I saw this one reviewed by @andreabeatrizarango on bookstagram a few months ago (maybe a year ago? – my conceptual handle on time passing right now is questionable at best). She spoke so highly of it, so I added it to my TBR for the next time I was in the mood for a quick read (graphic novels are perfect for that).
“I wish there weren’t so much time to think in a refugee camp. But I have nothing to do today but wait…wait…wait… I try to forget. I want to forget.”
Omar is a young Somali boy living in Dadaab, a refugee camp in Kenya. When we meet him, he’s already been there for years, settled into his daily role taking care of his younger, nonverbal brother, Hassan, and helping their foster mother with daily chores. When Omar gets a chance to go to school, he agonizes over the decision, whether to take a chance that will help their future or stay to keep an eye on his brother. And then, when he and Hassan get a coveted interview with the UN for potential resettlement in the United States, he is forced to relive the worst days of their lives, when they lost their homes and families, to “prove” they have no option to go back. From there, Oamr and Hassan continue to live their daily lives in Dadaab, forever waiting and hoping, waiting and hoping.
This is a really interesting mix of biography, memoir and creative license. The “real” Omar, now living in the US with his family, helped write this story of his own, and his brother’s experiences as youth growing up in Dadaab, doing their best to keep hope alive as they waited to hear news of their mother, survived hunger and fighting, made and played with friends, studied with school-mates, looked forward to news of resettlement, and learned the many ways they had very little control over their life trajectories, yet still were full with support and love from those around them. So it was based on those real experiences, the truth of refugee camp life. But with Jamieson’s art and creative additions, there was also an aspect of greater representation to the story. Omar and Hassan were, of course, the central characters; and added in were a number of side-character stories that were just as illuminating about the myriad ways a refugee’s life, options and future can turn out. In particular, we get a view of how different things are for girls and women, what deep inequalities there exist based on sex, on top of everything else. In fact, the way that Omar and Hassan’s “happy ending” is juxtaposed against so many others who didn’t get or will never have that chance is the horrible kind of real (especially, for me as a female reader, Maryam). But really, overall, this story highlights the terrible reality of the way refugee camps and resettlement are set up, like its a fight to prove the worst story, in a way the belittles the suffering of everyone else, that makes the whole thing even more heartbreaking, somehow.
Although as an adult reader, I have read about these situations and topics in longer, more in depth, format already, there was something particularly affecting about reading it distilled down like this. That’s due in part to the younger audience this book was written for, as well as the formatting of the graphic novel medium. The visuals of a graphic novel always submerge me into the story a little extra, and the stark simplicity in the words superimposed upon those images, the extra care that goes into choosing those words because the space is limited, just hits a little different. There was a very visceral representation of the nothing and waiting (interminable purgatory) that is reality in a refugee camp and the variety of ways that impacts health both mental and physical, especially the psyche of children. There is the depiction of the lashing out, always at those closest to you, that comes with loss of hope and sinking into a dark place, as well as the way the anger and fear is misplaced because the actual targets (UN officials, government leaders, the people whose inflicted violence causing the refugee crisis in the first place) aren’t there to receive it. There was a a very affecting look at the complexity of emotions in wanting nothing more than to leave, combined with the complete fear of leaving the only home you’ve known/the familiar, and the jealousy created between and amongst refugees that get the chance (and those that don’t) out of proportion to their own control over the choices/options. There is the constant longing to go back to a home that was taken forcefully and no longer exists. And there are also the heartwarming parts, the moments of comfort that comes from being surrounded by people that love and support you (Omar’s love for Hassan is particularly special), that will fight for you and take care of you and watch your back. And there is the purity of joy in life that one can only find in children, that manage to shine through sometimes, no matter their surroundings. Strong emotions, all around.
This was a really wonderful introduction for young readers to the reality of being a refugee, in a way that is relatable to them, combining specifically traumatic topics with universal concepts of childhood, against a backdrop of illustrations that are revealing, but also full of life and movement and eye-catching color. And for this adult reader, there were equally strong messages, all the more powerful for their brevity. I am leaving this reading experience with the refrain Omar returns to throughout, that no one chooses to be a refugee, engrained into my mind and soul.
A few quotes:
“How long can you wait before you lose all hope?”
“None of us asked to be born where we are, or how we are. The challenge of life is to make the most out of what you’ve been given.”