CM . . .
. Volume XXIV Number 28. . . .March 23, 2018
Homes: A Refugee Story.
Abu Bakr Al Rabeeah with Winnie Yeung.
Calgary, AB: Freehand Books (Distributed by ListDistCo), May, 2018.
213 pp., trade pbk., $19.95.
Grades 8 and up / Ages 13 and up.
Review by Val Ken Lem.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.
Later that afternoon, on my way to the bakery, I was alarmed to see so much new destruction on our street. As I walked down the middle of the carless street, I noticed the top corner of Sayid’s barber shop, where I got my hair cut, had been blown off. Was he okay? The city was disintegrating before us. A dented yellow dumpster full of busted up concrete sat beside the sidewalk, in front of our bakery. “Bakr! Get out of the street! Use the sidewalk!” My father stood outside, flour all down the front of his shirt, gesturing wildly with a dishtowel.
Before I could more, I heard the pop of a gun and loud metallic bangs as bullets hit the dumpster in front of me. I lunged for cover and scrambled behind a parked car. Father ducked behind a sign and his eyes bore into mine. I could tell he wanted to call out to me but he knew better. I looked down at myself frantically and patted my chest, sides, legs. I shook my head at him because I knew his question. We froze and listened. Nothing. Father slowly stood up, looking cautiously over the top of the sign while I peeked down the street in the direction where the bullets had come from. Nothing other than a few other bewildered people crouched behind whatever cover they could find. Father dashed toward me, hunching his tall frame, and he was beside me in a few steps. He grabbed me by the shoulders and scanned me with a sharp eye. “Are you sure you weren’t hit, Bakr?”
Homes: A Refugee Story is the story of Abu Bakr and the al Rabeeah family as told to Bakr’s English Language Arts teacher, Winnie Yeung, in Edmonton, AB. In Yeung’s skilled hands, this memoir comes to life with immediacy, detail, and sensitivity. The reader discovers a young boy, the sixth of eight children, living a carefree childhood in Iraq—until sectarian violence between Shi’ites and Sunnis led his family to seek refuge in Syria in the fall of 2010. Bakr was nine. The civil war in Syria had not yet begun. The family settled in Homs, Syria. The narrative unfolds in chronological fashion with numbered chapters labeled with an approximate date or month in addition to a descriptive title such as “Strange Lullaby”, “My First Massacre”, and “The Apprentice.” As the civil war creeps into their neighbourhood in Homs, civilians strive to maintain a somewhat normal life yet life now includes dangers: you can be sprayed with gunshots while worshipping at mosque, a nearby school can be flattened by bombs, and snipers may assail you outside of your father’s bakery. Even after the family fled to Damascus, they discovered that they could not find safety and eventually returned to Homs. In the fall of 2014, Bakr’s schooling took a hiatus while he became an apprentice at his father’s bakery. Previously, the al Rabeeah family had registered with the UN in Syria and been recognized as refugees. In the fall of 2014, they were accepted by Canadian officials and were on their way to a new life and new adventures in Edmonton in the middle of December.
Those who discover this book will be struck by images and themes. For this reader, I picture the soccer-loving child now grown into a young man in a Canadian high school, striving to help his teammates defeat the school teachers in a game of lunchtime intramural soccer. I see a life where extended families are the norm, where faith has a central role in daily living, where a father’s love for his son is reciprocal. The war zone threats from soldiers, militias, snipers, aircraft and car bombs create a sensory haze of sounds, smells, sights and fear. Despite the countless forms that had to be filled out in Canada, at least Bakr and his family no longer have to fear that they will be out and about without identification documents and will be stopped by police or armed henchmen.
An earlier version of Abu Bakr’s story was self-published in June 2016. This revised edition deserves to reach a much larger audience. In the afterward, Winnie Yeung provides glimpses into the creation of this narrative. Life in Canada has challenges for everyone. The adults struggle to learn a new language and to find meaningful work, children make new friends and learn a new language as they resume school day routines, and the youngest children are the ones who adapt most quickly.
Abu Bakr dreamed of sharing his story. Winnie Yeung can rest assured that she deserved the trust that Abu Bakr and his family placed in her ability to tell his story to an English language readership. At a time when many refugee children and families are settling in all parts of Canada, Abu Bakr’s story will build empathy and understanding. Homes: A Refugee Story illuminates the efforts of children and families to live normal, peaceful lives in the midst of warfare and terrorism. For non Muslim readers, it depicts a boy and his extended family’s experience and practice of a faith tradition that is poorly understood by many in the western hemisphere and Europe.
Val Ken Lem is a librarian at Ryerson University and a member of the Faculty of Art’s Middle East and North Africa Studies Centre.
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