Journey from refugee camp to best-selling author: ‘Confessions of a War Child’
Journey from refugee camp to best-selling author: Chaker Khazaal
‘Confessions of a War Child’
“I loved living in a refugee camp,” admits 28-year-old Chaker Khazaal, “I hated the unfairness of life, but I loved having so many friends in a square kilometre.
There were twenty thousand people living there, my cousins, my family, everyone. It was a struggle, but I wouldn’t say it was my greatest struggle.”
Khazaal is a third-generation Palestinian refugee, but more than that he’s a writer, reporter, public speaker, winner of the prestigious Global Leader of Tomorrow Award, and author of the compelling and best-selling ‘Confessions of a War Child’ trilogy.
Khazaal grew up in a refugee camp in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War, ultimately leaving to study film production in York University, Toronto. So what does Khazaal credit his greatest struggle in life?
“You’re going to laugh at this, but my greatest struggle in life was a break up.”
Everyone can relate to the heartbreak that goes hand-in-hand with any young romance, but Khazaal tells this story to make a point, actively challenging the perceived stereotypes that all refugees face.
“Refugees are like everyone else in the world, the media always portrays them as these poor people who are victims — and they are victims, they are poor because they are displaced and they have no home — but there’s also a human face to refugees that is not getting its attention in the media, and that’s the story of refugees falling in love, getting married or having a party.”
This is the focus of Khazaal’s latest project, ‘Love Under Bullets’, a documentary project that shares loves stories from conflict areas.
“It doesn’t have to be the love that Romeo and Juliet have, it’s the love between brothers, sisters, friends, between families, between lovers. I mean, I’m a romantic at heart so there is going to be a focus on that,” says Khazaal.
“I want it to tell refugees that ‘no, you are normal people’. The solution is not only focused on seeing how bad things are. I want it to tell them that they are like everyone else in the world. I mean who doesn’t fall in love? Who doesn’t break up?”
The refugee crisis has been well documented in the headlines, but what frustrated Khazaal the most are the implications that such blanket coverage has on its audience.
“I would switch channels and all I would see is video that basically said ‘you should all feel bad for the refugees’.
“I am a former refugee and I hated it when people felt bad for me. When you feel sorry for someone all the time, I think you destroy a part of them. You destroy a part of their dignity. You destroy their very essence of life.”
Khazaal doesn’t value sympathy, instead putting precedence on education, employment, opportunity and nationality.
“By feeling bad for them, you don’t enable them. In order to help a refugee, before you pour money in to aid that gets wasted most of the time, the best thing is to actually invest in a human being.”
Khazaal hails from the Bourj El Barajneh refugee camp in Lebanon.
It was his grandparents who first settled there after being displaced from Palestine. Both he and his parents were born in the camp; however, due to strict rules on nationality none can be considered Lebanese nationals.
Stateless Palestinians are denied many basic rights, including being barred from certain professions and limited access to education, health and public services.
There are over 1.5 million refugees that live in one of 58 recognised refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, but Khazaal is no longer one of them.
“Before I received my Canadian citizenship, I had a Palestinian travel document. With that I couldn’t really travel anywhere, it was a big challenge. I had to get a visa everywhere, and because it’s not technically a passport I was always stopped and questioned.”
Khazaal was spotted by Palestinian film maker Hisham Kayed as a child. After starring in the documentary ‘Sugar of Jaffa’, Kayed helped him apply for several university scholarships.
It was York University in Toronto that accepted him, and ultimately gave him the chance to claim citizenship.
“Getting citizenship was the happiest day of my life. I could go to airports and security didn’t ask me a thing. They just scanned my passport. I love Canada, it’s the place I call home now.”
For a majority of Palestinian refugees, finding a new home is a top priority.
“The majority of Palestinian refugees are sick and tired of refugee camps, sick and tired of promises by the Palestinian Authority for the right to return. They just want to start a new life, that’s it really.”
Now the author of a best-selling trilogy, with another book in the pipeline, and having just been named the Esquire Middle East ‘Man of the Year’, Khazaal is undoubtedly doing his new life justice. But that’s not to say he’s forgotten where he came from.
“I’m still in touch with everyone from the camp. I’m going there next week and I’m friends with everyone. When I got the Esquire Man of the Year award, everyone celebrated in the refugee camp that I come from. It was touching.”
Khazaal has spoken on behalf of refugees in a number of humanitarian organisations, including the United Nations, but his proudest achievement so are his books.
“I have been a storyteller for a while. There was a very unfortunate event that happened to a friend’s brother, who passed away at a young age. It was tragic, and sometimes when you are exposed to tragedy art comes out as a result. Writing was my art. So I started writing my first book back in 2012.”
With more writing projects on the horizon, Khazaal admits he doesn’t really stick to a life plan (“I love going with the flow”) and instead credits his achievements to having a dream.
“I’m a big dreamer, and I think this is one of the advantages of being a refugee. Or for being any person going through a hardship in life, you dream better. And dreaming is the essence of actually doing something. You dream it, you work hard, and it transforms you in to a persistent, resistant person. I have always dreamed big, and I still dream now.”
Khazaal’s emphasis on dreaming for something greater is a direct response from growing up in a refugee camp. “Humanitarian organisations go inside camps and help refugees, but sometimes they can make people feel inferior. Don’t get me wrong, they do a great job, but I am speaking out of experience,” he says.
“You know, sometimes when aid workers came in to the camps with their cameras, they would film us kids on the street. I was filmed. Yes, it’s great for raising awareness, but no one ever asked me to sign a waiver to use my picture. Back in Canada or the United States you need to provide permission to use someone’s picture, so why weren’t we treated the same way in the camps?”
It seems Khazaal is not simply content with dreaming big for himself, but goes out of his way to inspire others. And while his latest project, Love Under Bullets, is another stellar example, it’s surely just the beginning of an inspirational career.