Shared Stories, Shared Humanity: Tales of Refugees

Jun 4, 2021

The Handmaid’s Tale: Where Fiction Meets Reality

By Joung-ah Ghedini-Williams, Head of Global Communications at UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency

The Handmaid’s Tale — “Milk” — Episode 404 — June takes a harrowing journey with Janine in an attempt to escape Gilead.

On my best and worst days, I listen to stories. I hear the stories of incredibly brave, often scarred, sometimes shy everyday heroes — people forced to flee. Mothers, teachers, children, brothers, dreamers, scientists, athletes, artists, survivors. I’ve heard from all of them, across five different continents over nearly three decades, most working for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.

Kosovar Refugees fleeing their homeland in 1999. UN Photo/UNHCR/Roger LeMoyne

The people I’ve met are just like you and me; they have dreams and full lives, and they just want their families to be happy and healthy. They are also like June, Emily, Rita and Moira from The Handmaid’s Tale, all refugees forced to seek safety. And while these women live in the fictionalized world of Gilead, their stories and experiences are all too real. They could easily be four of the nearly 80 million displaced people who risk everything to save themselves and their families from the dangers of life at home.

I’ve listened to these stories of refugees while sipping countless tiny cups of extremely strong coffee across the Balkans, sitting in a tiny patch of shade in 52°C/125°F heat that made me feel as dry as paper in Eritrea, and even while bunkered in a room hearing gunfire outside in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Some of these stories I’ve written down or shared with others, while most I carry silently within me. Even decades later, I recall minute details of the faces of those whose stories have become part of my own story. I find myself wondering how they are, where they are, if they’ve reached their big-small dreams of opening their own bakery, learning English, sending their children to university and the most common dream of all: living a life without fear, in safety, and peace.

The Handmaid’s Tale — “Milk” — Episode 404 — June takes a harrowing journey with Janine in an attempt to escape Gilead.

I fell into humanitarian work almost accidentally, but the day I stepped off a cavernous, double-rotored NATO helicopter in Bosnia in 1995, I knew I would dedicate myself to this work. It was July 11th and a mere 100km away, over 8,000 boys and men were being massacred in Srebrenica. I was at the Tuzla air base as thousands of women and children arrived, dazed and traumatized. I did not see a single adult male, nor many teenaged boys and saw only a few elderly men among the sea of families who had arrived. The wailing of the women was so pervasive and omnipresent, it was a physical presence that hung all around us. As I write, I can hear it still all these years later, my stomach knotting up as I go back to that hot summer day.

Kosovar Refugees fleeing their homeland in 1999. UN Photo/UNHCR/Roger LeMoyne

I went on to work in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Tanzania, Kosovo and Eritrea, living and working in these dangerous, beautiful, complicated countries throughout conflict and upheaval. I also went on field visits the Middle East, Asia and the Americas. Everywhere I saw first-hand the tragedies and challenges of responding to complex emergencies where millions of forcibly displaced people needed life-saving assistance, international protection, and access to human rights, often in exceptionally harsh, difficult conditions.

A woman stands in the doorway of a makeshift dwelling at the Mugunga camp for internally displaced people (IDPs), near Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo. UN Photo/Sylvain Liechti

Twenty-six years later, there are over 80 million people who have been forced to flee or are stateless. Most are displaced within their own country, too many others have fled across borders to seek safety outside their homelands, millions of others still are not recognized as citizens with equal rights within the countries they — and generations before them — have called home. Nearly half are children under 18 years old. Too many have witnessed or survived horrific trauma, assault, exploitation, loss or injury. And yet, I have rarely met a woman, man, or child who has not offered to share something precious with me: their shelter, their coffee, their story.

Children listen to their teacher at the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan, which houses nearly 80,000 Syrian refugees. UN Photo/Mark Garten

To hear someone’s story is to receive a gift. Sometimes it may include a secret or a confession. We all carry stories within us that make us who we are or shape who we are becoming. To hear someone’s story is to connect with them at the most fundamental level. Even when I have not spoken the same language as my storyteller, our connection has been profound. When I sit with someone, often with their family too, in a small space, speaking in hushed voices about something as personal and weighty as the story of why and how they had to flee their home, how they left behind their culture, history, community, even family, I understand just how connected we all are. Humanity boils down to love, fear, hope, and the desire to be safe, healthy, and free.

The Handmaid’s Tale — “Home” — Episode 407 — June struggles with her newfound freedom, reuniting with loved ones and confronting her demons.

I felt this shared humanity deeply when I visited Rohingya families in Bangladesh in November 2017. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people were fleeing brutal violence and persecution in Rakhine state in Myanmar, walking days through jungle or risking dangerous journeys by sea to reach safety and assistance in Bangladesh. I sat with a family who had endured a harrowing journey across the Andaman Sea and whose boat tragically capsized just as it neared the shore. Of the 42 passengers on board, 22 people were so badly injured they required medical treatment at a nearby hospital, and four people lost their lives — including two children. One was the four-year old daughter of the family who shared their story with me.

