Homelessness, Borders, and the Displaced Youth: Understanding Young Refugees through Fictional Narratives

By Anindita Shome

Content warning: contains descriptions of graphic violence and sexual assault

Fictional narratives can play a critical role when it comes to understanding the lived experiences of refugees and the displaced. Barbara Korte and Laura Lojo-Rodriguez, for example, have emphasised how fiction can depict the “semantic richness of borders, border spaces and bordering processes” (9). Away from the media reports on refugees and asylum seekers, which often simplistically aim to either humanize or dehumanize them, fiction can find other ways to narrate the complexities and nuances of refugee experiences and representations. These fictional narratives can act as interventions and spaces of resistance that challenge the ‘othering’ of refugees. The increased awareness of the predicaments that refugees face in their lives, especially youth refugees, can be seen in the narratives of Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West (2017) and Atia Abawi’s A Land of Permanent Goodbyes (2018). These stories can lead to a deconstruction of our accepted ideas of how individuals and countries face intense and ongoing challenges and conflicts. Furthermore, these novels also engage with Judith Butler’s significant question: “Is our capacity to mourn in global dimensions foreclosed precisely by the failure to conceive of Muslim and Arab lives as lives?” (12).

This article considers Hamid’s Exit West and Abawi’s A Land of Permanent Goodbyes to gauge how fiction represents youth refugees and asylum seekers from Syria and Afghanistan, the ethical challenges of capturing the refugee crisis in Europe, and how youth refugees negotiate their uprooted lives, their state of homelessness, and jeopardised futures. This article draws on Homi Bhabha’s theory of the Third Space (2004: 55) to understand the plight of young refugees, and how the spaces they occupy, as Bhabha details, cannot be reduced to the binaries of East and West. It aims at shifting the discourses of pity or anger on refugees, as detailed in Eugenia Siapera’s study on the emerging, alternate solidarity discourses around refugees’ experiences in Europe (2019). Claire Gallien’s work gives further depth to these issues:

“[i]t may be that the literary category ‘refugee’ fulfils various and sometimes conflicting purposes, including serving the market, repairing psychological and moral traumas, articulating political resistance, and renewing English literature. A scrupulous reading allows postcolonial critics to highlight these shifts and to analyse the generic anxiety that constitutes refugee literature” (740).

I will detail some of the socio-political contexts of youth refugee experiences that perpetuate these states of homelessness, and I will then engage with close readings of how these issues are represented in Exit West and A Land of Permanent Goodbyes.

The fragile and hazardous conditions of human lives caught up in the turmoil of war are visually represented across mass media, but these attempts at empathy do not often translate into concrete reforms or policies, as refugees and asylum seekers continue to remain trapped in the politics of citizenship and (un)belonging in their host nations (Harvey). Lenette and Cleland assert that these visual representations of refugees and asylum seekers can both humanize and dehumanize the refugee crisis (11-12). What arguably remains most appalling is the situation of young refugees, who lack stable homes and support systems, and have to undertake life-threatening journeys into unknown futures.

Gloria Anzaldúa defines “border culture” as the culture of a third country where the ‘other’ is constructed, and where the divisions between safe and unsafe lands become pronounced. She writes:

 “Borders are set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them. A border is a dividing line, a narrow strip along a steep edge. A borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary. It is in a constant state of transition. The prohibited and forbidden are its inhabitants.” (1987: 3),

Anzaldúa’s emotionally charged and ‘unnatural’ borders strongly resonates with the plight of Syrian and Afghan youth refugees. These young refugees, who have left their unsafe homelands, become homeless refugees the moment they cross borders, by land or water, in search of a safer country. The act of crossing borders can turn these youth refugees from legal citizens of a nation into illegal immigrants of the world. The dehumanization that these refugees often face at borders, and then in their new host nations, frequently fails to engage with the refugees as humans in crisis, with lost homes and disoriented lives. Menjívar and Perreira, in their study on unaccompanied minor migrants from the Global South to the US and the EU, contend that during the young migrants’ journey they “[b]ecome part of larger unauthorised migratory flows and upon arrival at their destination, the receiving government officials can more easily classify them as unauthorised migrants (and not as asylum seekers) if the immigrant minor does not state their intention to seek asylum” (206).

