We Are Displaced

My Journey and Stories from Refugee Girls Around the World


By Malala Yousafzai

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In this powerful book, Nobel Peace Prize winner and New York Times bestselling author Malala Yousafzai introduces the people behind the statistics and news stories about the millions of people displaced worldwide.After her father was murdered, María escaped in the middle of the night with her mother.

Zaynab was out of school for two years as she fled war before landing in America. Her sister, Sabreen, survived a harrowing journey to Italy.

Ajida escaped horrific violence, but then found herself battling the elements to keep her family safe.

Malala’s experiences visiting refugee camps caused her to reconsider her own displacement — first as an Internally Displaced Person when she was a young child in Pakistan, and then as an international activist who could travel anywhere in the world except to the home she loved. In We Are Displaced, Malala not only explores her own story, but she also shares the personal stories of some of the incredible girls she has met on her journeys — girls who have lost their community, relatives, and often the only world they’ve ever known.

In a time of immigration crises, war, and border conflicts, We Are Displaced is an important reminder from one of the world’s most prominent young activists that every single one of the 68.5 million currently displaced is a person — often a young person — with hopes and dreams.

“A stirring and timely book.” —New York Times



Life as We Knew It

When I close my eyes and think of my childhood, I see pine forests and snowcapped mountains; I hear rushing rivers; I feel the calm earth beneath my feet. I was born in the Swat Valley, once known as the Switzerland of the East. Others have called it paradise, and that is how I think of Swat. It is the backdrop to all my happiest childhood memories—running in the streets with my friends; playing on the roof of our house in Mingora, the main city in Swat; visiting our cousins and extended family in Shangla, the mountain village where both of my parents were born; listening to my mother and all her friends chatting over afternoon tea in our home, and my father discussing politics with his friends.

I do recall my father talking about the Taliban, but as a faraway threat. Even as a young child, I was interested in politics and would listen to everything my father and his friends discussed, even if I didn’t always understand. In those days, the Taliban were in Afghanistan, not Pakistan. Nothing for us to be concerned with. Certainly nothing for me and my younger brother, Khushal, to worry about. And then came Atal, the baby. My biggest problem was how I felt about these brothers taking over the house.

That began to change in 2004. I was only six years old, so I didn’t notice anything at first, but when I think back on those years, my memories are tinged with the fear that I know must have been growing in my parents’ eyes. And then five years later, my beloved Swat was no longer safe, and we were forced from our home along with hundreds of thousands of others.

It started slowly. Our country had begun a time of advancement for women, but our region was going backward. In 2003, my father opened his first high school, and boys and girls attended classes together. By 2004, co-ed classes were not possible.

An earthquake in 2005 was not only devastating for the destruction it caused and the lives it took—more than seventy-three thousand were killed, including eighteen thousand children—but it also left vulnerable survivors. When men from an extremist group who had provided aid to so many who had been displaced by this natural disaster began to preach that the earthquake was a warning from God, people listened. Soon those men, who later became part of the Taliban, began preaching strict interpretations of Islam on the local radio, saying that all women must cover their faces entirely and that music and dancing and Western movies were sinful. That men should grow their beards long. That girls should not go to school.

This was not our Islam.

These were religious fundamentalists who claimed they wanted to return to an old way of living, which was ironic considering that they used technology—the radio—to spread this very message. They attacked our daily way of life in the name of Islam. They told people what they could wear, what they could listen to, what they could watch. And most of all, they tried to take away the rights of women.

By 2007, the dictates had become more aggressive and specific: They called for TVs, computers, and other electronics to be not only banished from homes but also burned and destroyed. I can still smell the stench of melting plastic and wires from the bonfires they organized. They aggressively discouraged girls from going to school, commending by name parents who had kept their girls out of school as well as the girls themselves, and condemning by name those who had not. Soon they declared that educating girls was un-Islamic.

How was going to school un-Islamic? It made no sense to me. How was any of this un-Islamic?

My family mostly ignored these commands, though we did start lowering the volume on our TV in case anyone walking by outside could hear us.

The call for girls to be kept home upset my father, Ziauddin, too. He ran two schools that he had built from scratch; one was for girls. At first, these extremists still felt fringe to my father—more an annoyance than a real terror. He had been focusing his activism on the environment. Our city was growing quickly; air pollution and access to clean water had become problems. He and some friends had founded an organization to protect the environment as well as promote peace and education in the Swat Valley. He was becoming known by some as a man to be listened to, and by others as a troublemaker. But my father has a deep sense of justice and cannot help but fight for good.

Then the Taliban gained more followers and more power, and soon life as we knew it became a collection of happy memories.

The words Taliban and militant entered our daily conversations; it was not simply something discussed on the news anymore. And rumors were spreading throughout Mingora that these militants were infiltrating Swat Valley.

