Disabled and Deprived: Reading Refugee Narrative in the Light of Disability

by Dr. M. Anjum Khan

Content warning: this article contains descriptions of miscarriage, trauma and bodily injury which may be distressing to some readers.

“Truth gains strength, in the telling and the listening.” – Sylvia Whitman (2016)

Refugee narratives revolve around the intertwined themes of violence, coercion, deprivation, and ultimately the death of humanity. Furthermore, these narratives are built around the motifs of escape from socio-political menace, accompanied by a journey of survival.1 However, these interminable journeys are marked by injuries and casualties: “For the refugees who survive there is significant risk of injury, abuse, and torture during these journeys” (McPherson 1239). The physical and mental assaults upon some of the refugees, and their dire conditions, cumulatively result in disability. The most vulnerable section of a refugee community is predominantly composed of women and children. This essay attempts to address how literature negotiates the onset of disability ensuing from the refugee crisis and forced migration. There have been several research essays concerning the relationship between disability and homelessness: these include “Causes of Homelessness Prevalence-The Relationship between Homelessness and Disability” in Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences (2016),“Homelessness, Immigrant Status, Poverty and Dementia: Identifying Rehabilitative and Care Needs at the Margins of Society”  in Disability and Health Journal (2009) and several others. However, there is less critical material around depictions of homeless subjects who have refugee status and are classified as disabled, especially with reference to literature. Therefore, this essay will elucidate the intersection between refugeehood and disability with reference to Zana Fraillon’s, The Bone Sparrow published 2017,  and Sylvia Whitman’s The Milk of Birds, published 2016. It will elucidate the consequences of physical and emotional violence inflicted upon the refugees as these precede their entry into camps and during their time in the camp. The piece will also deal with the treatment of disability in detention and internally displaced camps with reference to the two literary narratives mentioned above despite the fact that they deal more with refugeehood and less with disability as it is important to understand the dialectics of both. 

Image by Radek Homola on Unsplash under a CC BY licence [image depicts an empty refugee camp with graffiti displaying ‘no border, no nation]

The Bone Sparrow is set in an Australian detention camp invisible to the real world of politics, power and citizenship. The novel portrays several Rohingya refugees who live in a limbo, negotiating their life from one day to next day. The Milk of Birds concerns internally displaced individuals living in camps of Sudan, where home and hope have become the things of the past. Both narratives depict characters who become physically and mentally disabled in the process of becoming homeless: the novels deal with both visible and invisible disabilities, including physical abilities that impair movement and hearing and mental disabilities that impact thinking and social participation. Such homelessness is replete with excessive violence, irreconcilable loss, trauma, and encounters with egregious structural circumstances. The narrative revolves around the ordeal of homeless and displaced individuals, corroborating the fundamental reading of home as a place of rest and recuperation: conversely, the Camp is potentially a place of rescue and relief whilst remaining unhomely. Memories of violence cause mental and emotional impairment. The protagonist’s mother in The Bone Sparrow represents thousands of refugees who have survived only to subsequently succumb to the worst sufferings at the camp. Maá suffers from the dreadful memories associated with the loss of her home as well as the material loss of her personal possessions. The gulf between her physical home at the camp and the home of her memories widens as. she oscillates between conscious and semi-conscious states of mind and body. She is always in a stupor, and hardly out of her bed, as a result becoming less aware of her physiological needs: “Maá’s never hungry” (Fraillon 3). Maá had been an eloquent writer, but with the decline of her temporal and spatial consciousness, she lost the use of language. She is unable even to utter comprehendible words: “I like Maá’s writing more. When she writes, it’s like the words seep out on to the page already perfect” (2). Maá who has been a person of writing and reading is reduced to an inert body and unreceptive mind. Similar to a person with synaesthesia, her loss of home has caused her the loss of her voice.

Refugee fatigue overtakes the lives of refugees like Maá: the experience impairs people’s speech, thinking, and their capacity for taking care of themselves and their life altogether. Maá is emotionally numb and blanched out, avoiding interaction as “she listens for a long time, and that ache in her eyes gets even louder than ever than ever before. She doesn’t say anything, but I can tell from her face that she hears something” (7). Maá islistening for some voice from past or home, and when she does not find it, her hope metamorphoses into ache in her eyes.

