Homes: A Refugee Story is the heart-rending account of Abu Bakr al Rabeeah, an Iraqi-born boy who as a child survived the civil war in Syria. Now a high-school student in Edmonton, his story is told through the compassionate and enthralling words of Winnie Yeung, his English language arts teacher. Homes is a chilling tale of firsts that no child should experience: witnessing his first massacre, the first time he recognized the identity of a corpse, the first time he picked up a shell casing in the street. His childhood was taken from him, despite his attempts to hold on to it: “There was no need for me to put my childhood away,” Yeung writes in al Rabeeah’s voice, “it had already disappeared into the ruins of Homs.” In the midst of the horror, al Rabeeah’s tale also brims with humour and heart, balancing the unspeakable violence with the hallmarks of many childhoods: soccer games with friends, kite-flying with his cousins, and playing video games. His family is his lifeline, particularly the quiet bravery of his father, who emerges in this book as a hero.
Tima Kurdi, who now lives with her family in B.C., also makes reference to growing up in Syria, where she was part of a middle-class family in a typical one-storey home. Her days were filled with picking jasmine flowers, skipping rope, defiantly cutting off her long hair in an attempt to look like Princess Diana, and the expected sibling rivalries. Kurdi’s childhood, unlike many others, was not characterized by lack: “Our bellies were always full, and my parents renovated the house to make room for all of us.” When she was a child, Tima’s father reminded her, “Never close your heart or door to people in need. Always give them a seat at your table.”
The fondness with which Kurdi recalls her girlhood is in stark contrast to the unspeakable pain that plagues her recent past. In 2015, the world woke up to a photo of a tiny Syrian boy washed up on a Mediterranean beach – a victim of the mass migration precipitated by the brutal civil war that continues to plague Syria. The boy was three-year-old Alan Kurdi, Tima’s nephew. “When you saw the photograph of that little boy, my dear nephew Alan, dead on a faraway shore, you became part of our family,” Kurdi states. “You shared our horror, our heartache, our shock, and our outrage.” Kurdi writes with vulnerability and resolute grace, describing in painstaking detail the numerous attempts she made to relocate the family of her brother, Abdullah, to Canada and the treacherous journey they undertook in an attempt to reach safety.
Both Homes and The Boy on the Beach humanize a conflict that has too often been condensed to numbers, statistics, and nameless victims. The western gaze reduces Syria to an abstraction of civil war, hunger, violence, and conflicting political and religious factions. But these books force the reader to face the complexities of place. In addition to war and suffering, Syria is also a home, a locus of family and memory. Kurdi and al Rabeeah are both aware of the magnanimity of Syrian hospitality – the kindness of neighbours and strangers alike, regardless of faith – that prevails even in the face of death. To reduce Syria to a hollowed-out symbol of war is to wilfully ignore the spirit of its people, which persists even in the most dire circumstances.
In Homes, al Rabeeah recalls the challenges of adapting to Canadian culture, weather, and language, and he expresses guilt for struggling to find his footing in a new land. He speaks of the solitude that descended on his family: “we were each so wrapped up in our own kinds of loneliness that we got used to our little islands of grief.” Fear remains in his body but manifests now in the aching absence of gunfire – it lives in what is unheard and unseen, and what is left behind.
Kurdi also admits to isolation and uprootedness, particularly during her desperate attempts to bring her family to safety. “I had been living in two worlds,” she writes plaintively. “These two worlds were separated by ten thousand kilometres and eight time zones.” Kurdi’s account is wracked with the constant grief of guilt and the inability to change what cannot be changed: “I wanted to scream so loud the whole world would hear me.”
The undeniable power of these narratives lies in their specificity, from the recognizable bursts of Alan’s laughter to the wafts of perfume coming off al Rabeeah’s grandmother, Maryam. The challenge for us, as readers, is to acknowledge that these are two stories in a sea of others, some of which have died with those who carried them. These eloquent, nuanced, and heartbreaking books – filled with life in the face of death – deserve to be read with all the compassion and courage it must have taken to write them.