Warsan: Orphan, Refugee, Leader
Born in a country riddled with discrimination against women, Warsan Weedhsan fought her way out and found herself a refugee in Jakarta, Indonesia.
“You can be a writer.”
“No, my English is not good enough.”
“This is not the kind of English I can show to people.”
“Don’t call me a writer.”
Warsan Weedhsan chuckles as she recalls the many doubts she had when Natalia, a journalist, encouraged her to follow her dream of being a writer. After all, refugees aren’t expected to have dreams, they’re expected to survive.
For 28-year-old Warsan, taking that leap of faith was nerve-wracking. Natalia was the first person to read her writing and had encouraged her to put herself out there.
All her life, she had been told otherwise.
From the age of seven, Warsan had to fend for herself. She had lost her family and spent her childhood growing up within the confines of an orphanage. In war-torn East Africa, where patriarchal roots run deep and where people derive a sense of identity from the clan they belong to, Warsan had the odds stacked against her. Being part of a clan is extremely important - to get married, to build wealth, to own property, and most importantly, to belong. An orphan female with no family or clan meant she was defenceless against the discrimination she faced.
“Family and community will tell you: ‘You are a woman. All your life [you’ll] end up cooking, cleaning and having kids. That’s good for you’.”
In school, Warsan faced constant bullying. But the words of her teacher and role model became the mantra that she relied on.
“If you learn well and never give up [on] your education, all your dreams [will] come true.”
Those words from her teacher struck a chord with her and till today, remain close to her heart.
The moment she learnt to write, Warsan journalled avidly. It was her special secret place. A place where she could hear herself clearly, where she held all her power in her hands and where she didn’t need anyone’s help. In her journals, she detailed memories of her life and dreamt of being a writer one day.
A dream that got crushed, when at age 16, she was brutally assaulted.
This prompted her to flee her country as it was getting too dangerous. The teenager was smuggled out of East Africa via plane and arrived in Malaysia with no one but herself to depend on. After three months in Malaysia, Warsan decided to head to Indonesia as word on the street was that it was better to settle down there.
Driven by the need to survive, Warsan was determined to learn the local language. Everyday she would spend hours on her mobile phone watching YouTube, learning English first and then Bahasa.
“Learning English is for survival but learning Bahasa is for peace of mind.”
As she became more fluent in Bahasa, Warsan began finding her footing in her new home. She formed new friendships with the local Indonesians and strengthened the bonds within the refugee community. She is now an interpreter, a teacher and a leader, championing for women's and refugee rights.
In 2019, Warsan connected with Kieran Kresevic Salaza, a foreign student doing a thesis on the refugee situation in Indonesia.
“I told Kieran that I wanted to become a writer, but I didn't know how to do it,” Warsan recalls. “Then Kieren suggested starting a writers workshop to help the refugee community.”
In October that year, Kieren flew to Indonesia to meet Warsan and together they started the writers workshops. To get the word out, Warsan created flyers with an application link and shared it with the community.
“I imagined maybe 10 to 20 people will apply,” shares Warsan, “but the application link was broken the next day as there were 99 applicants!”
“We came together and we introduced ourselves, ‘I’m Somalian’, ‘I’m Afghan’, ‘I’m Sudanase’. And [I realised] everybody has a dream like me.”
The workshop was a massive success and the team continued the meetings until the end of 2019 when 20 writers had their own projects. That was when Warsan and Kieran launched the website, and called it The Archipelago.
“Archipelago is the name of the islands of Indonesia and Australia,” Warsan explains, alluding to her friendship with Kieran. “Our website is creating a network with the world’s writers. Not only refugees. Our mission is to support refugees, but we also want to build a network to integrate everyone.”
The passion to write, to learn, to express herself has helped her navigate the perils of life. But it has also helped her forge a community and build an existence, whilst remaining stateless.
“When I write something, I don’t say I'm a refugee writer, I say I’m a real writer.”