I began to see men with long beards and black turbans walking in the streets. One of them could intimidate a whole village. Now they were patrolling our streets. No one knew who they were exactly, but everyone knew they were connected to the Taliban and enforcing their decrees.

I had my first real brush with the Taliban on our way to visit family in Shangla. My cousin had several music cassettes in his car for the ride and had just inserted one into the player when he saw two men wearing black turbans and camouflage vests waving down cars ahead.

My cousin ejected the tape, grabbed the others, and passed them to my mother. “Hide these,” he whispered.

My mother shoved them into her handbag without saying a word as our car slowed to a stop.

Both men had long beards and cruel eyes. Each had a machine gun slung over one shoulder. My mother pulled her veil across her face, and I could see that her hands were trembling, which caused my heart to beat more quickly.

One of the men leaned into the car and asked, “Do you have any cassettes or CDs?”

My cousin shook his head no, and my mother and I stayed silent. I worried the Talib could hear my heart thumping or see my mother’s hands shaking. I held my breath when he pushed his face into the back window to address us both.

“Sister,” he said sternly to me. “You should cover your face.”

I wanted to ask, Why? I am only a child. But the Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder stopped me from speaking.

They waved us on, but all the excitement we had felt earlier that day disappeared. We spent the next hour in total silence. The cassettes stayed in my mother’s purse.

The fear that had been growing around us now felt too close to ignore. And then the violence began.


How Could This Be Happening?

I was eleven when the Taliban started bombing girls’ schools throughout the Swat Valley. The attacks happened at night, so at least no one was hurt, but imagine arriving at school in the morning to find it a pile of rubble. It felt beyond cruel.

They had begun cutting our electricity and targeting local politicians. They even banned children’s games. We had been told stories of Taliban fighters who heard children laughing in their homes and burst in to destroy the game. They also bombed police stations and attacked individuals. If the Taliban heard that someone had spoken out against them, they would announce those names on their radio station. And then the next morning, those people might be found dead in Green Square, our city center, often with notes pinned to the bodies explaining their so-called sins. It got so bad that each morning, several bodies would be lined up in the town center, which people started calling Bloody Square.

This was all part of their extremist propaganda. It was working: They were asserting control over the Swat Valley.

My father had been cautioned to stop speaking out on behalf of girls’ education and peace. He didn’t. But he did start varying his routes home in case he was being followed. And I started a new habit: I would check the locks on the doors and windows before I went to sleep each night.

We felt hopeful when the army sent troops to Swat to protect us. But it meant the fighting had come closer. They had a base in Mingora near our home, so I would hear the whirring of helicopter blades cutting the thick air and then look up to see metal hunks filled with soldiers in uniform. Those images, just like Taliban fighters holding machine guns in the streets, became such a big part of our daily lives that my brothers and their friends started playing Taliban versus army instead of hide-and-seek. They would make guns from paper and stage battles and “shoot” at one another. Rather than share idle gossip and talk about our favorite movie stars, my friends and I shared information about death threats and wondered if we’d ever feel safe again.

This was our life now. It was nothing any of us could have ever imagined.

Scary things became normal. We’d hear the big, booming sounds of bombs and feel the ground tremble. The stronger the tremor, the closer the bomb. If we didn’t hear a bomb blast for an entire day, we’d say, “Today was a good day.” If we didn’t hear firearms being shot at night, like firecrackers, then we might even get a good night’s sleep.

How could this be happening in our valley?

Near the end of 2008, the Taliban made a new decree: All girls’ schools would be closed January 15, 2009, or they would risk being attacked. This was an order even my father would follow, because he could not put his students—or his daughter—at risk.

By then, I had begun to write a blog for BBC Urdu that later helped the world beyond our country learn our story and the truth of the attack on girls’ education in Pakistan. I had written about how the walk to school, once a brief pleasure, had become a fear-filled sprint. And how at night, my family and I would sometimes huddle on the floor, as far away from the windows as possible, as we heard bombs exploding and the rat-a-tat-tat of machine guns in the hills surrounding Mingora. I missed the days when we had picnics in that same countryside. What was once our refuge was now a battleground.

Many girls stopped attending classes or left the area to be educated elsewhere when the ban was announced—my class of twenty-seven had dwindled to ten. But my friends and I continued going until the last day. My father postponed what would have been winter break so we could get in as much school as we could.

When the day came that my father was forced to close our girls’ school, he mourned not only for his students but also for the fifty thousand girls in our region who had lost their right to go to school. Hundreds of schools had to close.

We had a special assembly at school, and some of us spoke out against what was happening. We stayed as long as possible that day. We played hopscotch and laughed. Despite the looming threat, we were children being children.

It was a sad day in our house for all of us. But for me, it cut deep. A ban on girls’ schools meant a ban on my dreams, a limit on my future. If I couldn’t get my education, what kind of a future did I have?


