One evening while watching the news, Atia Abawi was struck by the faces of young Syrian refugees. It was 2015, and she was curled up in her Jerusalem apartment nursing her infant son.
“I was seeing mothers and fathers pushing strollers along busy European highways and through muddy fields,” she says. “They were placing their babies in rubber dinghies that could sink at any moment. And I thought about how blessed I was that my parents had taken a similar risk decades earlier.”
Abawi’s parents fled Afghanistan a month before she was born, in the wake of the Soviet invasion of 1979. They eventually found refuge in the United States. “If my parents hadn’t decided to leave when they did,” she says, “I wouldn’t have been in this safe, comfortable apartment taking care of my child.”
At the time of the news broadcast, Abawi had begun working on a book, but she quickly switched its focus to the plight of Syrian refugees. She traveled to Turkey and then to Greece to conduct research. On the island of Lesbos, she saw remnants of families who had taken the perilous journey.
“I saw thousands and thousands of lifejackets, along with battered boats and lost baby clothes,” she says. “It was jarring and depressing and gutting.”
She also visited a cemetery dotted everywhere with fresh mounds of dirt, some just large enough to cover a child. “People were literally dying in their struggle to survive,” she says. “But staying behind was a much worse option.”
The chance to tell people’s stories was the reason Abawi had wanted to be a journalist. After earning her communication degree from Virginia Tech in 2003, she joined CNN — where she eventually became the Afghanistan correspondent — and then NBC. But as a broadcast journalist, she had at most two minutes to share a story. She decided to turn to novels.
Her first book, the critically acclaimed The Secret Sky, is set in Afghanistan. Her second, A Land of Permanent Goodbyes, follows the harrowing escape of a young Syrian refugee. Both Iowa and Texas recently chose that 2018 book for their statewide reading programs.
“With my novels, I’ve been able to go deeper into complex stories,” Abawi says. “I’ve been able to share the truth in a way I could never do as a journalist.”
Written by Paula Byron; this story first appeared in the 2018–19 issue of Illumination