4 min read

Listen to their stories: five good reads by refugee writers

The very least we owe refugees is the courtesy of listening to their stories. As World Refugee Day approaches, Krish Kandiah calls us to go beyond the headlines and recommends five good reads.

Krish is a social entrepreneur partnering across civil society, faith communities, government and philanthropy, He founded The Sanctuary Foundation.

Two young brothers sit next to other, the younger looks to the elder.
Hamed Amiri, author of The Boy with Two Hearts, with his brother.

I heard them calling out to me as I walked down the street.  

“Hey Paki, why don’t you go black to your own country?!”  

I carried on walking. I was 14 years old, and I had heard it all before. In fact, I couldn’t remember a day when I didn’t face a similar verbal barrage at some point. It didn’t get any easier. It always hurt.  

When you are told something over and over again, you can start to believe it is true. But I wasn’t from Pakistan. None of my family members were from Pakistan. I had been born in the Sussex County Hospital in Brighton. I had a British passport – as did my parents.  

That group of people on the other side of the road were making judgments about me that were entirely wrong. I had to remind myself – like I did every day: they were the ones who were out of place, not me. They were the ridiculous ones, not me.  

I flashback to that moment sometimes as immigration persists as a top news story. Most days in the media I hear someone say today’s equivalent of “Hey Paki, why don’t you go back to your own country?!  The derision is there, the bigotry, the racism, the aim to exclude and to humiliate, the false assumptions and preconceptions.   

It’s time to hear the other side of the story. Who are the refugees that are coming here? Why are they coming? What has happened to them to make them stay in a country that is not always as welcoming as it should be? How does it feel to be an asylum-seeker or refugee in the UK right now? For refugees who have faced not just verbal abuse but physical assault, threats of torture and death the very least we owe them is the courtesy of listening to their stories. 

As we approach World Refugee Day on 20th June I would like to recommend you to spend some time listening not just to the polarising rhetoric but those about whom they are talking. The best way is to spend time in person with those who have been forced to flee their homes. The second-best way is to read books written by or about refugees. The following are some of the most powerful I have read recently:   

The Lightless Sky by Gulwali Passarly 

A book cover shows a the head and body of a person silhouetted against a dusty sky.

This beautifully written book will not only give you fresh insight into life in Afghanistan but will help you understand why there are unaccompanied asylum-seeking young Afghan boys in the UK. Gulwali explains his dangerous childhood in Afghanistan and why his family paid to have him taken out of the country. This book draws you into the world of a young boy proud of his heritage but fleeing a war zone that ripped his family apart. Gulwali’s journey takes him from the mountains of Afghanistan with his grandfather to a rollercoaster of a life in the UK and how he became a carrier of the Olympic torch and an outspoken advocate for refugee rights. 

The Boy with Two Hearts by Hamed Amiri 

A book cover collage shows two brothers above an outline of one of their heads against a desert background

I saw this gripping tale of Hamed and his family performed at the National Theatre in London. It begins with Hamed’s mother Fariba taking the brave decision to give a public speech against the injustices of the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Taliban issued an execution order against her which would likely have led to her death. The family sell their possessions and head out of Afghanistan to get anywhere they can to safety. There are added complications to their already challenging circumstances as Hussein, Hamed’s older brother needs urgent life-saving heart surgery. It’s a nail-biting story of love and loss told with grace as the family travel across seven countries to find sanctuary finally in Wales.

My Fourth Time, We Drowned by Sally Hayden 

A boat used for smuggling migrants is paraded in a protest. Death notices of dead migrants are attached to the side
A boat used for smuggling migrants is paraded in a Berlin protest. Dead migrants are commemorated by death notices attached to its side.

Sally Hayden did not plan to write a book about the world’s most dangerous migration route but when she received direct social media messages from refugees imprisoned in a Libyan detention centre her life was turned upside down. This gritty story has won numerous awards for outstanding journalism and opens up readers eyes to the desperate situation faced by asylum seekers in the Middle East and Europe. Sally writes with great precision and detail and offers a candid and challenging picture of life for those forced to flee from countries such as Sudan, Eritrea, Syria and Afghanistan.  

You Don’t Know What War Is by Yeva Skalietska   

A book cover shows an illustration of a sunflower against a blue background.

Yeva Skalietska, aged 12, was sleeping soundly in her bed at her grandmother’s house when suddenly she was jolted awake by a noise that sounded like a car being crushed into scrap metal. She soon came to realise that a rocket attack was taking place in her home city of Kharkiv, Ukraine. Her gripping tale of those first few weeks of the Russian invasion told from a child’s perspective somehow brings home the reality of war in a most chilling and urgent way. It made me consider how my children would have dealt with all she had to go through. 

No Place Like Home refugee book festival

If you would like to hear refugee authors such as the ones above telling their stories in person, the ‘No Place Like Home’ Literary Festival is taking place on World Refugee Day, 20th June, St Martin-in-the-Fields Church, Trafalgar Square. A full list of speakers, and tickets,  subject to availability, can be found in this link.

5 min read

Dawkins is wrong about the nature of belief

You can’t rejoice in its collapse and like its cultural inheritance too.

