Novelist Khaled Hosseini came to the United States as a 15-year-old Afghan asylum seeker who knew only a few words of English. Today, he is a doctor, a United Nations goodwill ambassador, and author of two internationally acclaimed books, “The Kite Runner” and “A Thousand Splendid Suns.”
Hosseini told RFE/RL that when he left Afghanistan in 1976, Kabul was a "growing, thriving, cosmopolitan city." By the end of his father’s four-year post at the Afghan Embassy in Paris, his country had been invaded by the Soviet Union.
Hosseini and his family sought asylum in the United States and ended up in California, where he became a doctor and eventually wrote “The Kite Runner,” which was an overnight literary sensation.
RFE/RL correspondent Courtney Brooks caught up with Hosseini at the United Nations on World Refugee Day, where he spoke about the plight millions of Afghans face, both inside and outside the beleaguered country.
RFE/RL: Can you tell me about your childhood in Afghanistan?
I was born there in 1965, and I grew up essentially in the pre-Soviet war era in Afghanistan. [I] grew up in Kabul. Both of my parents were university educated. My mother was a Farsi and history teacher at a large high school for girls; my father was a diplomat at the Foreign Ministry.
And, you know, Afghanistan was a country at peace with itself, with its neighbors. Kabul was a growing, thriving, cosmopolitan city. So it was a very, very different picture of Afghanistan than the one you would think of today if somebody said the word Afghanistan. So I feel very fortunate to have lived through the final few peaceful years of recent Afghan history.
RFE/RL: How and why did your family leave Afghanistan?
We left in 1976 because my father was assigned to a diplomatic post at the Afghan Embassy in Paris, and it was supposed to be a four-year assignment. While we were in Paris, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and a war began, and things became very unstable back home. And there was -- the refugee crisis began, and we knew people who were in prison, and tortured, and beaten, and killed.
And so my father applied for asylum to the United States, and instead of returning to Afghanistan my family moved instead to San Jose, California, in the fall in 1980, where most of my family has lived ever since.
RFE/RL: What was it like to move to the United States as a teenager?
I was 15 when I moved to the U.S., went straight into high school, and you know, for me, I think the adjustment was difficult because of the age. You know, being a teen is difficult anyway. But I think it was an even more difficult adjustment for my parents to be uprooted and to have lost everything they had worked their lives for, and to have to restart their lives essentially from scratch and to try to restart a life in an environment that was dramatically different from the one they were accustomed to.
That said, I think they also had a very healthy sense of perspective in that we were among the extremely fortunate Afghans who were allowed to restart our lives in America, whereas millions of Afghans ended up living in refugee camps in Pakistan, lived as laborers in Iran or elsewhere in the world. So we were quite, quite fortunate.
PHOTO GALLERY: Refugees struggle to rebuild their lives:
RFE/RL: Did you speak English when you came to the U.S.?
The UNHCR says that 42.5 million people ended 2011 either as refugees (15.2 million), internally dispaced (26.4 million), or seeking asylum (895,000).
Red Crescent of the United Arab Emirates employees construct a new camp to shelter refugees who fled Libya in March 2011.
Internally displaced persons at a settlement facility in Tbilisi, Georgia, in August 2011.
Fatima, an Afghan immigrant, carries food donated by activists from a soup kitchen in a poor neighborhood in Athens, Greece.
Refugees hoping to enter Europe's Schengen Area take shelter on the outskirts of Subotica, Serbia, near the Hungarian border, in September 2011.
Afghanistan is the biggest source of refugees, with 2.7 million of its people abroad in places like Iran and Pakistan (seen here).
A UNHCR employee scans the eye of an Afghan at a refugee registration center outside Peshawar, Pakistan in June 2011.
A near-record 3.2 million people returned to their homes in 2011, the UN says. This Afghan woman, seen at a registration center in Herat, was repatriated from Iran.
An Afghan infant is held by its mother as they wait to go back to Afghanistan from a UN-funded repatriation center in Pakistan.
Syrian refugees stroll at the Islahiye refugee camp in Gaziantep, Turkey.
The UNHCR warns in its new "Global Trends Report" that "a person who becomes a refugee is likely to remain as one for many years -- often stuck in a camp or living precariously in an urban location."
