This graphic novel swept me off my feet and left me in tears, not because of the hard life and sadness that life in a refugee camp entails, I had braced myself for that, but because of the hope and humanity and beauty that is so powerfully expressed and conveyed in this 264 page book. Meant for 3rd graders and up, I think kids through middle school should be encouraged to read it. The illustrations and colors are incredibly well done and the story is based on a true story that needs to be told and shared. It is definitely in the top 10 books I’ve read this year and I keep catching my 11 year old re-reading this book repeatedly (like 5 or 6 times).
Omar Mohamed lives in Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya. His father was killed in the Somali war and his mother has not been seen after she sent Omar and his younger brother Hassan to run with the neighbors to escape the violence. Hasan suffers from seizures and doesn’t speak, save one word, Hooyo, mother in Somali. The two boys have an adopted mom Fatuma, who looks after the boys in the camp as if they were her own. Unable to go to school, Omar spends his days looking after his brother, playing soccer with plastic bags, and waiting in lines for water, food, and news of a better opportunity.
When Omar gets the chance to go to school (5th grade) he has to make the difficult decision of pursuing his own opportunities, with the hope of helping Hassan later, or living day to day and taking care of his younger brother. He is finally convinced that education will help them both, and that if the girls can find a way to do their chores and attend class, he can too.
Each transition from primary, to middle to secondary school requires testing, and only the top get to continue. Determined to stay in school, Omar studies while dealing with life’s many challenges and the daily additional challenges of living with little food and resources.
When Omar and Hassan’s names finally appear on a UN interview lists for resettlement, hope seeps in, but the wait and the uncertainty prove to be yet another test. Along the way there are side characters from the United Nations that show compassion, other families that show how generous and loving humans can be, female classmates show him how to take advantage of his privilege and friendships that move friends to family.
WHY I LIKE IT:
The book is gripping and has heart. I don’t know what I expected, but I truly could not put it down. The character’s stresses are felt and emotions are conveyed so powerfully, that I don’t know that you can read the book and forget it. The most emotional part for me was his honesty in dealing with his brother, the strength of his friends, particularly female, and the bond to Fatuma. Truly their living arrangements and loss of family is gut wrenching, but it was the little things that touched me the most. The honesty of Omar having to decide if he was tempted to not go to school because he was scared. Was he using his brother as an excuse to stay with something he knew. The emotional tipping point of no return for me was when he realized Fatuma would not be able to go to the second interview with the UN and would not be a part of what came after. Of course I knew that, but by that point I was so connected to the character, that when Omar realized it, I broke for him. To feel that connection in a graphic novel was new for me, perhaps a first, and alhumdulillah I am better for it.
The characters are Muslim and behave traditionally with praying and Ramadan and Eid.
There is talk of khat, something the men chew on the side of the road to forget things. There is some violence, bullying, a young girl getting married before 6th grade and having a baby.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
Yes! I am hoping if and when we resume school I am starting with this book inshaAllah, for my middle school book club. There is so much to talk about and understand and empathize with.