Yaroslav is assistant priest at Holy Trinity, Sloane Square, London.

A man sits and speaks, against a background of a bookcase.
Dawkins on LBC.

Richard Dawkins sat in a tree,  

Sawing every branch he could see,  

As he sawed through the branch on which he sat,  

He raged, "It's not fair that I should go splat!" 

I am a recovering New Atheist. I was such a New Atheist that I have a claim to fame: I have given what-for to Anne Widdecombe and the Archbishop Emeritus of Abuja. I was there, as a spotty, greasy haired, angry teenager when Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry socked-it-to the Roman Catholics at an Intelligence Squared debate. The motion was ‘The Catholic Church is a Force for Good in the World’. The question I asked was so poorly formed that the moderator deemed it a comment.  

I was a callow youth. Forgive me.  

I am now not quite so young and not quite so spotty. Now that I am a man, I have put away childish things. I have abandoned atheism and embraced faith in Jesus Christ. I am a priest in the Church of England, fully in favour of the Ten Commandments and the moral framework of the Church. Clearly, I’ve been on a journey.  

So, it seems, has Professor Richard Dawkins.  

The author of The God Delusion, and scourge of many public Christian thinkers and apologists, has recently made some turbulent waves. Having surfed the tides of New Atheism, he now seems to be swimming against the current. He is a proud ‘cultural Christian’. In an interview on LBC he forcefully defended the Christian inheritance of this country: 

“I do think that we are culturally a Christian country…I call myself a ‘cultural Christian’… I love hymns and Christmas carols…I feel at home in the Christian ethos… I find that I like to live in a culturally Christian country…” 

Professor Dawkins went on to clarify (several times!) that he doesn’t believe a single word of Christian doctrine or the Bible. He was cheered by the continued decline in the numbers of believing Christians in this country. This wasn’t his Christianity. He argued that the distinction between a ‘believing Christian’ and a ‘cultural Christian’ is such that one can be both a very firm atheist and a ‘cultural Christian’. He doesn’t want people believing the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection of Jesus, but he does want us to keep our Cathedrals and beautiful parish churches. At first reading this could be seen as positive - an unlikely defender of the Christian faith coming to the rescue of a beleaguered Church.  

It isn’t. 

What the interview demonstrated was that Professor Dawkins doesn’t really understand the nature of belief or the nature of culture. If he did, he would understand a basic principle: culture doesn’t just magically appear and grow. Culture is formed and maintained from fundamental beliefs.  

You can’t have the fruits without the roots. 

Professor Dawkins likes church music. He likes the architecture of grand Cathedrals. He likes living in a society with a Western liberal ethic. All three of these fruits have grown from roots of the Christian tradition, and not just any Christian tradition. They have grown out of the BELIEVING Christian tradition.  

Why on earth would people spend inordinate amounts of time and money building Cathedrals if they didn’t actually believe the worship of God was important? Why would musicians pour out the best of their creativity into sacred music if not for a love of Jesus? Why would they structure our society in a way that sees the care of the poor and oppressed as a fundamental necessity if they don’t take the Sermon on the Mount seriously? 

People don’t die because they quite like a soft cultural inheritance - they die because they believe! 

Professor Dawkins finds himself living in a world that has been so shaped and saturated by Christianity that even our secularism has been called ‘Christian’. He lives in a Christian house. He likes it. Now he thinks he can have it and keep it while seeking to undermine and destroy the very beliefs that are the foundation, the stones, the mortar. 

He can’t.  

You don’t get to demand that everyone build their house on sand, and then complain that it is collapsing…and he does worry that it is collapsing. Predictably, he opened the interview by discussing his qualms about Islam and how he wouldn’t want this country to change from being ‘culturally Christian’ to ‘culturally Muslim’: “Insofar as Christianity can be seen as a bulwark against Islam I think it’s a very good thing.” I find this invocation of my faith offensive - not just because I believe my faith is ‘the truth’ (not just a club for angry atheists to bash Muslims with), but because it is so stupid! 

I use the word advisedly.  

It is a comment from a man who can’t seem to understand cause-and-effect. People who don’t believe strongly in something don’t fight for it. Rejoicing in the collapse of Christian belief while expecting it to protect you from other religions is about as obtuse as an individual can get. The Church grew, and spread, and produced the hymns and cathedrals and ethics that Professor Dawkins loves so much, because of people’s firm belief in Jesus Christ as our Risen Saviour. People died to spread this faith - THIS CULTURE! As Tertullian said: “…the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.” People don’t die because they quite like a soft cultural inheritance - they die because they believe! 

It was this realisation that led me to where I am now. I found that everything I cared about flowed from the Christian faith I rejected, so I rejected it no more. I wanted to continue enjoying the ‘fruits’ of my ‘cultural Christianity’, so I stopped hacking away at the ‘roots’ of ‘believing Christianity’. Professor Dawkins is seemingly wilfully blind to this fact: ‘believing Christian’s make it possible to have ‘cultural Christians’. Take away the belief and just watch what happens to the culture. 

“I don’t was to be misunderstood. I do think it’s nonsense.” 

As a believing Christian I respond: can we please have our culture back, then?