The political contexts of several nations, particularly in the Global North, have been dominated by the flows of refugees fleeing from war-torn nation-states, predominantly from the Global South. Youth refugees form a significant part of the entire refugee narrative due to their transitional phase into adulthood, which can lead to multiple levels of marginalisation and subjugation at the host nations. This article will consider how these key issues and questions are engaged with in Hamid and Abawi’s novels; how do youth refugees react to their unsettled lives? How does the widespread suspicion and racial bigotry that they face impact their identities and futures? Finally, how do youth refugees negotiate their states of literal and symbolic homelessness? UNHCR’s Engagement with Displaced Youth states: “Living in a state of ‘limbo’- often with no access to post-primary education, without opportunities to exercise their choice of livelihood, or even the rights to work as is the case in many countries, with no immediate durable solution to their situation, impacts on young people’s abilities to envision a future or create a life plan for themselves.” (14)

We can begin to shed light on these questions by looking at definitions of homelessness. Shelter Scotland states: “The definition of homelessness means not having a home. You don’t have to be living on the street to be homeless – even if you have a roof over your head you can still be without a home. This may be because you don’t have any rights to stay where you live or your home is unsuitable for you” (n.p.). Border regimes and their policing practises create the conditions where homeless refugees face other injustices (Loftus). For example, the narrator of Abawi’s A Land of Permanent Goodbyes recounts what homelessness means to the refugees: “They don’t realize that they likely will never have a true home again. Doomed never to be a part of their new world and forever ripped from their old” (63). Refugee fiction, such as Abawi’s, narrows the gap between perceived “insiders” and “outsiders”, as the stories can express lives, cultures, communities and places that seem unfamiliar to the readers, opening up new discourses of understanding and empathy.

The Migration Data Portal, taking in the UN DESA data, details that there are approximately 11.4 young migrants out of the total migrant population, and that this 11.4 per cent young migrants account for 2.6 percent of the total youth populations across the world. Borders, state forces, and other forms of conflict, work together to dispossess youth refugees of their agency and individual autonomy. The EU border regime plays a critical role in working with migrant-sending and transit nation-states, and determining their border practices (Ryan, 2019; Berg and Ehin, 2006). When displaced and left homeless, these youth refugees often experience harsh treatment as “unwelcome” bodies in the host nations, thus, placing them into a life of contestations and a status of “outsiders”, pitting them against the natives and “insiders” of a country.

Photograph by Radek Homola on Unsplash [photograph depicts border infrastructure with graffiti ‘No Border No Nation’]

Salman Rushdie writes of exiled writers, “It may be that writers in my position, exiles or emigrants or expatriates, are haunted by some sense of loss, some urge to reclaim, to look back, even at the risk of being mutated into pillars of salt” (10). Rushdie’s sense of ‘exile haunted by loss’ could be seen to stand true for youth refugees as well. The unliveable situation at home forces them to undertake dangerous journeys to ‘safer’ yet stranger lands. Furthermore, youth refugees carry with them this sense of loss as they navigate life in their host nations, as Hamid writes in Exit West, “but that is the way of things, for when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind” (59). Edward Said has said of the state of exile and the insurmountable sadness attached to it, that “it is the unbearable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home…” (137). The rift between the homeland and youth refugees, as well the rift that always exists between the host nation and the youth refugees, pulsate throughout Hamid’s and Abawi’s narratives.

The experiences of youth refugees are significant as children and young adults need support systems and structures to help them mature into adults. Koehler and Schneider (2019) highlight the challenges of the support systems in the European education system for refugees and other immigrant children in Europe. Hamid narrates youth refugee experiences in Turkey, Greece, London, and the USA, while Abawi’s young protagonist experiences life as a refugee in Turkey and Germany. Hamid does not name the country of origin of his two protagonists, while Abawi’s characters are from Syria and Afghanistan. The characters’ experiences in these places emphatically reiterate the lopsided power relations between the host nations and refugees. The young characters keep moving from one country to another in the hope of finding a less hostile environment for their survival, living in refugee camps and finding menial jobs.

 A Land of Permanent Goodbyes traces the life of a young refugee, Tareq, from Syria, who loses most of his family members to the war and is forced to flee the land with his father, young sister and cousin to avoid the conflict and stay alive. With refugees, there is always the doubled pain of having abandoned their homeland alongside the tormenting sense that they might have left earlier, before the war engulfed the rest of their lives and families – a sense that is manifested throughout Abawi’s novel. Tareq’s father decides to move the surviving members of his family out of Syria, “a decision he would regret putting off for the rest of his life, as the ghosts of his other children and wife constrict his every breath” (31). Abawi’s novel details how “at every border by military and police, some beating them, others yelling as if they were stray dogs chomping on a pie left on the windowsill”, until Tareq protests that every host nation the refugees enter, they are treated as if they have committed a crime, and are told to “[j]ust keep moving north, there you will figure out” (204). A Land of Permanent Goodbyes narrates the forced journeys of its central characters to reveal the intense difficulties involved in their states of homelessness, and their physical and emotional struggles to locate a stable home.

