…

I couldn’t think of one thing that I disliked about this book.  It was a fast read, finishing in one day; and, I’ll likely read it again in the future.  Mohsin Hamid has other publications, including Moth Smoke, that I will likely pick up this Summer. 

I hope you enjoy Exit West if you haven’t read it yet.  If you have, feel free to share your thoughts on this novel.  As always, here are additional recommendations on some other refugee stories.

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Pajama Set: Sant and Abel x Donald Robertson Team Immigrant Pajamas available here and here.

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