A refugee at the entrance of her home in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Of the 10.4 million refugees for which the UNHCR is responsible, more than 7 million have been refugees for more than five years.
Refugee boys from Myanmar look for items to salvage from the ruins of a burned mosque in the Um-Piam refugee camp after fire engulfed part of it near Mae Sot in February 2012.
Syrian boys walk shoulder-to-shoulder in the rain at the Boynuyogun refugee camp on the Turkish-Syrian border.
Afghan women and children at a UNHCR registration center in Pakistan. Nearly 26 million displaced people were receiving protection or assistance from the UN's refugee agency by the end of 2011.
A camp of Syrian refugees in Dohuk, Turkey. Developing countries host four-fifths of the world's refugees, according to the UNHCR.
A young Syrian refugee flashes the "peace" sign from behind a fence at a refugee camp in Yayladagi, Turkey.
Refugees who were recently deported from Iran stand near temporary shelters in Herat, western Afghanistan, in November 2011. The UNHCR says there are Afghan refugees in 79 countries.
A man answers questions for census takers in the village of Madzharka in the separatist Georgian region of Abkhazia in February 2011.
Afghan children at a refugee camp in Kabul on World Refugee Day 2011.
Egyptian refugees fleeing violence in Libya line up to be processed at a refugee camp after crossing into Tunisia near the border crossing of Ras Jdir in February 2011.
A man who fled Libya waits at the border between Libya and Tunisia in March 2011.
A Syrian woman hangs laundry out to dry at the Boynuyogun Red Crescent refugee camp in the Altinozu district of Hatay, in southern Turkey.
I did not. I spoke a few words, a few phrases, but I had to learn English essentially on the fly. It was tough. I’ve always had a sort of a knack for languages, but it was really difficult to be -- within two weeks of arrival here I was enrolled in regular English classes as a freshman. And it was really a process of sink or swim.
So I soaked up the language through reading the paper, through television, through radio, through going to school, and I think within a year I was pretty fluent.
RFE/RL: What experiences inspired the storyline for "The Kite Runner"?
: Well, the storyline itself was fairly fictional, although, you know, I was watching a news story in the spring of 1999 on television, and this news story was about the Taliban. And it was talking about all the different impositions that the Taliban had placed on the Afghan people. And at some point along the line, it mentioned that they had banned the sport of kite flying
, which kind of struck a personal chord for me, because as a boy I grew up in Kabul with all my cousins and friends flying kites.
So I sat down after that news story and wrote a 25-page short story about two boys in Kabul flying kites, and it became this kind of a much darker, more involved tale than I had anticipated.
A couple of years later, in March of 2001, I rediscovered the short story in my garage, essentially, and it kind of became the inspiration for the novel. And I kind of sat down and began expanding the short story into a book, which eventually became "The Kite Runner," the novel.
RFE/RL: Your subsequent book, “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” focuses on the very different experience of women in Afghanistan. What compelled you to tell this story?
Almost as soon as I had finished "The Kite Runner," I knew I wanted to write a second book, and I knew I wanted to write about women. Because I had gone to Afghanistan in March of 2003 and seen firsthand the aftermath of the war there, heard so many stories about what happened to women, the tragedies that they had endured, the difficulties, the gender-based violence that they had suffered, the discrimination, the being barred from active life during the Taliban, having their movement restricted, being banned essentially from practicing their legal, social rights, political rights.
I felt it was an outrage and I felt it was a very important story. And when I was in Kabul in 2003 I heard many personal stories about women, and sort of eventually over a couple of years those voices coalesced into a pair of characters. And I sat down finally with the story in hand and wrote "A Thousand Splendid Suns."
RFE/RL: Was writing "A Thousand Splendid Suns" more difficult than "The Kite Runner"?
Far more difficult. It was a real challenge to write from the standpoint of not one, but two, different women from different social backgrounds. And so I really struggled with that for quite a bit. And eventually at some point the characters became alive to me when I stopped obsessing about it so much -- about, you know, capturing an authentic voice for an Afghan woman.
And I just kind of wrote the characters as human beings with a set of fears, and concerns, and disappointments, and hopes, and personality traits, and so on. And so at that point suddenly the characters kind of took on a life of their own and became very real for me.
RFE/RL: Can you describe the impact that 30 years of war has had on your country’s culture, and on the daily life of Afghans?