Severing a refugee’s past intensifies their sense of dispossession. The inmates of the detention camp are not even allowed to keep their belongings from their former lives but surrender everything they carried, including clothes and photographs. Maá tries hard to hold on to the past by storytelling. “We called ‘them her Listen Now stories, because each and every one started with ‘Listen now, Subhi. Listen now, Noor’” (34).  She wants to tell out loud her memories in the form of stories to her children so that even if  she forgets, her children will still have a piece of the past. However, eventually she succumbs to the ruthless reality, and dissociates herself from her past: “one day Maá stopped the stories. The good, happy ones as well. One day she just said, ‘No more. Looking back only brings sad, Subhi. Now look forward. No more back.’” (34).

Image by Julie Ricard on Unsplash under a CC BY licence [image depicting a Syrian refugee camp in the outskirts of Athens]. 

The disconnect between the past and present is an important cause for the refugees’ psychological malady in the detention camp. Especially, in case of the adults, who had a home and a past as well. The uncertainty of their future deepens their anguish: as Subhi explains, the disassociation with past and home leads the refugees further into the void or impacts their survival. This state is permanent with most of them, especially, Subhi’s mother who is depicted as inactive through out. Subhi observes about everyone in the camp: “because sometimes, in here, when people stop talking, and stop asking, and stop remembering, that’s when they start to lose that piece of themselves. That’s when their brains start to mush. It happens a lot.” ( 35)

Nasir is another member of the detention camp who has emotional episodes: “some days Nasir is just how he used to be, but other days he gets confused.” ( 111) . There are several other characters with varying disabilities surviving in the detention camp. The ‘fourth compound’ is allocated for the individuals with special needs or emotional complications relating to mental disorders as Subhi describes: “if your brain gets so mushed from being here that you keep on hurting yourself” ( 24).  It is the adults who suffer more as they remember what they have left far behind and can consequently envisage a different possible present, unlike the children whose epistemic horizons are limited to the realism of the camp and its miserable ways. Paradoxically, or dialectically, this blindness to the past also offers potential liberation. Children like Subhi, Eli, and Queeny live on as they do not endure the sense of loss. 

Memory becomes another extended sense of the body for the refugees. As discussed, when Maá and others slacken their grip on memory, they plunge into silence and obliviousness. The more impaired or weaker memory becomes, the more disabled refugees become in terms of navigating their lifeworld at a material level and their objective access to subjecthood. Nasir’s state confirms this, “the wide-open scared that he gets when he can’t remember where he is or why he’s here or where the rest of his family is” ( 85). Besides being emotionally distressed, Nasir also endures physical disability, being left with only one leg, leaving him open to disabling assertions of perverse, structural power when his synthetic leg is seized by the camp guards. Though he lost his leg in the violent conflicts that he fled from, he is further disabled by the hate of camp staff that manifests as symbolic violence of dehumanization as well as force enacted against the body: “Nasir hops on his crutch over to his bed. He’s only got one leg. He used to have a plastic one to go with his real one, but the Jackets took that away when he got here and never gave it back” (85). There are the others like Fara and Remi who are similarly  disabled and then deprived of their autonomy within this ostensible safe-zone: “He says it is worse for people like Fara, who is deaf and had her hearing aid taken, so that now she can’t hear the memories people tell each other to keep themselves alive in here. Or the ones like Remi, who needs medicine every day and had that taken away by the Jackets, and even the letter from his doctor was destroyed.” ( 86). Their hope for sanctuary or help is shattered, as in the case of Remi whose appeals are forlorn, caught in repetition without  leading to significant meaning except as a zero-level testifying to negation “’I thought you would help me.’ He says that over and over again” ( 86).

The fragility of these disabled individuals is negatively exposed by the force of institutional political power as imposed on subjects through camp discipline in a broadly Foucauldian sense. Their fragile’ bodies and psyche are susceptible to acts of violence carried out through law/government  or war. Their powerlessness is due to inability to exercise their will since they have no participatory agency. Characters’ agonies are multiplied by an antagonistic attitude manifested by the interests of the powerful and a formally unwelcoming situation from the perspective of maintaining the body’s autonomy. Furthermore, power can also be equated with home in its valences: refugees with disabilities are more powerless as they do not have a fixed home of residence, symbolic coordinates around the body and, in the case of those suffering from trauma, a lack of self-definition based in external language and internal narrative, and they live a life surcharged with challenges. Fragile bodies and an instable psyche are susceptible to acts of violence in the widest sense carried out through law/government and war, against which even the ’divine violence’ of refusal is not attributable to subjects here. As Fraillon’s novel suggests, fragile senses of broader autonomy are compromised by structural forces of an imbricated government and capital in which individual rights, in the sense of sovereign autonomy, remain unheard. The refugees have no voice except in the express witnessing and foregrounding of the body performed by the narrative.