Hamid’s Exit West narrates the lives of a young refugee couple who, after fleeing from their war-torn homeland, begin using different doors to magically transport themselves to places where refugees might remain safe. These magic doors symbolize the gaps through which refugees and other displaced individuals enter nation-states where they are not welcome, transforming the borders of nation-states into something fluid, and undermining those same borders which are rigidly guarded and are under constant surveillance. Hamid tells the readers: “It was said in those days that the passage was both like dying and like being born, and indeed Nadia experienced a kind of extinguishing as she entered the blackness and a gasping struggle as she fought to exit it, and she felt cold and bruised and damp as she lay on the floor of the room at the other side…” (Hamid 62). Such scenes capture the physical dangers and exertions which refugees experience while crossing borders, and how they are part of the process that render them as illegal bodies and ‘othered’.

Photograph by Mike Lorusso on Unsplash [photograph of barbed wire over a skyline]

The magical realism and the fluid concepts of time, place and travel in the novel resonate with the transient and uncertain lives of the youth refugee characters. The young protagonists in Exit West, Saeed and Nadia, nurture dreams of travelling to far-off lands, “So we both want to go to Latin America.’ He grinned. ‘The Atacama Desert. The air is so dry, so clear, and there’s so few people, almost no lights. And you can lie on your back and look up and see the Milky Way…” (20). In contrast with their aspirations, the journeys they undertake are out of fear for their lives at home, and the paths to escape or ‘exit’ their homes are laden with mortal risks. “They knew there was a possibility the agent had sold them out to the militants, and so they knew there was a possibility this was the final afternoon of their lives” (61). This situation of the youth refugees in Exit West is in stark contrast to the legal citizens or immigrants in Europe, who have the agency of movement across borders, while the refugees lack the legal status or resources to freely travel.

Both novelsemphasise the helplessness of their characters against various forces; state forces, the forces behind wars, and the forces that decide who has the right to live in a country and who does not. The bombed-out and collapsing buildings which destroy homes and families, and the eventual search for a safer home in strangers’ lands, define the trajectories of these young lives, who experience homelessness through the conflicts at home and the harsh policies against refugees in the host nations abroad. We witness this terrible violence in Abawi’s novel, as “Tareq stared at the bodies of his baby brothers. His eyes were as lifeless as their small bodies, which lay on a shared hospital trolley. Ameer wore the white booties their grandmother had knitted for him, and Sameer the yellow” (27). In Exit West, “Saeed’s neighborhood had fallen to the militants, and small-scale fighting had diminished nearby, but large bombs still dropped from the sky and exploded with an awesome power that brought to mind the might of nature itself” (Hamid 50).

Ahmed, a 25-year-old Syrian youth in A Land of Permanent Goodbyes, has lost his future as a doctor in the Syrian war: “Once the war broke out, Ahmed’s plans for his future came to an end. No longer able to study, he decided the only way to help his fellow Syrians was by joining the Syrian Civil Defense—an organization full of men and women who rushed toward the fire while everyone else ran away from it” (Abawi 24). The novel, through the descriptions of the conflict in Syria, reminds us of the countless young lives that are wasted in political strife and contentions, “Tareq will never know that for a moment she saw her grandson in him, a teenager who died in this relentless war. A boy who was forced to fight for something he didn’t believe in.” (35-36)

Critical race theory has provided a lens for many studies concerning youth refugees (Strekalova-Hughes, E. Thomas,), and it can help us understand the uneven power relations that make distinctions of who belongs in the political narratives of host nations, and how refugees can face a nativist backlash. Furthermore, a deeper interrogation of the ‘other’ and breaking down the binaries between West and the East might lead to a better understanding of how the integration of displaced individuals can lead to lives of stability. Young refugees frequently confront microaggressions in their host nations, through a politics of exclusion that forms part of the metanarratives of various social and racial hierarchies – hierarchies which reinforce the narratives of insiders and outsiders of a nation. Youth refugees navigate racism that exists structurally and institutionally in the policies, legal institutions, and social environments of their host nations. As the narrator in A Land of Permanent Goodbyes puts it: “After risking their lives to make it here, they now faced deportation. In the hierarchy of who got their papers registered by European Union officials, Syrians were priority while others shimmied up, down and off the list in the eyes of EU law on any given day” (Abawi 182). 

The gendered experiences of refugee youths, and in particular the sexual exploitations experienced in their journeys and the refugee camps, are depicted in Awabi’s novel. Tareq learns about Muzhgan, another refugee youth, that “her smuggler in Turkey had repeatedly raped her before he finally set her free […] The camps didn’t have the capabilities to help with these circumstances, so she was left to cope on her own. The best they could hope for was help when they landed in their final destination—but even that was unlikely” (200).  A Land of Permanent Goodbyes sheds light on how there are a select few who are growing richer by the crisis, such as the illegal agents who put migrants on unsafe boats, thus, highlighting how this business made out of human tragedy is morbid and tragic.  “A once proud people, many Syrians have been forced to endure lives of squalor and indignity. Some forced into prostitution, others used as slave labor. The tourist spots of Istanbul are now filled with children selling tissues to help feed their families” (Abawi 63).

