CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 13 . . . . December 1, 2017
From Far Away is a reprint of an excellent story co-written in 1995 by Robert Munsch and then seven-year-old Saoussan Askar. This edition has a new illustrator, Rebecca Green.
From Far Away recounts Saoussan's journey from a war-ravaged country to Canada, where she felt safe but had difficulties adjusting to English and a new way of life. Her story mirrors what has happened to many generations of immigrants to Canada. So many people arrive here escaping war and all the dangers it poses - persecution, homelessness, starvation, illness, a lack of education, psychological shock and more. Parents want their children to return to normalcy as quickly as possible after they arrive here, but what does that mean when the children are now in a completely different environment?
For Saoussan, it meant crawling on her knees out of the classroom to go to the bathroom because she didn't know how to ask permission in English. It meant screaming uncontrollably when she saw a paper skeleton - her experiences in her home country cause her to react with fear at the sight of a skull and bones. She had no knowledge or understanding about Hallowe'en.
Saoussan's story is being replayed in the thousands of refugee children who have entered the school system in the last few years. Learning English is hard, especially when there is no one there to translate. Making friends is the most important thing for a child, but it's frustrating when the children don't speak the same language and don't understand each other's different approaches to play. It's easy for the newcomer child to become depressed.
The story arose from a letter Saoussan wrote to Munsch about how she struggled as a newcomer in Grade 1. Munsch took what happened to her, and, together, they fashioned the text with, originally, illustrations by Michael Martchenko. Rebecca Green's appealing art shows the diverse make up contemporary classrooms. The feature the children share are big eyes - big with wonder, big with interest, big with love.
From Far Away can be an important story to make students empathize with the challenges newcomer children face. It can also assure newcomer children that they will learn English and adjust to a new way of life. Saoussin today has a Master of Arts degree in Sociology from McGill University and is learning even more languages. It was a long journey in many ways, but she regards Canada as her homeland, for the "love and light" it provided her.
Harriet Zaidman is a writer and book reviewer in Winnipeg, MB.