Book review: A story of refugees and the things they carry

A fascinating portrait of Iraqi and Syrian refugees and the things – material or intangible – they chose to save and carry with them
Saldaña in Zakho, Iraq in 2018

By Sarah Schug

Sarah is a staff writer for The Parliament with a focus on art, culture, and human rights.

21 Nov 2023

A staggering 110 million people are currently displaced worldwide – more than ever before, according to a report released by the UN Refugee Agency in January. In times when refugees are widely perceived as an enormous, anonymous and threatening entity, the book What We Remember Will Be Saved: A Story of Refugees and the Things They Carry, released this September, gives faces to the masses and is a timely reminder of the human stories behind the numbers.  

Stephanie Saldaña, a journalist and scholar of both American and French citizenship, poetically and compassionately recounts the heart-rending odysseys of six women and men who were forced to flee their homes due to the Syrian civil war.  

Just how quickly a whole life can change was a big surprise to me

Over six years and nine countries, from Aleppo to Amsterdam, the author, who spent the better part of the last two decades in the Middle East and is fluent in Arabic, unearthed their individual stories. It is a testament not only to the resilience of refugees, but also a plea for empathy.  

A tough but important read, the book makes abundantly clear that no refugee leaves their home or community behind willingly, and that “the things they carry” are rarely of a physical nature. Instead, memories and keepsakes take the form of music, recipes and language: an embroidered dress, aubergine seeds, and childhood songs.  

In that sense, Saldaña’s book also offers a timely exploration of the significance of intangible cultural heritage. Fittingly, Unesco’s convention to protect the latter celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. The Parliament had a chat with the writer, who divides her time between Bethlehem and France, while she was on a book-signing tour in Seattle. 

What made you want to write this book?  

Many reasons, some of which were very personal. As I had lived in Syria when the war started, this was about my neighbours, friends, teachers ... I was really frustrated that the media only talked about refugees as victims or a threat. I wanted to share stories the way Syrians and Iraqis talk about themselves: as people who are actors in their own history, who are making choices, saving things, and taking care of their families. There were two different perspectives: one outside the war, and one from the people living the war. I wondered what would happen if people could hear their stories. 

Why the focus on Iraqi and Syrian refugees? 

Somebody else could have written a book like this about many other countries. I decided to focus on the places where I could do the best job of understanding the situation, and where I’d be able to speak to people in their language. 

You managed to intertwine all those stories …  

I wanted to show the way the communities interact with each other, as well as their diversity. That’s another thing I was frustrated with: Syrians and Iraqis were being talked about as if they are all the same. There was no appreciation for the fact that they are speaking different languages, have different religions, and that this diversity was being destroyed through the war. 

Weather, smells, a dog walking by – the stories you recount convey an incredible level of detail. How did you achieve this?  

I spoke to them many, many times and, because I am doing it in Arabic and I’ve been to the places they mention, there is this kind of familiarity. But also, it’s such a great storytelling culture. They know what makes a good story, and that makes it easier.  

Was it hard for them to open up?  

One of the beauties of the book is it is not about what people lost, but what they saved. In that way, I think people were proud to talk about what they saved, and how they are helping their communities during the war. Of course, what they lost also comes out, but from a place of being survivors first, instead of victims. 

There seems to be a growing lack of empathy in the West for refugees. Why is that? 

One of the things people often say about my writing is that I humanise refugees. And I always say: no, they’re already human. Some people are no longer able to see refugees as human beings. I suppose they do it out of fear, but it’s something that’s never made sense to me. 

book cover saldana

There’s a powerful moment in the book where you experience this dehumanisation first-hand, when you gain access to a refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos. 

The moment I was on the other side of the fence, I felt people were looking through me, like I didn’t exist; it was really, really shocking. That entire experience was stunning. I will never forget it. I just couldn’t believe Europe was treating human beings that way, and wasn’t even trying to hide it. Hearing those people’s stories, how they’d escaped the horror of Isis, survived a sea crossing and thought they had finally found safety, [only to end up] sleeping under trees, and covering themselves in rubbish to keep warm. It was unimaginably cruel.  

Throughout the book, it becomes clear it’s not necessarily material things that people take with them. Is that a commonality you found?  

Very much. When I set out, I imagined people would have brought objects with them but, often, they have to leave so fast they can’t even pack a bag. Especially on Lesbos, it was amazing to witness people’s realisation that the thing they still had – who they are, what they can offer – was something inside of them. 

What surprised you most about these conversations?  

How brave people are: the bravery to go to completely new places and start over. And I was really surprised by how quickly it all happens. There are things I thought I knew but, when I asked: “What did you bring with you?” [it soon became clear] I didn’t understand war. You don’t have time to pack bags. Just how quickly a whole life can change was a big surprise to me. I also never stopped being surprised at how unique every single person is, and how kind and good they remain even when people are cruel to them. I think about them when I become bitter. 

It struck me that people wait until the last moment to flee when their lives are in danger, and even then some still go back ... 

Yes. Something tragic we’ve learnt in the meantime is that those in Syria who tried to stay were punished. And for the ones who fled after 2015, it was much harder [to gain resettlement]. The lesson seems to be – the faster you leave a war, the more likely you are going to gain resettlement. The longer you wait, the harder it is going to be for you. That is also very disturbing.  

What have you learnt by writing this book?  

I know now that if something like that happened to me, I would be thinking about my family, and only afterwards of anything else I could save. Another thing I learnt is that we think of ourselves as being outside the story. We think the trauma that migrants and refugees experience stems from their own country. What I learnt in speaking to them is that a great deal of their trauma is related to how they are received, or not received, when they arrive. It’s time to take responsibility for the fact that we are included in people’s lives. There is a responsibility in that. 

What We Remember Will Be Saved: A Story of Refugees and the Things They Carry

Author: Stephanie Saldaña

Publisher: Broadleaf Books 

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