Sylvia Whitman’s The Milk of Birds is a rendition of distorted and disadvantaged lives, especially those of women. It is written in an epistolary style, in which its two young female protagonist-narrators exchange accounts of their everyday experiences. The recollection of the past and the articulation of memories through the epistolary style helps the characters in the reflexive-construction of the self as a narrative subject with relative autonomy. The  characters highlight how female disabled refugees repeatedly suffer doubly on account of   additional structural inequalities like the lack of basic sanitation, provision of sanitary products and maternity amenities. Their position as refugees removes them from recourse to the global developed symbolic framework of rights relating to dignity. Furthermore, their physical agony is obscured from view and they remain invisible as subjects of lack to the rest of the world. As Whitman  points out in ”A Note from the Author,” “the western province of Darfur has largely dropped from the news. But some Sudan experts, such as Eric Reeves, warn that much of what happens in Darfur goes unreported” (369). The critic Philippa Duell-Piening quotes from the Women Refugee Commission 2008 – “Too often invisible, too often forgotten and too often overlooked, refugees with disabilities are among the most isolated, socially excluded and marginalized of all displaced populations […] those with disabilities are more limited by our actions than by their own physical and mental abilities” (663).

The Milk of Birds narrates the plight of refugees whose identity is truncated when they are reduced to their amputee bodies . The narrative portrays individuals with loss of limbs, nervous disorder and speech impairments. The sexual violence inflicted on Nawra, one of the female protagonists, alters her identity from a young girl to figurative ’spoilt meat’ as her father calls: “ In the dark I hear my father say it does not matter, for I am spoiled meat” (Whitman 83). Aside from the protagonists, notably, most of the  characters of Whitman’s novel are disabled women and children, for instance Faiza, a girl known as the “ the one-armed one who does not speak” (2). Faiza endures both physical and speech impairment. 

The lack of rehabilitation, assistance, and care for disabled characters affects their families as well. As a result, friends or family are forced to become caregivers and standby aids, with the burden of care especially put on the female relatives. Nawra is a fourteen-year-old teenager carrying a baby in her womb and her disabled mother on her back. “I carry my mother as I used to carry wounded animals from pasture, arms on one side, legs on the other, her body draped behind my neck and across my shoulders” (Whitman 3). Nawra strains under her mother’s disability, both physically and emotionally, comparing her responsibilities with the weight of rocks: “I slid my mother off my shoulders that night and crawled on the ground, groping. My knee found the rock before my hand. Then I stood. I remember how good that felt, standing straight, unburdened, just the rock in my hand” (97). 

Nawra’s mother ‘s body and mind deteriorate in synchrony through the humiliation and ill-treatment “I look to my mother, but she is not with us. In body, yes, but memories plug her ears” (82). As her mother’s caregiver and physical assistant, Nawra feels burdened and oppression:  “That heaviness is in me, too, and on my shoulders, for my mother limps with one arm over Adeeba and the other over me.” Nawra is unable even to find a walking stick for her mother, and she yearns for it. “I will buy my mother a cane of acacia wood. Perhaps with an old tree at her side, she will stand on her own feet again” (Whitman 108). This longing for walking stick for Nawra’s mother functions as a metaphor of support and financial help. Further, this tree can also be a symbol of renewed selfhood. 

The absence of rehabilitation and counselling, set within this structure, also leads to further psychological damage that extends to an ontological shattering of the characters’ self. Nawra’s mother is not only immobilised, but also has lost her ability to speak as a result of the terror she experiences: “She will not dance again, but if I could just hear her sing” (Whitman 25). Once more, her mother’s disability and withdrawal from life makes Nawra affectively destitute. She feels lonelier as her mother, a source of recognition through their familial relationship which constitute a ’home’, is unheimlich, unhomely. “Sometimes in the night I cannot sleep for the pounding of my mother’s silence” (Whitman 77).  The effect of this negative ethics is turned into an eloquently oppressive silence.

