Novelist Khaled Hosseini Talks About the State of Refugees in the World

A conversation with the author of “The Kite Runner,” who will be honored at the State Department as an “outstanding American citizen by choice.”

By: Carol Ross Joynt

Khaled Hosseini is best known as the author of the acclaimed novel The Kite Runner and its follow-up, A Thousand Splendid Suns. The Afghanistan-born physician is also a humanitarian and runs a foundation that supports refugee efforts in his native country. Today, in honor of World Refugee Day, Hosseini is in town to be celebrated at the State Department as an “outstanding American by choice,” and to participate in a ceremony in which 19 former refugees will take the oath of citizenship and be naturalized by the US Citizenship and Immigration Services.

We caught up with Hosseini by phone as he traveled by car from Capitol Hill to the State Department.

What were you doing on the Hill?

I had a meeting with congressional staffers to talk about World Refugee Day and specifically Afghanistan.

And your message to them?

It was an overview of the situation as I see it for Afghanistan and its neighboring countries, the rising displacement, the outlook. We discussed solution strategy.

What grade do you give the world in dealing with refugees?

B or B minus*. Countries that are hosting refugees, such as Africa and Asia, get a good passing grade. The rest of the world, not as good.

What about the United States?

I think the US has done a lot, but they can do a lot more. There are solutions to be had for some of the crises, but in the US it is about finding the political solution. In America there’s a lot of confusion of who refugees are. Part of what I’m trying to do is raise awareness.

If there were one act, one accomplishment, one goal that could be met in the next year, what should it be?

Speaking specifically of Afghanistan, it is security. That’s what’s causing a lot of people to displace and why they are reluctant to come back.

What does it mean to be a refugee in this world?

Generally speaking it means you have essentially most of your life taken from you—your home, your local ties, your identity, your belongings—and you are vulnerable to violence and abuse. More than likely you are a woman or a young girl or young boy; this is so whether you stay near your country or leave your country.

What are the goals of World Refugee Day?

Awareness, because with awareness comes motivation.

What will you say when you are honored today?

That this means a lot to me. I came to this country 32 years ago. I became a citizen in 1993. One of my messages is that we tend to think of refugees as this monolithic community that is helpless, a burden, with nothing to offer. Refugees can be extraordinary people; wherever they settle they bring their expertise and resources. We should continue with a commitment to help them.

You got involved with the refugee movement in 2007 after a trip to Afghanistan. What was it about that trip?

I’d read about refugees in an academic way, statistics and pie charts, but to actually go to a settlement and to see these people who have come back and are trying to start their lives where there’s no water or education, no roof over their heads, no jobs—this put a very human dimension to the problem. Whenever I get too steeped in numbers or statistics I remember those people and that experience.

Are you still a practicing doctor or novelist, or are you a full-time humanitarian?

I do writing full time now. I have not practiced medicine since 2004. I run my foundation, and my work with the foundation is my work as a humanitarian.

*This post has been updated from a previous version.