Monday, May 6, 2019


Homes, Abu Bakr al Rabeeah with Winnie Yeung

Homes: A Refugee Story is written by now 18-year-old Abu Bakr al Rabeeah, with the assistance of his teacher Winnie Yeung, charting his childhood as a refugee. Born in Iraq in 2001, his memories of his homeland are happy:
“My childhood in Iraq was a sweet one. There was laughter and joy: rich, just like the syrupy knafa cheese pastries I loved so much. And my red bike… That’s what life was: friends and soccer.” 
Abu Bakr’s father’s family was Shi’a, but he raised his own family as Sunni, and “where we lived the divisions between the two denominations of Islam hung heavy in the air...He couldn’t ward off the disapproving grumbles of his own family; instead, he taught us to meet those painful arrows with love and acceptance, to leave it in God’s hands.”

When the neighbours started finding bullets taped to their front door, threats of beheading came to extended family, and finally a death threat that named Abu Bakr arrived on the doorstep, his father decided it was time to leave and they moved to Homs in Syria. Syria was an interim step assuming things were likely to get worse and the family applied for refugee status, and then opened a bakery in Homs.

The next four years were spent in Syria as things slowly unravelled. The family were there for massacres, bombings and multiple shootings:
“That’s how it was in Syria: when we heard an explosion, we ran towards the chaos. Often the police and ambulance was late arriving, if they arrived at all, so we took care of each other. After every explosion, streets were clotted with civilians doing whatever they could to help, binding wounds, driving the worst cases to hospital.”
“When most people hear massacre, they picture body bags and blood. But this is what massacres felt like for me: the tense, stale air of a bedroom with too many breathing bodies in it. Finding quiet ways to pass the frightful hours, trying your best to block the sounds from flooding your brain.”
The times of violence are intertwined with daily life: school soccer, video frames, mosque and family.  Cousins played FIFA 13 and Grand Theft Auto and texted regularly. There was a time he collected the bullet casings he found on the street. When his father found out he said “Do you know what this casing means? It means someone shot a gun. They shot at another person. That bullet might have hurt someone, or killed someone... I don’t want you playing with the anymore. I don’t want any of these in our home, in the bakery. This is not who we are.”

There is an honesty as he came to terms with what was around him:
“The sad truth was, you could not live in Syria and have a clean heart. How could you, when you live in a place where you’re randomly shot at and car bombs explode outside your home? I wanted my heart to be pure, but already I hated people and I hated parts of my life. Sometime I even hated my family. I questioned my faith and my religion.”
“Knowledge that we never really wanted to know filtered into our lives. Our ears could pick the out the differences between mortars, Grad rockets, and car bombs. We could tell the high notes of the metallic smell of fresh blood on the streets from the low reek of a corpse waiting for days to be found in the rubble… We became sensitive gazelles, always stopping to scan and listen. It wasn’t a conscious choice – it simply became part of our walking and being.”
In 2014, the family’s refugee status was approved and the UN arranged their resettlement in Canada. Their travel, new schools and language learning are described as the family tried to make a new home:
“Even though Father was doing his best to hold us together, we were each so wrapped in our own kinds of loneliness that we got used to our little islands of grief… It was a relief to be in a place free of the shabiha and snipers, but none of us had ever imagined the solitude we would face. We had traded the raucous, tearing war for a suffocating, quiet safety. No one could tell which was better, which was worse. It was both and neither.”
In Year 9, Ms Yeung is his ESL teacher, and having started to grow in his English language confidence, she asks him, “what is your secret wish?” After admitting it is to be a soccer player, he then confides, remembering “my friends, the soccer games, the bombs, my cousins who are my brothers. How they told me to never forget. I realize I carry Syria in my heart. I’m not sure if I’m ready to do this yet but I decide to trust and so, softy, I tell Ms. Yeung, “I want to share my story.””

This is an honest, raw, short, heart-warming account from the perspective of a boy growing up in a war-torn nation. As such, at times it was simpler than I was expecting when I started. Upon reflection though, he has provided just what we need to know – what life is like for children in these regions. For those of us (and our children) who have absolutely no understanding of what it would be like to live in a place like Syria, it is still a childhood we recognise, but through a very different lens of experience. He has written with a pervasive hope and optimism despite the situation, and portrays his own faith in a positive, tolerant way. I highly recommend this for young teens right up to adults, and I imagine it will soon be placed on many high school reading lists.

1 comment:

msaggie said...

Wendy, thanks so much for posting your review this powerful book written by this Iraqi young man who now is re-settled in Canada. Growing up in a war zone does scar people - and what is most heart-warming is his family and how they all supported each other, and his father (the patriach)'s attitude of love and non-retaliation.
I am still reading your blog even though I am now in Perth!
Agnes (msaggie)