Abject poverty worsens disability, with illness and death occurring frequently. “No one has donkey milk to give the children when they cough. So many have fevers, and when the flux comes, they dissolve, like sugar in hot tea” ( 50). Necessary prenatal care is not provided in the camp in any way despite the obvious need of the pregnant refugees who are not even provided with a private space to withdraw to. Due to lack of proper care and facilities, a young mother and her baby both die in the camp. “’They say she died,’ . . . ‘Her baby died in her’” (108). Nawra, who is only fourteen-year-old requires special medical attention because of her young age. The UN volunteers provide very few birth kits which contain, “soap, a plastic sheet, demuria cloth, string, and a razor blade” (130). Conversely, Nawra endures harsh living conditions and the denial of basic human needs in the form of the negation of a ’private’ space within a public camp. “I cannot wait for elsewhere, so I wade behind the straw screen. “There I squat, but not much, for I do not want to fall into the muck” (155). Such issues are experienced through the modality of gender, which aspect of the human condition the power inscribed within this camp can only account for in terms of its very refusal to consider it and thus the disabling of the subjects whom it holds sway over: “I cannot hold my water as I used to[…]Even if I could, I would have to walk a great distance to find a private space […] death and desert ring this camp” ( 69). Here, private space does not just mean a latrine, but also, is a metonymy for female bodily needs, like, menstruation, child birth.

Both novels illustrate that the onset of disability in refugee camps is rooted in corporeal violence and sense of having been stripped naked towards an examination which is at once humiliating and blind: the ‘other’ of the system’s design is technocratic humiliation and epistemic ignorance, that which does not take into account the body. The text potentially allow us to  condemn the structural conditions that legitimize and reproduce these injuries whilst asserting that subjectivity is still more than victimhood. The refugees’ feeling of exposure and defencelessness overpowers hope and fortitude and their identities are reduced to the level of what Georg Agamben terms bare life (1999).4 In The Milk of Birds, a woman’s body is sexually assaulted in order to reclaim power by the men in the wake of larger global dispossession, epistemic uncertainty, the reaction to which manifest itself in the wages of gratification. The latter are delivered through hierarchy and the structuring fantasy of maleness, against which biological, social as well as psychological needs of women are marginalized:  here disability and gender  are categories of the excluded ’Other’.  Zainab and other female inhabitants of the camp are raped by groups of men both other refugees and guards who want to reassert their masculinity. Nawra recounts the episode of her mother’s physical assault, leading to the loss of legs and orthopaedic disability – “ he borrowed another’s gun and shot her foot” (Whitman 314). The refugees are considered as mobile bodies2, rather than individuals, and amongst these bodies,  biologically female bodies are doubly used, exploited, and broken3 . They are forced to be on move regardless any disability or illness: like Nawra’s mother who has to move despite her inability to walk or at least carried. The women are used and discarded: “They left us on the ground at the edge of the camp. My mother did not cry, but in the dark I could feel the wetness of her blood and feared she would die” ( 314). These violated and mutilated bodies surrender their power of speech. Nawra explains to Zeinab, “’There are many who do not speak in the camp,’ I say. ’And some whose words make no sense’” (161). 

To conclude, those individuals who have suffered what are broadly classifiable as disabilities, as incapacities, constitute, “the most invisible … among the uprooted” (396 Harris). The corporeal violence conjoined with harsh refugee conditions further disable these individuals in terms of their in-group and internally constitutive as well as external power of narration. Furthermore, refugee or internally displaced women in both texts are subjected to heightened atrocities and bodily harm on account of their sex. The valences of suffering in these texts read through gender-grounded critical heuristics therefore “ reveal the socio-cultural constraints facing women who, as bearers of culture and the social reproduction of norms and values, become subject to new forms of control and victimisation during emergencies” (Martin, 24).


1. See Assad, Lava. Literature with a White Helmet. Routledge, 2020.

2. See Assad, Lava. Literature with a White Helmet.

3. See Buckley-Zistel, Susanne and Ulrike Krause. Gender, Violence, Refugees: Studies in Forced Migration. Burghan, 2017.

4. Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Standford UP, 1998.