It’s been incalculable. We’re still suffering the legacy of all the different wars in Afghanistan. You know, this is a country that today finds itself as one of the poorest non-African nations in the world, that has a GDP that ranks 218 in the world, [and] where, on average, 30 percent of people live below the poverty level. The country faces rising insecurity in different regions of the country.
Millions of people have returned to Afghanistan from Iran and Pakistan -- about 5.7 million since 2002 -- most of them with assistance from the UN refugee agency. And those people who returned to Afghanistan, those refugees, have had a really hard time adjusting to life in Afghanistan, have had a [really hard] time reintegrating and restarting their lives.
And so Afghanistan is in need of long-term economic development, of developmental projects that will trickle down to the village level [and] affect people at the local level -- and we are by now, more or less agreed, everybody is at the same page, that there is no military solution in Afghanistan.
And so my hope is that the international community will continue to support the country economically, even if NATO and the U.S. forces are no longer in charge of military operations. But I think for most Afghans, this is a period of anxiety, this transition period. The jury is sort of out on how well the Afghan state is prepared, equipped, [and] trained to protect its people from the insurgent groups, and I think the next few years will be very telling years.
RFE/RL: Ahead of NATO's planned 2014 pullout, violence in Afghanistan does not seem to be abating. Taliban and Taliban-associated groups often attack NATO checkpoints and soldiers -- such as the June 20 bombing, which killed at least 21 people. Can you describe the prevailing national sentiment toward Americans?
I think the last few years -- although generally there is support for the foreign troops because people fear that in the absence of the foreign troops the country may slide back into the chaos of the 1990s and military warfare may break out -- that support has dropped to some level. [This is due to] the perception that promises that were made by the West haven’t necessarily been kept because of the civilian casualties caused by air strikes, and night raids, and so on, and also because of fairly effective propaganda on the part of the Taliban.
So although on balance that support is not as strong as it was, my sense is that, in general, people still have a fairly supportive stance toward the foreign presence -- not because they enjoy having foreign troops on their lands, quite the opposite. But mainly because the alternative -- the fear that Afghanistan will slide back toward all-out militia warfare and the chaos of the 1990s -- is just too grisly a scenario to be considered.
RFE/RL: What would be the best scenario for the 10 years of support the United States has promised afterward?
Of the 5.7 million people who returned to Afghanistan, anywhere from 40 to 60 percent of them have not successfully reintegrated, and they end up either returning to Iran [or] Pakistan or being secondarily displaced because they don’t have access to...basic services that we need for day-to-day survival.
We have millions of Afghans who have returned to Afghanistan, and we have 2.7 million refugees who are still living in Iran and Pakistan and appear to be reluctant to return home. The main reason -- certainly security cannot be discounted and is part of the reason -- but also, people are aware that basic resources, basic services and resources, are lacking in Afghanistan.
[Of] the 5.7 million [people] who returned to Afghanistan, anywhere from 40 to 60 percent of them have not successfully reintegrated, and they end up either returning to Iran [or] Pakistan or being secondarily displaced because they don’t have access to jobs, to water, to schools -- basic services that we need for day-to-day survival.
So I think the solution strategy that [was] arrived at in Geneva in May of this year with the governments of Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and UNHCR, was that we need economic development at the local level, at the rural village level, [and] the community level in order to build viable communities in Afghanistan so that those millions of refugees who have returned can be anchored and can have a chance at a successful long-term reintegration.
RFE/RL: What kind of hope do you have for Afghanistan? Is there a "best-case" scenario that you see in the next 18 months or two years?
In this next year and a half [or] two years, I still see that there will be insecurity marked by spikes in violence. I think there will be political tension and a sort of a shrinking humanitarian space where aid organizations will have increasing difficulty delivering assistance to the people who need it in Afghanistan.
But it’s my hope, and that of every Afghan, that eventually the war will end, that a peace process will come about, and that the parties will sit at a table where the best-case scenario would be that legitimate representatives from all corners of society are represented at the table and present, that the peace process represents the will and aspirations of the people of Afghanistan, and is one that is inclusive, particularly with regards to women and their rights.
So that’s sort of the hope for all of us. That’s the best case scenario -- that Afghanistan, after 32 years of war and upheaval, will finally be a nation that is once again at peace, within and without.