In a very crowded field of refugee themed books, this 400 page middle grades/early middle school novel sets itself apart by really focussing on the quality of life enjoyed in Syria compared to the life of a refugee on the move and in getting reestablished as an immigrant. Where other books allude to how things in Syria got worse and then perhaps focus more on the horrific journey desperate individuals are forced to take, this book is very direct in showing the young protagonist’s daily life in Damascus and really cementing in the notion for western privileged readers, that loosing everything could happen to anyone. The book does show hardships on the perilous journey by truck and boat as well as showing that life in England isn’t immediately better. Side characters throughout the book show diverse opinions and strengths that for the preteen target demographic would provide starting points for wonderful discussion and dialogue to take place. Overall, the book does a decent job of not falling into the same cliche’ narrative even though the book does have a hopeful and happy ending.
Sami is the 13-year-old son of a surgeon and principal. He has a little sister, a best friend, a desire to be on the football (soccer) team, the latest Air Jordans, a love of video games, his iPad, and a very comfortable life. When he orders the newest soccer shoes to wear for tryouts and begs his mom to go pick them up from the mall, the Syrian civil war which has seemed an arm’s length away, comes to Damascus and to Sami. The mall is bombed while his mom and little sister are getting his shoes and while they survive Sara is traumatized and stops speaking. The family decides immediately and secretly that they have to leave. Sami is kept slightly in the dark and thus, so is the reader as to how quick everything must be liquidated and how uncertain the future is for the family.
Sami is forced to turn over his iPad to his parents, he stops going to school, and before he has time to talk to his friends, he is saying good bye to his grandmother and heading to Lebanon with his parents and sister. The journey is perilous and fraught with danger. The constant state of fear and silence, the peeing in bottles, the trust in smugglers is all so palpable. The rooms they are locked in with other refugees and the the bonds and fears and squalor that Sami experiences is such a stark contrast to the life he has known of drivers and maids. In one smuggler’s den in Turkey Sami befriends a boy slightly older than him that is traveling alone, Aadam. Desperate to help his new friend, Sami tries to steal his father’s cell phone and some money to help Aadam ensure his seat on a boat, not a raft, to cross the Mediterranean. Sami is used to his family helping others, this situation of not being able to help, not being able to help themselves, is very new to him, and causes a lot of stress and strain between Sami and his father.
Sami has a fear of boats and water, having nearly drowned years earlier, the idea of getting on a make shift boat in the night with rough water is not something Sami is mentally prepared to do and when a boat near them capsizes, the reader is made painfully aware that even those that survive this journey are not left unharmed. The family makes it to England to claim asylum, they are put in a holding area, a prison more or less, to await the next stop in a long process. Here Sami and his father are assaulted and the threat of physical violence and imprisonment start to really affect Sami. When they eventually get to a distant family members house in Manchester, their struggles are far from over as the family is unwelcoming. School brings out the racists, the parents take jobs as factory workers and cleaners and Sara is still not talking. With the guilt of his family’s condition weighing heavily on Sami, the constant bullying by his family in England, and the sad condition of his family’s finances, Sami decides he needs to return to Syria to care for his Tete and unburden his family of his presence.
Yah, sorry, I’m not going to give it all away.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I love that the book really articulates how Sami’s life is in Syria and has him remark multiple times in England how much nicer things were in Damascus. It doesn’t come across as a criticism, but rather a rattling of the paradigm that the west is so much better across the board. I love that Sami’s best friend in Syria is Christian and that they are so respectful of each other’s faith and it is a non issue. I love that some of the refugees in the holding apartment are kind and some in the detention facility in England are criminal. It allows for the reminder that people are people even when they are refugees and cannot be assumed to be a monolith. It also opens the door to discuss how desperation changes people. Sami’s family is usually very generous, but with their own futures in turmoil, they cannot afford to be, they also presumable are very social and yet, the silence between strangers and within their own family is very telling of the stress and worry that plagues them. I like how the process humbles the characters. Not that I enjoy or feel that the characters needed necessarily to be humbled, but it is a transition that the reader benefits from seeing. Sami’s father is/was a doctor, a surgeon, but is loading boxes in a factory, the desire to take care of ones family trumps degrees and expectation. The transition is conveyed to the reader and I think will plant a seed of empathy in even the hardest hearts.
The family in Manchester, particularly the boy Hassan, is awful and the friend, Ali, from school is amazing. These opposing Muslim characters also help break the stereotype of where bullying comes from, and who is welcoming, allowing for people to be seen more as individuals than they often are in literature and in real life. Islam is presented as characteristics of the characters when it does appear. They ask Allah for help and say salam, attend various mosques, but there are not heavy religious overtones.
At times Sami is annoying, and as an adult reading the book, I had to remind myself that that is probably exactly how a 13 year old boy would behave. He sees things in black and white and is often singularly focused on contacting his friends. He doesn’t understand the bigger picture, nor is told a lot of the bigger picture. It is a hard age of being kept from stuff because you are too young, and being expected to rise up and be mature because of the gravity of the situation. The book is not overly political, it is character driven and very memorable thanks to Sami’s perspective and voice.
The book is researched, it is not an OWN voice story, and while it is a compelling and engaging read, that I hope is accurate, the framing of the story is not incredibly original. Aside from other Syrian refugee focused books, the book reminded me quite a bit of Shooting Kabul, albeit the country being left is different. Both plots focus on a boy leaving with his family and blaming himself for the tragedy that has befallen a younger sister and the repercussions it is having on the family as they reestablish themselves as immigrants. In both books the character plans to board an airplane to return “home,” as well.
I like that there is a map, a glossary, and an author’s note included in the beautifully spaced, visibly accessible book.
The assault is intense as is the fear of physical assault. There is nothing detailed in the bombing, but the implied stresses of war, the journey of the characters, and the situations that they are in would be best for ten year olds and up.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I am hoping to use this book as a Middle School book club read to start next year off. The book is not yet out in paperback, otherwise I would do it this year. There are so many things to discuss: from Sami’s unhappiness, his strengths, his desire to help others, to considering life from Aadam’s perspective and Hassans. This book begs to be talked about with young readers and I’m so excited to hear what their thoughts are and who they identify with. They could be Sami, he is a boy, everywhere, and if we can all remember that, we all will be better humans, period, the end.