Opening the Door to a New Solution

Today, there are over 65.3 million forcibly displaced people worldwide.[1] Of those, over 21 million are refugees. 21 million individuals have been forced to move from their homes in search of safety elsewhere. In our world today, refugees move through borders and swim through oceans; in Mohsin Hamid’s world in Exit West, refugees move by stepping through doors. Hamid offers readers (and perhaps even refugees themselves) a new lens through which to view and understand refugees: agency. The thread of agency is apparent throughout the novel – from the choices the characters make about their clothes and lifestyle, to decisions about the kind of life they want to live. However, the more apparent fact is that agency is dependent on mobility;  refugees need mobility to exercise agency over their lives.

Set in an unnamed country, the story begins “in a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, [at a moment when] a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her”.[2] The protagonists, Saeed and Nadia, are two young cosmopolitan residents who meet in a Corporate Identity and Product Branding class. At first, their relationship is portrayed like any new one, with calculated text messages and conversations about travel and their dreams for their future. Soon enough, “a rhythm was established, and it was thereafter rare that more than a few waking hours would pass without contact between them”.[3] But the couple’s courtship evolves in the midst of crisis. Militants have infiltrated the city and effectively infiltrate Nadia and Saeed’s relationship as well by imposing curfews, causing cellphone tower outages, and setting up roadblocks. Slowly, then all at once, the nature of their relationship changes: Sadeed eventually starts bringing Nadia kerosene lamps and food supplies instead of flowers.

Their city, homes, and families soon succumb to extreme violence and, in some cases, death (I will spare any more details to avoid spoilers). However, instead of focusing on the destruction of the city and its people, Hamid instead continues to focus exclusively on Saeed and Nadia, and in so doing encourages the reader to empathize with the characters rather than pity them. When Saeed and Nadia choose to flee, the reader not only understands their decision, but also supports it. The couple leave their war-torn home for Greece by stepping through a door:

[Nadia] approached the door, and drawing close she was struck by its darkness, its opacity, the way it did not reveal what was on the other side, and also did not reflect what was on this side, and so felt equally like a beginning and an end… without a word, she stepped through. It was said in those days that the passage was both like dying and like being born.[4]

Unlike many refugee stories that depict harrowing journeys of flight, Hamid instead chooses to focus on the individuals themselves and on their lives at point A and point B. In an interview, Hamid has stated: “it’s a mistake to focus on how they move,” which is why “the bulk of the story was the cause that made them leave home, and what happens in the new place.”[5]

By giving Saeed and Nadia the power to step through doors, and to choose when to do so, Hamid provides them, and refugees more generally, with agency. Whenever the couple, now refugees, decide that they need to move to another location, they make an active choice to step through another door. This surfaces mobility as a solution for refugee crises.

The current international refugee regime consists of three ‘durable’ solutions to ‘the refugee problem’: resettlement, repatriation, and local integration.[6] Resettlement is overseen by UNHCR, and only a small number of states take part in the program. In 2016, 162,500 (out of over 20 million refugees) were resettled.[7] Repatriation is the voluntary return of refugees back to their home countries once the situation is safe, through a tripartite agreement between the host country, home country, and UNHCR.[8] This solution is currently at an all-time low because of the protracted conflicts in home states. Lastly, there is local integration, which can be understood as “a situation in which host countries and refugee communities are able to co-exist, sharing the same resources — both economic and social — with no greater mutual conflict than that which exists within the host country”.[9] In spite of these three “solutions”, around six million refugees are in protracted refugee situations, and “the vast majority are not on the road to a durable solution”.[10]

It is now recognized that the traditional solutions are not producing the sustainable results needed for either the refugees or their host states. Both in literature and in practice,  there has been a move to look beyond traditional solutions, with a new proposal being brought to the forefront: a migration- and mobility- centered solution. In this approach, the focus shifts towards the potential for migration and mobility to allow refugees to move between places, giving refugees freedom of movement.[11] Furthermore, a migration and mobility approach could address the difficulties the durable solutions currently face. As Katy Long has written:

Migration and mobility may not only enhance existing solutions: they offer a means of connecting them, allowing refugees to build their own composite solutions that reflect complex identities.[12]

Examples of mobility-centered solutions include regional agreements of the European Union and in West and East Africa, where “citizens of member states (have) the freedom to move, reside, and work throughout a region”.[13]

In Saeed and Nadia’s world, their mobility-centered solution is the ability to travel between places, to be in charge of their own location, and consequently, to be in charge of their lives. For Saeed and Nadia, mobility provides them more than simply freedom of movement. The various doors and new locations offer them hope, community, and most importantly: options. This mobility-centered approach maximizes refugees’ choices, and gives them the space to exercise agency. Hamid’s writing channels this strategy, and elicits a doorway into a better world, one full of choices and agency. All you have to do is step through.

REFERENCES:

[1] UNHCR, Figures At A Glance. Retrieved from: http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/figures-at-a-glance.html

[2] Hamid, M. (2017). Exit West. New York: Riverhead Books. Pg. 1

[3] Ibid. Pg. 41

[4] Hamid, M. (2017). Exit West. New York: Riverhead Books. Pg. 104

[5] PBS NewsHour. (16 March, 2017). Magical Novel ‘Exit West’ explores what makes refugees leave home. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sPQD2SIZTsg

[6] Harrell-Bond, B. E. (1989). Repatriation: Under what conditions is it the most desirable solution for refugees? An agenda for research. African Studies Review, 32(01), 41-70.

[7] UNHCR. Resettlement. Retrieved from: http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/resettlement.html

[8] Harrell-Bond, B. E. (1989). Repatriation: Under what conditions is it the most desirable solution for refugees? An agenda for research. African Studies Review, 32(01), 41-70.

[9] Harrell-Bond, B.E. 1986. Imposing Aid: Emergency Assistance to Refugees. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pg. 7.

[10] Aleinikoff, T. A., & Poellot, S. (2013). The Responsibility to Solve: The International Community and Protracted Refugee Situations. Va. J. Int’l L., 54, 195.

[11] Long, K. (2014). Rethinking ‘Durable’ Solutions. Pg.6.

[12] Ibid, Pg. 9.

[13] Ibid, Pg. 10.

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