On January 8, 2019, activist and Nobel Prize laureate Malala Yousafsai released a book titled We Are Displaced: My Journey and Stories from Refugee Girls Around the World. In addition to her own narrative of being displaced from Pakistan, Yousafzai includes the stories of nine other displaced people from different countries. One of the nine people includes St. Catherine University’s Student Senate President, Zaynab Abdi, Political Science, International Relations, and Philosophy Major ‘20. The Wheel sat down with Abdi to find out more about her process of writing and publishing her story in a best-selling book.
A: Tell me a bit about how this project started.
Z: In 2017, I was asked by the Malala Fund if I would like to share my story in a book, but there were not more details. And in 2018, I recorded my story, and I was officially asked by Malala herself. I interviewed with the editor of the book, and she asked me for specific questions with more detail. And then we wrote the script down, and she helped me with editing and grammar. We went back and forth for a whole year for the book. I mentioned that I wanted to include my sister’s story, so we interviewed my sister as well and asked for more details. I felt that my story without my sister would be useless because we grew up together, and she’s like my other half.
A: How does your sister’s story compliment your story? What similar themes tie them together?
Z: We fled from Yemen together, and we applied to the U.S. together, but I was the only one accepted. Our story had different directions from that moment. And that’s why it was so important to tell that story: yes, I made it to the U.S., but I left my sister behind me. And that is the story I’m so strongly advocating for, to talk about the system of visas. People think it’s easy to apply for a visa and come here, and I’m like: “No. My sister was rejected.”
A: How did you feel when you were first approached to share your story with such a wide audience?
Z: I was a little nervous, because Malala talked to me about it, and I was like: is this happening? But it was great to see someone in that higher position see the importance of my story for the community, and I appreciated that.
A: What was the most challenging part of sharing your story?
Z: I think the challenge was going back through details and remembering the war that was going on in Yemen and remembering how my life was in Egypt. I never shared those things in public, and some memories I try to run away from. But I felt that sharing them was important because people see the war in Yemen as a complicated war, but they don’t see the individual stories of how it has affected people. Even though I felt that it was hard and overwhelming to share my story and also my sister’s story, I thought it was a great time to share it. Maybe something good could come out of it. It was difficult to share the past, but there was a need to share it.
A: What do you hope that readers take away from your story?
Z: I want readers to understand what it means to be Middle Eastern and a refugee, and what it means to come to the United States and leave a lot of things behind you, sometimes family. During the time I came here, there was anger towards immigrants. I felt that we don’t share our stories, and that’s how people are defining us. I feel like sharing our stories is a part of telling people: “We exist, and we have beautiful lives. Here are the things that happened, and here are the things we hope to achieve.”
A: Do you think the narratives about refugees and immigrants are changing, or are the stereotypes still fundamentally entrenched?
Z: It depends on the society and neighborhood. You will see people who only have a certain image. Maybe they saw a donation fund on Facebook showing pictures of refugees and immigrants as poor people or dirty people. When I was in high school and said that I am a refugee, people would ask me: “Do you need help? Are you hungry?” And I was like: “Why are they asking me this?” Yes there are poor people who live in camps, but not all of the refugee stories are the same.
A: So it really begins with genuinely listening to people’s stories and seeing their complexity.
Z: Exactly. Sometimes it’s hard to share your story, but when people show up to learn and be allies, it’s easier to feel like “I’m sharing my story with part of my family.” And I feel like that’s what our community should do. If you don’t understand the narrative, open your heart, be genuine, and accept the stories. Learn from the people themselves, rather than going to other sources.
A: How welcoming do you think the St. Kate’s community is towards refugees and immigrants? What room for improvement do you see?
Z: I feel like our school needs to understand how to provide resources and services for refugees, immigrants, and undocumented students on campus. For some of us, English is a struggle, and we need to not judge refugees and undocumented immigrants who are learning English. We are smart, but English might not be our first or even our second language. We need more programs, and maybe even an office, to help us specifically with resources and financial assistance, especially for refugees and undocumented immigrants who can’t apply for scholarships or aid in Minnesota. The school needs to say “you are welcome,” but also be welcoming by providing the help and support. Another way that St. Kate’s could offer help and support is by accepting more refugees and undocumented students. We have limited choices of schools that will accept us. We bring a lot of great things to the St. Kate’s community. We give back as well.
A: If you could send one message to the St. Kate’s community about the refugee experience what would it be?
Z: The main message that I would send from my individual experience is that we are great people and we do a lot of things that make the community proud of us. But before you celebrate our successes, you need to stand with us when we fall down, and you need to stand with us when we need support and mentoring. You need to not be afraid of us because we love to tell our stories when we see that the community is accepting us as who we are. Don’t treat us differently. Treat us as people who want to be a part of the family.
You can learn more about Abdi and her sister Sabreen’s story by adding We Are Displaced to your summer reading list!