________________ CM . . . . Volume XV Number 11 . . . . January 23, 2009

cover Children of War: Voices of Iraqi Refugees.

Deborah Ellis.
Toronto, ON: Groundwood/House of Anansi, 2009.
128 pp., pbk. & hc., $12.95 (pbk.), $16.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-0-88899-908-5 (pbk.),
ISBN 978-0-88899-907-8 (hc.).

Subject Headings:
Children and war-Iraq-Juvenile literature.
Refugee children-Iraq-Social conditions-21st century-Juvenile literature.
Iraq War, 2003--Children-Juvenile literature.

Grades 5 and up / Ages 10 and up.

Review by Huai-Yang Lim.

***½ /4

Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.

excerpt:

There was a lot of resistance in our area to the American troops. This wasn't because our area was full of terrorists. This was because people didn't like to see foreign troops trying to control their country. How would Americans or Canadians feel if there were Iraqi troops on your streets, and these Iraqi troops broke down doors and tried to tell you what to do?

But because there was resistance, the American soldiers felt they had to fight back, and their fighting made more resistance. It was a very bad time. There was a lot of killing. My little sister still has nervous fits because of all the dead bodies she saw.

When Canadian kids — the ones who have always been here and have had a good life — start complaining to me about the little things that bother them, I just think, "You have no idea."

If I had the power to make the world better, I would say that we need peace, and to have everyone knowing the culture of everyone else, and having lots of people meet each other and get to know each other, so there will be no fear.

An award-winning children's author as well as a political activist for peace, human rights, and social justice, Deborah Ellis has written several books that deal with the impact of war, poverty, and other sociopolitical issues upon peoples' daily lives. Her fiction and nonfiction candidly portray the lives of children who live in difficult circumstances and, in doing so, Ellis gives children a voice that they may not otherwise have the opportunity to express so readily in the mainstream media. Much of her recent work has focused on documenting the perspectives of children as well as adults who have been casualties of violent conflict and illness. For example, her nonfiction book, Three Wishes: Palestinian and Israeli Children Speak, (2004) includes narratives by children from both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, each of whom has her/his own unique views on the conflict as well as its current and long-term impact on their lives. Similarly, Women of the Afghan War (2000) deals with another military conflict, the Afghan War, and includes oral histories from Afghan women who have been caught within it, several of whom who had become refugees and were unable to return home. Our Stories, Our Songs: African Children Talk about AIDS (2005) contains courageous, but sobering, stories about children whose lives and families have been affected by AIDS, with some of the children having become orphans as a result.

     Ellis's latest work, Children of War: Voices of Iraqi Refugees, echoes the issues of her previous work and deals with Iraqi children who have become refugees as a result of war, a topic that has not been covered significantly by the mainstream media. Even though it has already been five years since the Iraq invasion of 2003, the available literature for children and teens on this topic is still fairly minimal. The book consists of short autobiographical pieces that are narrated by children who have been victims of the war in Iraq and who range in age from 8 to 19. The children's stories serve to humanize the war by exposing the everyday lives of citizens who must cope with the immediate and long-term effects of that war. These are stories that we do not often hear behind the reported statistics of military and civilian casualties or the mainstream news stories that document the progress of the war from a North American perspective without the inclusion of those who are most affected by it. Through these children's stories, Ellis's book exposes the complexity of the issues surrounding the war and discourages any simplistic understandings that her readers may have held about the war's origins, its effects upon individuals and communities, and the possible solutions that can be implemented to assist the people affected by it.

     In a CM interview from 2003, Deborah Ellis comments on how oral history can be an accessible and empowering medium of expression. As she states, oral history is "an incredibly powerful medium because it gives a voice to ordinary people talking about their experiences in a way that shows that they are not ordinary or unimportant. I don't think there has been a lot of oral history of kids talking about their experiences, and I think that's something I'd like to do a lot of in my life ahead." Indeed, her book empowers the Iraqi children through the inclusion of their stories and, in doing so, challenges her readers' understanding of the war by portraying it from these non-North American perspectives. Each child's narrative begins with the child's name, age, and a photograph of the child. The photographs enhance the book's impact as they humanize the stories and visually affirm these children's survival and resilience in the face of extreme adversity.

     Children of War provides a varied representation of experiences, attitudes, and emotions of children whose lives have been irrevocably changed as a result of the war. Although each child's story is prefaced by some background information about Iraq or the child, the children's narratives remain the central focus. Their narratives depict the short-term and long-term traumatic effects of violence and terror, physically, psychologically, socially, and economically. The children face many debilitating problems as refugees. Besides fear for their physical safety and well-being, they are affected psychologically. Permanently scarred by the war, many of the children in the book feel that their lives have been changed and cannot be healed, although they acknowledge that they are trying to cope as best as they can. A recurring theme in this collection is the lack of control that the children feel over their circumstances. The poor health, sanitary, and economic conditions that exist are revealed to be a direct result of the military action and the aftermath of ethnic and sectarian violence that persist in Iraq today. Those children whose families are financially better off have managed to cope better than others, although they still talk about the effects of feeling displaced and being unable to travel freely because of the war and their nationality. Some of the children's families have moved to countries close to Iraq, such as Jordan, while others have gone abroad to North America.

