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Web Exclusive Interview: Kite Runner author Khaled Hosseini to Speak on Refugee Crisis at Event in Lafayette

Best-selling author and humanitarian activist to speak Saturday, April 25, at the Lafayette-Orinda Presbyterian Church.

Photo by Roya Hosseini

Khaled Hosseini rocked the literary world with his 2004 best-seller, The Kite Runner. The book took readers through several decades of life in Kabul, Afghanistan—from the peaceful 1970s to the war-torn recent past, up to the days following September 11, 2001. Like the book’s narrator, Hosseini moved from Afghanistan to the Bay Area in the early 1980s, before the ravages of the Soviet invasion, the occupation of the Taliban-regime, or the U.S.-led war on terror. Following the worldwide success of his debut novel and its follow-up, A Thousand Splendid Suns, Hosseini has become active in humanitarian efforts, working as an envoy for the UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency. Hosseini will be speaking this Saturday, April 25, at the Lafayette-Orinda Presbyterian Church. The event begins at 6 p.m., and Hosseini will be joined by Marc Breslaw, executive director of USA for UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) for a moderated discussion:  Refugee Crisis in Afghanistan: the UN Refugee Agency in Action. Tickets are free and can be reserved through the Lafayette Orinda Presbyterian Church by contacting www.lopc.org/newsandinfo.asp.

Diablo’s senior editor, Pete Crooks, had a chat with Hosseini about the upcoming event, and several other projects that Hosseini has been working on.

PC: The last time I spoke with you was just before the film version of the Kite Runner came out. Were you pleased with the film, and the way it was received?
KH: Those who saw it loved the film, for the most part, people seemed to really like the film. It’s hard when you make a film from a book that so many people love, because there’s no way to get the entire story into a two-hour movie. But I was pleased with the reaction. The film was not as big a hit in the United States as it was worldwide, I think it may have been swallowed up by all the other movies it had to go up against.

PC: What can you tell me about this event you’re participating in Lafayette on Saturday?
KH: I have been involved with the UN refugee agency for a few years now, and we have done events to speak about refugees, focusing more and more on the situation with Afghan refugees. This event was planned through Michael Bealmear, who is the CEO and president of a company called HyperRole. He’s a philanthropist, and he has become interested in the issue of refugees, and he proposed that we do an event in his community, where we could dedicate an entire evening focused on the global refugee crisis, focused primarily on Afghanistan.

So I will be there primarily to talk about what the situation is with Afghan refugees, those who have come home, and those who remain in Iran and Pakistan. And hopefully raise awareness, ultimately the goal being that people will become motivated and they will support the UN Refugee Agency and my own newly-formed charitable foundation.

PC: What is your foundation all about?
KH: It’s literally just been formed. It’s a 501 C3, non-profit charitable foundation called, unsurprisingly, the Khalled Hosseini Foundation. The aim is to help refugees and aim vulnerable women and children.

At the time we are focusing our efforts primarily on building shelters for refugees. Homelessness in Afghanistan is a huge problem. When I was there in 2007, I went from village to village where refugees had returned, and they were living out in the open under tents, sometimes completely exposed to the environment. And they were homeless, which meant they would lose children in the winter to the cold and in the summers in the extreme heat. It’s extremely humiliating for them to be homeless, culturally, it’s very shameful. So there is a tremendous need for selter. So right now, I am focusing most of the efforts of the foundation to building shelters for refugees in northern Afghanistan and we have already begun doing so.

On the side, we will also be funding projects that empower women and children in Afghanistan and now and then give scholarships to Afghan students here in the Bay Area.

PC: Your books have touched so many people, and opened a lot of minds to a part of the world that seems so far away that it often easy to dismiss. What is it about these books that have connected with readers all over the world?

KH: It’s not just unique to books, but films and music. How many more people right now feel connected to Mumbai because of Slumdog Millionaire, or suddenly are interested in the plight of orphans on Mumbai after seeing that film? The same thing with the Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns. Literature and film have a way of lifting you from your own existence and transporting you to some foreign place and putting you in the shoes with an experience different than your own. If you connect emotionally with the plight of those characters, ou feel what they feel and you walk away with a sense of understanding and empathy, and hopefully, something has been illuminated for you. And I tink that’s what happendd for a lot of readers with my novels.

Probably the single most commen response I get from my readesr, be it through e-mails or letters, is that they did not know much, or at times, they’re quite frank, they didn’t care much about Afghanistan. But they pay attention more after reading these novels, and at times it has triggered this humaitarian spirt: some have donated money or at time times, people have joined humatiarian organizations that work in Afghanistan. It’s tremendous what can happen when suddenly you make an emotional connection.

PC: What is one simple thing that people can do to make a difference?
KH: First and foremost it begins with education People talk about apathy, especially in developed countries. We’re kind of lulled into these tranquil lives, and we are pursuing our own thing and there is so much suffering on a mass scale around the world that you kind of become fatalistic. You might think suffering is inevitable, you kind of lose your sense of moral urgency. But there is always something you can do for someone in the world.

So educate yourself, learn about what refugees face when they don’t have homes, after they have lost everything. And there are so many orgizations that do amazing work. I represent not only my own foundation, but the UN Refugee Agency, which has been around since 1951, and has helped 30 million refugees around the world.

You don’t have to donate money, it can be clothes, or books, or mediavl supplies. So there’s so much that can be done, the most difficult thing is that first step that decision to do something. Because whether you do something or decide to do nothing, either way, you are making a moral choice. And I hope people make the right one.

PC: How old were you when you left Afghanistan?
KH: I was 11.

PC: Have you been back in the past year?
KH: No, but I am hoping to go within the calendar year, because we are building those shelters

PC: It seemed like we heard a lot about Afghanistan just after September 11, then the war in Iraq took the spotlight, and only recently, we are starting to hear more about Afghanistan again. In the times that you have gone back since the Kite Runner was published, what changes have you seen in Afghanistan?
KH: I think the changes that have happened, there have been come positive, but by and large, you have to say the changes have been negative. The situation has reached a fairly critical stage in Afghanistan now. You have think tanks like the widely respected Atlantic Council that have published reports in the past year that have called Afghanistan a failing state.

Today, the country faces enormous problems. There is a violent insurgency hampering the rule of law and developmental efforts. You have these crops of poppies that supply something like 90% of the heroin sold in Europe and actually represents more than half of the country’s GDP. You have extreme poverty and high crime and you have to admit that the governance of the Kabul regime has been poor and has been losing its popular legitimacy. You have a corrupt police force, not to mention homelessness, joblessness. The problems are huge.

But at least, it is encouraging to me that President Obama has put Afghanistan front and center in this broader so-called War on terror, and that he is taking a different approach to Afghanistan. Yes, he is sending more troops, but they have also realized that we are not going to win that war through guns and tanks. We have to engage the neighbors, and it is good that there is a non-military strategy in addition to a military strategy. It is, at least, encouraging. Whether it will work or not, the jury is still put. I think the scale of the conflict has dramatically changed in 2003. You’re now facing a much more motivated, well-supported enemy. I don’t see any quick end to this thing.

PC: Have you been contacted by anyone in the Obama administration about the situation?
KH: No, I haven’t. I’m gladly doing my own thing for the time being.