Photograph by Matteo Paganelli on Unsplash [photograph depicts a mural welcoming refugees]

In Abawi’s novel, Alexia, a young volunteer from the US who is from an immigrant family, helps refugees in Greece. She deliberates, while sitting at the graves of dead refugees, on the refugees who are alive and who have managed to enter Europe: “They were no longer the people they had worked their lives to become. They were no longer the people they were born as. At the will of a war, they went from being doctors, lawyers, storekeepers, students, mothers, fathers, daughters and sons to refugees, foreigners, freeloaders, terrorists, enemies. Labels that didn’t represent their true selves.” (206)

These young refugees are constantly pursued by violence as they flee their homelands to their new host nations in these novels. Saeed and Nadia of Exit West wonder, after the electricity is cut off in the areas of London where many refugees are living, as to what divides the people that live on the safer and brighter parts of London, to those that live in the dark of the city, who are unsure where they might end up the next day. These novels seem to suggest that if these host nations looked beyond the binaries of insiders and outsiders, and worked harder to humanize refugee experiences, then many young refugees might be assured of far more stable and safer homes and lives. As Tareq tells the readers: “We swam through our country’s blood and corpses barely keeping our heads afloat to breathe, to survive and to live another day. We left our homes, we left our history. We left our loved ones without the time to mourn them. We brought our hearts, but they have been shattered into tiny pieces. We didn’t come here to harm you, we’ve come to heal” (210). While the representations of refugees in sensationalised news media images and reports are so often dehumanising, refugee literature could open up spaces of discussions, diversities in representation of refugee experiences, and even create new discourses of empathy, homes, and homelessness.


Anindita Shome, “Homelessness, Borders, and the Displaced Youth: Understanding Young Refugees through Fictional Narratives,” Alluvium, Vol. 8, No. 3 (2020): n.pag. Web 7 December 2020. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v8.3.05

About the Author

Twitter: @Anindita1089

Anindita Shome is a Ph.D. Candidate at the UGC Centre for the Study of Indian Diaspora, University of Hyderabad, India. Her research interests lie in the literary and socio-cultural aspects of the South Asian migration and diaspora. She takes a keen interest in the areas of Youth Studies, Digital Humanities, and Transnational Studies. She can be reached at: anindita1089@gmail.com and on Twitter at @Anindita1089

Works Cited

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Bhabha, Homi K. (2004). The Location of Culture. London: Routledge.

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Gallien, Claire. (2018). Forcing displacement: The postcolonial interventions of refugee literature and arts, Journal of Postcolonial Writing, 54:6, 735-750, DOI: 10.1080/17449855.2018.1551268

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Menjívar, Cecilia & Krista M. Perreira. (2019). ‘Undocumented and unaccompanied: children of migration in the European Union and the United States’, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 45:2, 197-217 https://doi.org/10.1080/1369183X.2017.1404255

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Strekalova-Hughes, Ekaterina. (2019). Unpacking Refugee Flight: Critical Content Analysis of Picturebooks Featuring Refugee Protagonists. International Journal of Multicultural Education. 21. 23-44. 10.18251/ijme.v21i2.1871.

Thomas, E. (2012). “What is racism in the new EU anyway?” Examining and comparing the perceptions of British ‘minority ethnic’ and Eastern European ‘immigrant’ youth in Buckinghamshire, Doctoral thesis, University of Cambridge, https://pure.northampton.ac.uk/en/studentTheses/what-is-racism-in-the-new-eu-anyway-examining-and-comparing-the-p-2

8 Replies to “Homelessness, Borders, and the Displaced Youth: Understanding Young Refugees through Fictional Narratives”

  1. The reason this makes a lot of sense is that when we watch news channels and movies portraying refugees, the idea is simple, to get more and more views – and therefore they tend to only bring out the half truth.
    Thank you for this excellent work.

    1. Thank you so much. I am glad you agree with the arguments in the article, and you bring out an important aspect and motive behind the media representations of the refugee crisis.

  2. Some great ideas portrayed in a fluent manner. The write up in itself is quiet essentially well researched and carries lot of critical thinking reflecting the in-depth understanding of such pity states of refuge and asylum programs across the globe. The reference to other literally work brings up the necessary validation of the ideas and the included statistics go a step further to put the impact in perspective. Indeed a very well structured, smooth flowing article which is worth the read and includes some complex set of thoughts for readers to take away with them. Enjoyed it 🙂

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