Monday, September 11, 2017

Welcome To Nowhere by Elizabeth Laird

Twelve-year-old Omar Hamid lived with his family in Bosra, Syria. By his own admission, it was a beautiful town with Roman ruins in the center that regularly drew tourists from all over the world. His father worked at the tourism office while his mother, Leila cared for their family. At this time, Omar family consisted of his older brother Musa who has cerebral palsy, his fifteen-year-old sister Eman, his five-year-old brother Fuad and his baby sister Nadia. Omar worked in his Uncle Ali's hardware store before school and when school ended at 1pm, he worked with Rasoul trying to get the tourists to buy from his souvenir shop.

At his uncle's shop one morning, a man Omar calls Mr. Nosy warns his uncle about his son studying at university telling him to stay away from politics. He tells him there are terrorists everywhere. Uncle Ali is shaken by this, closes his shop and tells Omar he's leaving town. On the way home from school that day, Musa reveals to Omar that they are moving to Daraa because their father has been transferred to the Ministry of Agriculture.

Omar's family move to Daraa the same time trouble began. Their last day at school Omar overhears Musa's friends talking about two fifteen-year-old boys who sprayed slogans on walls calling for the downfall of the Syrian government. They were caught and tortured. As the family is packing, Omar's parents quarrel over sixteen-year-old Eman continuing school. His mother wants her to continue but the father feels she should be married.

They move to his granny's flat in Daraa. Also living in Daraa is his Auntie Majda and her little girls. At school Omar is shocked to see Musa become part of a group led by a boy named Bassem. Musa tells Omar that Bassem's cousin was his friend in Bosra and that he and his friends have been involved in plotting a revolution. Along with his nerdy friends back in Bosra, Musa has discovered the terrible things the Syrian government has been involved in; arrests, disappearances and torture of citizens. They want to live in a democratic state and have been organizing the marches and demonstrations. Musa challenges Omar, asking him if he cares that he lives in a dictatorship.

One day after mosque, Omar discovers Musa has a phone given to him by Bassem. When he arrives home, Omar finds his mother frantic because there are demonstrations in Daraa. She sends him out to get Granny and Nadia who have gone to Auntie Majda's home. Omar witnesses the demonstration and the Syrian government troops opening fire on the students. One of those students is his brother Musa whom Omar helps to flee. They hide his cell phone just before they are confronted by a soldier but manage to convince him they are not involved in the demonstration. With Bassem's help they rescue Granny and Nadia who have been trapped outside Auntie Majda's flat. Eventually Omar retrieves the phone which has film of the demonstration and Musa gives it to Bassem and Latif.

But the student actions ignite a civil war that begins to engulf them all. Every day there are marches followed by funerals. Latif is shot in the head and dies in hospital. The internet is cut off, the schools closed and then tanks roll into Daraa, besieging the city. A tense moment occurs when the soldiers begin searching every house. Musa has to hide both his phone and a little notebook. He and Omar manage this and the soldiers leave without discovering either.

Soon a full scale civil war is happening. The electricity is cut which means no lights, no mobile phones, and no fridge. There are bombings and shootings. Omar is constantly afraid, his younger brother Faud begins wetting the bed, Eman gets a rash and Musa has nightmares. Then one day Baba returns home because the Ministry of Agriculture is closed. When he learns that Musa is out, Baba is furious and Omar is sent out to bring him home. On their way back, Omar is shot by a soldier, he bullet grazing his arm. Even worse a shell lands on the house next to theirs, destroying both homes. After spending the night huddled in a shed Omar and his family work to clean up their apartment. However, Uncle Feisal shows up offering them a way out of Daraa. He takes them to Leila's brother-in-law's farm outside Bosra.

Uncle Mahmud and Auntie Fawzia take Omar and his family in, giving them the storeroom to stay in. Baba returns to Daraa to stay with a friend in a quiet part of town, away from the fighting. Meanwhile Omar begins helping out on the farm, working with his cousin Jaber. Life on the farm seems tranquil and safe with the fighting confined mostly to the cities. But soon the violence spreads into every area of Syria and Omar and his family must flee, leaving everything behind. It is a journey that will take them far from home, to a distant land and a new life.

Discussion

Laird has written a solid novel that offers young readers the chance to learn about the Syrian war and the plight of refugees. The experiences of young Omar and his family opens a window on the culture of Muslim Syrians.  In some ways the Hamid family is not that much different from families in the West. Omar like many children, doesn't like school. Instead, he's interested in making money and someday owning his own business. His older sister Eman has dreams of continuing school. Musa, whose intelligence is hidden by his cerebral palsy, is politically engaged and wants to work for a democratic Syria. Omar's mother and father love and care for their children and simply want to raise their children in a safe, clean city. They are part of a large extended family who care for one another.

