The Boy with Two Hearts is a memoir by Hamed Amiri that follows a family of five from Herat, Afghanistan. In 2000, Fariba Amiri publicly spoke out against the Taliban and in favour of women’s rights. Within days, the Taliban responded by ordering her execution. The mother of three had to flee the country with her children and husband Mohammed, in search of a better life. The Amiri family swiftly sold their belongings to raise money to pay human traffickers and say goodbye to their loved ones before escaping. They embark on a long, treacherous journey through Europe, with their sights set firmly on the UK. The UK is one of the few places their eldest son can receive the treatment he desperately needs.
The book is written in the first person, and the story is told from Hamed Amiri’s point of view. Hamed is the middle child and one of the ‘three musketeers’, alongside younger brother Hessam and older brother Hussein, who has serious heart rhythm problems. The book opens shortly before the family leave Herat when Hamed is around 10 years old. Straight away, Hamed brings readers on this journey with his family. The anticipation builds considerably as the family prepare to leave their home and loved ones forever.
At times, The Boy with Two Hearts felt like a thriller or adventure novel. The writing is captivating. The author, Hamed, tells the story so effectively, and in a way that leaves readers always wanting more. I love the way he describes his younger self’s thought processes, his reactions and the way he attempts to make sense of what’s happening around him. He also describes atmospheres, surroundings and people with a level of detail that makes it easy to imagine the scene in your head.
“I wonder now in what other circumstances you would get into the car of a complete stranger in the middle of a jungle. And yet, we were so relieved to see someone, to not be abandoned in the middle of nowhere, that we would have done anything without question. We were desperate, and it had become normal for us to do what strangers told us.”
The first half of the book is full of suspense and tension. The Amiri family experienced numerous setbacks on their journey and found themselves in scary situations as they made their way through Europe. For instance, young Hamed is chased, and almost caught, by Russian police officers, and at a later stage, the family are robbed at gunpoint in Germany, leaving them penniless. They encountered other refugee families along the way and were often reminded that others in similar situations did not reach their desired destinations and met rather bleak fates.
The Boy with Two Hearts makes it clear how risky this journey was for the family and what was at stake for them. The uncertainty of not knowing what lies ahead or what country you’ll end up in next, the fear of being found out and sent back to Afghanistan was always at the front of their minds. Keeping a low profile and getting from Point A to B without detection is their top priority but that’s easier said than done. Unfortunately, this entailed long car rides squashed up together in the boot, hiding in the backs of lorries and shipping containers among other things. Also, the sheer stress of this unpredictable journey was exacerbated by Hussein’s condition. Knowing that his condition can flare up at any given moment and put his fragile heart under incredible strain further worried and scared the entire family. As their collective morale dwindled and their desperation intensified, they maintained commendable levels of patience and optimism. Their familial bond and the love they have for each other is simply beautiful. I love the way Hussein, Hamed and Hessam–aka the three musketeers–always had each other’s backs and looked after one another.
After travelling through Europe for over a year, the family finally arrived in the UK. Hamed, his brothers and parents could relax now that they were on British shores and with somewhere safe to stay. Life in the UK wasn’t exactly smooth-sailing as a different set of challenges lay ahead for the Amiri family.
“All those strangers, Mum said to us, even though they’re from different countries and different beliefs, all have something in common with us. Hessam asked what it was and she said, ‘Feelings. They all feel exactly the same as we do: scared, lonely and anxious about the future. No matter how far they’ve come or what they’ve been through, the all want the same things as us. They just want to belong.”
It would be some years before Hussein received the complex, life-changing surgery he needed, and the family took some time to overcome the language barrier and adapt to their new home in Cardiff. Although settling into their new environment proved difficult at times, the Amiri family were shown so much compassion and kindness from the moment they stepped onto British soil. The public perception of refugees, migrants and asylum seekers in this country isn’t a positive one. For years, racist, xenophobic and dehumanising language has been frequently used to describe those that fall into the aforementioned groups. Reading this book was a stark reminder of some of the things we take for granted in the UK. Many people, including myself, probably wouldn’t have the strength and mental bandwidth to endure and survive everything the Amiri family went through on this gruelling journey.
I was so happy that the Amiri family received the support they needed to build a new life in the UK. Reading about everything the NHS did for Hussein and his family over the years made me smile because the NHS has saved my life more than once. Hussein Amiri’s unwavering positivity and determination to help others and pursue his passions, while battling his debilitating heart arrhythmias, moved me to tears.
The Boy with Two Hearts is an engrossing book about family, survival, courage, hope, love, perseverance and compassion. It shows the power of standing by those we love, not giving up and helping those in need. The Amiri family’s story warmed and stole my own heart. Everyone can take something away from this sad and inspiring story. It reminded me, yet again, how important it is to cherish our national health service and not take it for granted.
My rating: 9.5/10
The Boy with Two Hearts by Hamed Amiri is out now and published by Icon Books.
Thank you to Icon Books and NetGalley UK for sending me a digital copy in exchange for an honest review.