Internally Displaced

Once what was technically our winter break was over, my brothers went back to school, and I didn’t. Khushal joked that he wished he could stay home. I didn’t find it funny.

The Taliban continued bombing schools. In my BBC blog post from only a few days after my school closed, I wrote, I am quite surprised, because these schools had closed, so why did they also need to be destroyed?

My father continued to speak out, and I joined him, appearing on TV and doing radio interviews. The ban on girls’ education was so unpopular that the head of the Taliban was persuaded to soften it, and by February he had agreed to lift the ban for girls up to fourth grade. I was in fifth grade. But I knew this was my chance, so I pretended to be younger, as did some of my friends. For a few blissful months we attended what we called our “secret school.”

When peace between the army and the Taliban was declared not long afterward, we were relieved. But it never truly took, and the Taliban became more powerful. Things got so bad that on May 4, 2009, government authorities announced that everyone had to leave Swat. The army was planning to launch an intense military operation against the Taliban. They predicted full-fledged warfare, and it was not safe for people to stay in the valley.

My family listened to the news in shock. We had two days to evacuate.

My mother began to cry, but my father just stood there, shaking his head. “It will not happen.”

All you had to do was go outside to see: It was already happening. The streets were flooded with people piled into cars and hanging out of buses. People were fleeing on motorbikes and trucks, in rickshaws and mule carts, all with the same wide-eyed look of shock. Thousands more fled on foot because there were not enough vehicles to go around. Belongings were shoved into plastic bags, children were strapped to bodies and carried, and elderly people were pushed in wheelbarrows.

But my father refused to budge. He kept saying we should wait to see if this was real.

The tension in our house got so thick that my mother finally called my father’s friend who was a doctor and said, “You must come quickly. This man is crazy. He is staying, and it is dangerous.”

That same day, a relative came running to our home with the news. A distant cousin had gotten caught in the cross fire between the army and the Taliban. He was dead.

My mother started packing. We would go to Shangla the following day. We would become IDPs—internally displaced persons.

I am not an emotional person, but I cried that day. I cried for the life I was being forced to leave. I worried I would never see my home or friends or school again. A reporter had recently asked me how I would feel if I had to leave Swat someday and never return. At the time, I thought it was a ridiculous question, because I couldn’t even imagine the possibility. Now here we were, leaving, and I didn’t know when, if ever, we’d come back.

As my brothers begged my mother to take their pet chicks (when my mother said they’d make a mess in the car, Atal countered with a suggestion that they wear diapers), I grabbed some clothes and packed a bag filled with schoolbooks. It was May, and our exams were at the end of June. I kept asking, “When will we be back? In a week? A month? A year?” No one could answer; everyone was too busy packing. My mother made me leave the books behind because there was no room. Distraught, I hid them in a closet and said a silent prayer that we would be home soon. She said no to my brothers, too.

Since we didn’t own a car, we split up and squeezed into the already-full cars of two friends. I went with my friend Safina and her family, following right behind my father’s friend, who took everyone else in my family. We joined the long queue of cars leaving Mingora that day. The Taliban had blockaded many of the streets, in some cases cutting down trees to do so, forcing traffic to only a few roads. The streets were so clogged and chaotic that we inched our way out of the city. At one point we passed a big truck that had a small platform joining its two front wheels. The platform was not meant for passengers, and yet I saw two people sitting there, gripping the hood as the truck made its way through the streets. Falling beneath the wheels of a truck was preferable to staying in Mingora. These were the choices people made that day.


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  • Nobel Peace Prize winner Yousafzai, who famously survived being shot by Taliban soldiers as a teen in 2012, is a passionate activist for girls' right to education. Yet, in this profound volume, she sidesteps those aspects of her life to illuminate another experience: displacement - beginning with her family's forced 2009 evacuation of their Pakistani hometown in response to escalating Taliban violence. Comprising the bulk of the book are urgent, articulate first-person stories from displaced or refugee young women whom Yousafzai has encountered in her travels, whose birthplaces include Colombia, Guatemala, Syria and Yemen. ... The contributors' strength, resilience, and hope in the face of trauma is astounding, and their stories' underlying message about the heartbreaking loss of their former lives and homelands (and the resulting "tangle of emotions that comes with leaving behind everything you know") is profoundly moving.—Publishers Weekly

  • "A stirring and timely book that strips the political baggage from the words 'migrant' and 'refugee,' telling the deeply personal stories of displacement and disruption that were lived by Yousafzai and nine other girls. ... [In] all these accounts, hope emerges as a kind of belligerent reaction to pain and loss."—The New York Times Book Review

  • "While geared to mature middle and high school level listeners, this is an audiobook that could be listened to and discussed in a guided family or school setting. Anyone who wants to learn more about immigration and refugees will benefit from this telling."—School Library Journal, review of audiobook edition

On Sale
Jan 8, 2019
Page Count
224 pages