CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 9 . . . . November 3, 2017
Suddenly, a massive explosion interrupts the conversation between Amina and the local fruit and vegetable vendor, turning the street into a mass of rubble, and shattering the lives of Amina, her little brother, Youssef, and her parents, Walid and Dalia.
In 2013, theirs was a comfortable middle-class life, the entire extended family inhabiting a three-story house in Aleppo. "No one ever thought war would come to Syria." (p. 13) However, the ruling al-Assad family, which seized power in a military coup in 1970, turned Syria into a one-party state, suppressing basic democratic freedoms, and punishing opposition or criticism of the regime with arrest, torture, and often, death. Syrians lived in fear, and, as economic conditions worsened under the Assad regime, public anger grew. In 2011, perhaps inspired by the "Arab Spring" uprisings, a group of young men spray-painted a wall with the slogan, "The people want the regime to fall." (p. 15). With their arrest, and probable torture, public opinion turned against Bashar al-Assad, and Bashar turned against his people. Soon, Syria was racked with civil war, and so Amina's father makes the difficult decision that the family will leave their beloved homeland. Like so many who flee their country in war-time, they believe that their exile will be temporary.
First, they headed for the Lebanon-Syria border. Their visa stamps indicate a stay of six months, and even Walid is skeptical that the war will end so quickly. Two years later, they are still living in a refugee camp in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. It's a grim existence; now, when Dalia prepares dinner for the family, Youssef complains, "Ugh, not that gross sludge again, Mom!" (p. 27). It's a far cry from the extravagant meals she used to spend all day preparing. As more and more Syrian refugees crowded into Lebanon, memories of past civil unrest lead the Lebanese government to enact a host of restrictions preventing Syrians from establishing permanent legal residency and the right to work legally. A host of social and economic problems result. Crowding and unhygienic conditions in the camps make illness a constant threat, and Syrian children find themselves crammed into schools with pupil-teacher ratios of 90 students to 1 teacher. Amina counts herself fortunate to be able to continue her schooling, although it's a challenge: Lebanon's curriculum is trilingual – English, French, and Arabic – whereas Syrian students were taught only in Arabic. Still, she is determined, and continues to be an A student.
The family struggles on until, one day, Youssef falls gravely ill with bacterial meningitis. A charitable pharmacist extends Walid credit for the cost of the necessary medication, but he makes it clear that it's a one-time offer. In order for the family to survive, sacrifices are made: Amina leaves school to go to work, and to cut expenses further, her father suspends the renewal of his Lebanese residency visa. It's a risky decision as those without proper papers are jailed by the Lebanese police. Meanwhile, the situation in Syria deteriorates further. E-mail from Amina's cousin tells a story of starvation, devastation, and the government army's continual air strikes targeting the civilian population of the major cities. The country, itself, is divided amongst a group of contending factions, including ISIS, Hezbollah, the FSA, Kurdish forces, and, of course, al-Assad's forces.
Another e-mail, this one from Walid's cousin, Hasan, tells a harrowing tale of crossing the Aegean Sea in a dinghy, and then, walking for two weeks through five countries, eventually arriving in Germany. In desperation, Walid negotiates a loan with a human trafficker, but realizing that "the smugglers are monsters" (p. 64), he changes his mind and reneges on the contract. A severe beating by the smuggler's goons and threats that Amina will be taken by them as "payment" for the loan intensifies the family's fears and anxiety. Finally, in an act of supreme courage, Amina travels alone to the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) reception centre in Zahle, Lebanon, where she tells her family's plight to an aid worker. Almost miraculously, a week later, the family receives a phone call offering a chance for re-settlement. Dalia is reluctant because she knows that, if they do leave, they will never return. And before making a decision, she decides that she wants to visit Syria to see her sister's new baby. It's a perilous journey; ISIS is in control of the area through which she travels, and when the bus reaches an ISIS checkpoint, Dalia witnesses the execution of a male passenger who smuggled cigarettes onto the bus in violation of ISIS' strict interpretation of Islamic law. After the visit with her sister and the new baby, Dalia is ready to go wherever the UNHCR will send them. She realizes that "the Syria I once knew is no more." (p. 81)
2016 finds the family, as part of the large contingent of Syrian refugees, on their way to Canada. Unlike those who were sponsored only by the Canadian government, they are fortunate to have the support of a group which raised funds to assist them with starting life in Toronto, renting and furnishing an apartment for them, driving them to meetings and appointments, and assisting with the adjustment to a new life. Anyone who travels to a different country will experience some degree of disorientation, but the refugee experience is a complicated one. Integrating into the fabric of Canadian life is not easy for Amina's family; her father finds work in a pizza place, language is a struggle for both parents, and the Canadian winter is a shock to the system. It's a "new place with all sorts of new rules … Still, we felt lucky." (p. 84) In the final pages of the book, as Walid walks from the bus stop close to Amina's school, he receives an e-mail message from his brother, Mahmoud, on his phone: "Help us. There's no bread". Unaware of her uncle's plea for help, Amina gives her dad a hug and then walks up the steps of her new school.
Although Amina and her family are fictional characters, their story, based on Samya Kullab's interviews with many Syrian refugees, is painfully real. A journalist based in the Middle East, Kullab was a reporter with an English-language newspaper in Lebanon, The Daily Star, and from 2013-2016, she focused on the harrowing experiences of the Syrian refugee population. Escape from Syria is a testament to the resilience of human beings, despite the chaos of war. In addition to the physical deprivations of life in a refugee camp, and the emotional and social dislocation which comes with leaving one's country, readers see the constant anxiety and fear that comes with living in a state of siege and of profound insecurity. Amina displays strength and courage beyond her years. Like the children of so many war-time refugees, her youth and resourcefulness enable her to adapt, and she becomes the intermediary and support for her parents and brother, when they settle in Canada.
The politics of Syria have been marked by coups, insurgencies, division, and terrorism. While many junior high and high school students have undoubtedly heard of Syria and of ISIS, they probably lack an understanding of the complex politics of the Middle East. Escape from Syria provides an accessible historical narrative, depicting the series of events which have led to a seemingly endless civil war in Syria. Jackie Roche's illustrations add another layer of understanding to Amina's account of "how we came to be here, in a country so different and far from our own". (p. 11) Several pages of "Endnotes" offer explanations for Arabic expressions, as well as observations on the significance of various political events in the story. These explanations are comprehensive and clear, but it might have been helpful to cross-reference the endnotes with a note on the page on which the expressions or events appear. However, this is a small quibble in an otherwise powerful graphic novel.
The Syrian refugee situation is a part of a global human crisis. Those Canadians who object to the support and sponsorship offered by the government and various private groups might have their hearts softened and, perhaps, their minds opened after reading Escape from Syria. In the "Introduction", Samya Kullab states that "I hope the story of Amina and her family educates and inspires readers, but mostly, I hope it humanizes this real-life nightmare." (p. 5) I think that this book accomplishes that goal.
Although the intended audience for Escape from Syria is listed by the publisher as 12+, I think that it is more likely that the content would be of interest to senior high school students of World Issues or those with a strong interest in international politics. And, in schools with a Syrian refugee population, it might be a valuable outreach tool for teachers and other students, telling that group's story in way that provides a bit of safe distance. Highly recommended for senior high school libraries and as a resource for teachers of world history and current world issues.
Joanne Peters, a retired teacher-librarian, lives in Winnipeg, MB.