Rohingya refugees in the Kutupalong Rohingya Refugee Camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. UN Photo/K. M. Asad

The young mother sat encircled by her husband and her three surviving children. She tried so hard to be strong and smile as the younger two boys giggled nervously, fidgeting and teasing each other, but her pain was palpable. They kept watching her nervously the entire time we were together, as if gauging how they should feel or act based on her behavior. Despite the tremendous loss of their sister, the kids couldn’t help but feel relief.

They had not been able to attend school, their parents unable to work. They had only known fear their entire lives — well before the violence in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state escalated in August of that year. They had perpetually lived on edge, never knowing whether they would be the next victims of the violence that had taken the lives of many relatives and neighbours. But now, they finally felt safe. And despite the weight of grief, they felt a lifting of the heavy fear they’d always carried. They felt — we could all feel — hope.

Rohingya refugees in the Kutupalong Rohingya Refugee Camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. UN Photo/K. M. Asad

I cannot imagine the terror of trying to survive, trying to feed your children and maintain some sense of security and comfort for them as a mother when you yourself were perpetually scared, perhaps even more terrified as a parent. So many families saw their loved ones assaulted, raped, killed, their homes burned, their lives destroyed. Many mothers were unable to keep their children safe or healthy. So it seemed particularly cruel that this mother had kept her children safe, kept them alive until they all but reached the shores of Bangladesh.

She asked if I had children. I nodded that I had two children at home. She recounted that as they neared the shore a huge wave capsized the boat and there was mayhem. Everyone plunged into the water, some flailing under the overturned boat. The water was chest-high, so she, her husband and oldest daughter could stand but the waves were rough and kept knocking everyone over. I will never forget the despair in her eyes as she whispered, “I only have two arms so I grabbed the two children nearest me.” She struggled to get to shore and it was only when they finally stumbled onto the beach that she realized her youngest daughter was missing.

The grief mixed with guilt that was in her eyes was heartbreaking. I didn’t speak her language and we were as different as could be but what we shared in common at that moment was even greater. We were both mothers who wanted the same thing — happy, healthy children with the chance to grow up and have their own children one day. As we held hands and locked eyes, I knew all I could do was be there with her, witness her pain, share her grief, as well as her hope.

Joung-ah holds a Rohingya baby while interviewing recently arrived refugee families living in the Kutupalong extension site in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

We are more alike than we are different. Our stories, though rich and varied, are not so different. We share this world, its resources, our humanity. Shared responsibility is not only the right way forward, it’s the best way forward. If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we are stronger when we work, heal, learn and grow together. The stories of people forced to flee are our stories too, for they are stories of perseverance, bravery, kindness, wonder, adventure, joy, of love, loss, struggle and of hope.

Joung-ah reports from Bangladesh on the Rohingya refugee crisis in 2017.

So what can we do to honor our shared story?

· We can learn more about displacement, its root causes and how to improve our response and support to people forced to flee. (Follow @refugees on social media to learn the latest or go to UNHCR’s data portal for all the data.)

· We can speak out against racism, persecution and injustice and for solidarity, empathy and kindness. We can use our social media for good to express our support for human rights, people forced to flee, and organizations like UNHCR working around the world to support and protect stateless and displaced people everywhere.

· We can be allies and activists by organizing or supporting events, hosting a World Refugee Day party on June 20th, a community potluck, inviting refugee speakers to schools, places of worship or book clubs.

· We can teach about displacement in schools everywhere (UNHCR offers free online teaching resources).

· We can volunteer with local or international organizations, locally or abroad.

· We can use our voices and our wallets for social change. Support local refugee businesses and companies that support humanitarian causes or employ refugees locally. And if it’s possible, donate to your favorite organization.

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Handmaid’s Tale UN Blog Series

This article is one in a series of blog posts that coincide with the global release of Season 4 of the award-winning TV series The Handmaid’s Tale. Each post explores the realities behind the show’s storylines including, the refugee journey, gender-based violence and sexual servitude, international justice, and arbitrary detention, torture and summary execution, among other compelling topics. The blogs also explore the power of community and resilience in the face of trauma, and the path to healing and recovery.

United Nations staff and experts with experience working on the frontlines of violent conflict, gender and refugee issues, human rights and international law have regularly consulted with The Handmaid’s Tale writers, producers, Directors, actors, and production team, to help ground many of the show’s storylines in the lives of real people and real experiences.

The United Nations’ Creative Community Outreach Initiative (CCOI) is responsible for bridging the gap between the United Nations and creators in the film and television industry, with one of its objectives to ensure issues on the UN agenda are depicted in film and television and reflect reality.

Other Blog Posts in the Series
Gilead’s Totalitarian Society is Eerily Familiar

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