However, some things are very different in Syria. This is especially true of how women and the disabled are treated. Omar's older sister Eman is a good student. Because education is strictly segregated, Eman attends an all girls school. Eman wants to be a teacher, a goal Baba does not support. Her mother does because she wanted to be a teacher before she was forced into marriage to Baba at age fifteen. When the family is forced to move to Daraa, Baba decides that Eman will no longer attend school. "Education's a waste of time for girls. Eman's sixteen already. It's high time she was married. I've had a good offer..." Omar's mother is shocked at this revelation and refuses to move to Daraa unless Eman is able to continue school.  Eman tells Omar, "...I want to do something Omar! I want to be a teacher! Have my own life!"  Later on when war comes to the farm outside of Bosra where Omar's family has fled, Eman learns that her father, mother and auntie have all worked to arrange her marriage to Abu Bilal, a man who is later discovered to have raped and nearly killed another girl. Eman's feelings don't matter and she is never consulted. She resists the marriage, but is slapped and abused by her family. In desperation she attempts to starve herself and threatens to kill herself. Omar watches and is powerless to help his older sister. It is only in the refugee camp, without the presence of Baba, that Musa stands up to Bilal and refuses to allow the marriage to happen.

The attitude towards Omar's disabled brother Musa is also very different. Omar relates that "The teachers had written him off for years and said he was stupid." Musa has been laughed at, beaten and even had his arm broken at school. He's been bruised, insulted and had his notebooks destroyed.  But in spite of this Musa has persisted in attending school. It was his seventh grade teacher, Mr. Ibrahim who recognized Musa's intelligence and this forced Omar to recognize that his brother is a "brainbox". Even some of his own family struggle to accept Musa. Omar states that "Granny couldn't bear the sight of Musa. 'There have never been any deformed children on our side of the family,'   I heard her say to Baba, looking accusingly at Ma."  Musa becomes politically active and is involved in the planning of the initial actions against the Syrian government. He shows great courage and takes terrible risks to fight for what he believes in. Always an outsider because of his disability, this offers Musa a chance to belong to something important.

Laird who visited and volunteered at two refugee camps, Za'atari and Azraq in Jordan, provides her young readers with a real sense of what life is like in these camps. Through the characters of Eman and Omar, Laird describes the hopelessness for the future. "Eman shrugged. 'So what? Anything's better than living in limbo here! What have we got to look forward to? Nothing. There's no school for Musa and me, no work...Eman sighed. 'I just feel hopeless, that's all.We're in a sort of prison. We're nowhere. And we might be here forever." Yet when the opportunity to leave the refugee camp and travel to Britain arises, Omar and Musa feel fear and Musa resists. "...But in England we'd be just a bunch of refugees, living on charity. You know what the British say about Arabs and Muslims? They think we're all crazy terrorists..."

Za'atari refugee camp in Jordan
In Omar, Laird has crafted a strong, appealing main character whose actions and feelings are authentic. Omar is loyal, brave and compassionate. He helps his brother Musa when he repeatedly gets himself in a tight spot, despite feeling frustrated and angry at him. When Baba abandons the family after learning of Musa's involvement with the Syrian rebels, Omar becomes responsible for many of his family's needs. As expected, Omar feels overwhelmed by this responsibility. He sympathizes with Eman over her being forced to marry a much older man whom Omar knows has a poor character. He courageously but unsuccessfully attempts to convince his Ma that Bilal is an evil man. Eventually Omar does convince Musa to defend their older sister. Instead of attacking Riad, a poor boy who is running wild in the camp, Omar takes him under his wing, turning him from the path of a thief into a boy focused on trying to do the right thing.

Welcome To Nowhere is highly recommended for readers aged 9 to 13 but will also appeal to older readers. Laird has included a map showing the location of Syria in the Middle East but there is no map showing Omar's journey to Jordan nor the location of the refugee camp.  There is an informative "Letter From The Author" at the back of the book which provides more details about the Syrian situation. Welcome To Nowhere is a good book to acquaint younger readers with the Syrian refugee situation and to help them better understand the plight of refugees.

Book Details:

Welcome To Nowhere by Elizabeth Laird
London: Macmillan Children's Books     2017
329 pp.

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