Anjum Khan, “Disabled and Deprived: Reading Refugee Narrative in the Light of
Disability”, Alluvium, Volume 8, No 3. (2020). n:pag. Web 7 December 2020. DOI:  https://doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v8.3.03

Dr. M. Anjum Khan is working as assistant professor of English in Avinashilingam Institute for Home Science and Higher Education for Women, Coimbatore. She has 7 years of teaching experience and 10 years of research experience. Her areas of research have been British Literature, Immigrant Canadian Literature and Cultural Literary Theories. However, she is interested in teaching subjects like history, literature, disability studies, and literary theories. She is author of 2 books – Ethnic Silhouettes, M.G. Vassanji in the Light of New Historicism and Narrating Bodies, Reading Anosh Irani. She has published several research articles in reputed national and international journals, chapters in books and presented papers in national and international conferences and has conducted workshops on journalism and assistive technology. She has also delivered motivational speeches in colleges and corporate institutes.

Works Cited

Duell-Piening, Philippa. “Refugee resettlement and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.” Disability & Society. 33.5 (2018) 661 – 684.

Fraillon, Zana. The Bone Sparrow. New York: Hyperion, 2016.

Harris, Jennifer. “All Doors are Closed to Us’: A social model analysis of the experiences of disabled refugees and asylum seekers in Britain.” Disability & Society. 18.4 (June 2003) 395 – 410.

Martin, Susan F. “UNHCR Policy on Refugee Women A 25-Year Retrospectives.” Gender, Violence, Refugees: Studies in Forced Migration. Eds. Susanne Buckley-Zistel and Ulrike Krause. New York: Berghahn Books 2017.

McPherson, Jacob I. “Traumatic brain injury among refugees and asylum seekers.” Disability and Rehabilitation. 41.10 (Dec. 2017) 1238 – 1248. https://doi.org/10.1080/09638288.2017.1422038

Whitman, Sylvia. The Milk of Birds. Simon and Shooster, 2013.

One Reply to “Disabled and Deprived: Reading Refugee Narrative in the Light of Disability”

  1. Khan’s reading here potentially opens up how both texts bodies are intertwined with neurostates: the loss of memory is understandable as a loss of home and praxis, with trauma-induced absences made to mimic the social amnesia of alienation from (a) home and (b) past practices that make up a ‘home from home’, whilst living in a state of nomadic transition.

    Also readable against this are signs of nomadic productivity- or, extending Khan’s analysis, counterpower in Foucaultian terms – which constitute a home. Antinomies of ability and disability echo the Hegelian dialectic as well as the terminal world-systemic ground of Lukacsian transcendent homelessness. Figures within the text themselves ground readings in a literature of testifying to symbolic dereliction or aporia, a survival which is a form of bare-life, universalised but rendered through those most marginalized. Behind this are world systems, the enormous presence of which constitutes, for Khan, violence against an ethics of care; within depictions of the refugee camp, It’s possible to read a cicroethics of care for the ‘other’ within the familiar (and vice versa) narratively tested to its limit. Suffering does not automatically lead to class-consciousness; nevertheless, the scale of knowledge for readers rests in identifying those “smaller-than-national locations” (after Sara Upstone, 85) of the body and its immediate community as existing at “a scale larger than the national, yet at the same time [resting upon] the significance of place in order to reflect the geospecific impact” where the liquid force of capital and generation of war immanent within the world system makes itself palpable. That is, what are classified as physical and mental impairments constitute here both ‘Narrative Prosthesis’, in Mitchell and Snyder’s terms (2013), and a transcendence of the metaphorical terrain of impairment. Even in bodies which have been maimed and minds shattered, a potenza (Negri) or power of bodies working together to form a home of action exists, which does not rely upon a Cartesian cogito with regards to memory or stability, inheres.
    In addition, as is clear form this essay, genderedness is read as along the axis of marginalization, acknowledging the asymmetrical burden of reproductive labour and the disproportionate, culturally-mediated material effects of forcible precarity. One way of thinking this is the position of Woman as the ‘other’ within systems of agglomerated power, alongside the uncanny position of woman as universal subject in Slavoj Zizek’s Lacanian reversal, analogous to the ‘class subject’ or the ‘other’ within the system’s lifeworld.

    Homes are thus found within states of destitution and exception, include non-verbal testifying as well as the experience of an epistemological uncanny; this in turn encourages reflection upon the work of the novel in cognitively mapping (after that famous Fredric Jameson concept). Subjectivities – potential and dictated by world structures – evade not only the suffering subject’s immediate gaze but that of their interlocutors.

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