Atia Abawi

Award-Winning Foreign correspondent and Author

Why I wrote 'A Land of Permanent Goodbyes'

Picture from official refugee papers.

In the summer of 2015 while visiting my parents in California, my dad opened up a folder to find the birth certificate and medical papers I needed for what I don’t even remember. Among the documents were our refugee papers and old passports—identification cards I was too young to remember receiving.

A few weeks later my eyes were glued to the TV screen as I watched hundreds of thousands of people escaping the Syrian war. They were risking their lives on boats, trekking along the sides of Europe’s busy highways, and pushing strollers and wheel chairs through muddy fields. They were people who only a few years prior lived normal lives in their comfortable homes.

As a former refugee I saw a familiarity that I couldn’t shake. Although my family’s story took place at a different time and started in a different country, the stories seemed almost parallel. My parents had a comfortable life with great jobs in the peaceful Afghan capital they had grown up in – but that all came crashing down at the onset of the Soviet war in 1979. They tried to stick it out, but as the years passed the scarier it became. Both my grandfathers were imprisoned for being army generals under pre-communist leaderships. Even family members within the new government turned on my parents for not embracing communism. To protect their children, my parents finally left.

After their own terrifying and tiresome journey, my parents found refuge first in Germany. My mom was 8-months pregnant with me and my brother was 2-years-old. A year later we were welcomed as refugees to America. Life continued to be difficult but I count my blessings every day for the decision they made and the risks they took. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if they didn’t leave – it never ends happily.

As I watched the Syrians fleeing I felt a pained connection. And when I read and heard the vitriol against them, my heart broke. They were all human beings whose lives had been torn apart and ravaged. They were not people who wanted to leave their country, they were people who were forced to, not just for a better life but for a chance to live.

I wrote A Land of Permanent Goodbyes to humanize the refugee crisis we see today. Like with my first novel, The Secret Sky, I want readers to see beyond the headlines and short video clips. I’ll never forget, and never want to forget, the pain I felt day after day researching this novel – speaking with refugees, witnessing what was happening in Greece, standing in the lifejacket graveyard among thousand upon thousands of lifejackets, each representing a person who took the risk to live. The abandoned baby shoe I brought back home with me sits in my office and I often wonder where the little girl is now. I hope my book can in some way give the reader a better understanding of those who are living the crisis as they relate to the characters. And I hope maybe—just maybe—it will inspire them to do what they can to help or at least understand.

Originally published for Penguin Teen, April 2017

Life Jacket Graveyard, Lesvos

Abandoned Shoe left on the rocks, which now sits in my office.

© 2017 Atia Abawi