     Any optimism that these children express, however, is almost always tinged by a sense of pessimism or sobered reflection. Twelve-year-old Abbadar discusses how the war has affected his parents, particularly his father who has become depressed due to the loss of his job. Sara, who is 15-years-old, mentions that things are better for her and her family now that they are living in Jordan, but she still wishes that they were living back home and that her family did not have to be afraid. In the section about 18-year-old Eman, there is no story. Instead, the only information that we get about Eman is from the introductory material to this section that Ellis has included. Readers learn that her father has died after a long illness and that her mother suffers from depression and possibly other mental illnesses. Eman does not speak, and her mother thinks her problems have arisen because of the chemicals used in the bombs that have been dropped on Iraq. The photograph of Eman and her mother, both of whom stare silently outwards, will unsettle readers and will prompt some to question what is being left unheard about the war.

     The children in this book also talk about their aspirations. Several mention a desire to return to Iraq because they miss their home, life, and friends there, but they recognize that they cannot because of the ongoing violence and instability in Iraq. The children express a range of emotions about these circumstances, such as anger, fear, sadness, and cynicism. They also think about what they would like to be when they grow up. For example, one mentions that he would like to become an actor while another mentions that she would like to be a teacher. Several children in the book express that they want to make the world a better place so that other people do not have to endure the same hardships. For instance, Hibba is currently in Jordan, but her family has applied to emigrate to the United States. She mentions that, when she grows up, she would like to start up an organization that will take care of children who have suffered as a result of war.

     This book's final section contains the testimony of two brothers, Huthaifa and Yeman, which is a fitting conclusion to the collection because it revisits several issues that the other children's accounts have already raised. Covering their circumstances before, during, and after the war, these two brothers' stories illustrate its long-term effects on people's lives, particularly children, who are the most vulnerable victims of military conflict. In the alternating accounts between them, the two brothers talked about their lives prior to the war, when both of them had, respectively, just finished high school and grade six. Huthaifa acknowledged that Saddam Hussein "did a lot of bad things, but he also did good things. Iraq had a very good education system, free for everyone. Even university was free." The economic sanctions against Iraq prior to the war also constrained peoples' lives financially, but Huthaifa mentioned that their family managed with what they had and "just went on with their daily lives." However, their lives changed irrevocably after the war began. In the midst of the violence that the brothers witnessed and experienced personally, their family remained in Baghdad at first, but eventually they had no choice but to leave Iraq because of the escalating violence. Now displaced from their home and living in Jordan, the two brothers are uncertain about their future, and both express a desire to help make the world a better place.

     Perhaps one of the most tragic consequences of the events in Iraq is that these children can no longer continue with their lives as they had before. They do not have the luxury of growing up in safe and stable circumstances among family and friends, without a fear of being forced away from the home and community that they have known their whole lives. Instead, they will continue to retain painful memories of the war. A range of emotions are expressed by the children: sadness and longing for their home; hatred for the soldiers who have destroyed their home and community; and a sense of trepidation and depression about the future.

     The final statement of Ellis's introduction frames the book as an attempt to intervene into the popular discourse on war and to advocate for peace. This is not necessarily to disregard what has happened and to create an idealized future that is unrealistic or unattainable. Rather, it asks readers to think of and work towards a world in which war does not exist. However, the first step is to change people's understanding of war, for only then can meaningful and lasting change start to occur. As Ellis's book clearly exposes, war does not simply end with the conclusion of military action, but rather it has long-ranging and exacerbating effects upon current and future generations of children. People, therefore, have a responsibility to act in the best interests of the next generation: "I believe that we can create a world without war. One of the steps we can take is to fully understand the impact of our decisions on the world's most vulnerable — our children."

     A significant strength of this book is its accessibility for readers of all ages and cultural backgrounds. The book's language, itself, will be a bit advanced for readers under the age of twelve, but it will still be accessible because its stories focus on children. War, violence, poverty, and illness are issues that younger children can still comprehend, even if they are not able to grasp the complexity in which they are discussed. Teens will be able to appreciate the children's candid narratives and gain a deeper understanding of the issues raised from the background information that Ellis provides throughout the book.

     Given the book's subject matter and nonfiction format, teachers can use her book in a variety of ways for students ranging from grade 5 to grade 12. As part of a history or social studies unit about the Middle East, Children of War can be used by teachers to discuss the impact of war and violent conflicts from a child's perspective. Valuable context can be drawn from the book's introduction, maps, prefatory section before each child's narrative, glossary, and list of sources for further information. For older students, teachers can incorporate the book into a unit about media representations of the Middle East and violent conflict, or they can use it to discuss how oral histories can function as an alternative form of communication that differs from the written word. As a literary text, the book can be readily included into an English class and discussed in terms of its themes and genre.

     Children of War would be a strong addition to both public and academic libraries because of its currency, timeliness, and coverage of a topic that is not widely addressed in recently published children's and young adult literature. In a public or academic library, Ellis's book would fit into a display of fiction and nonfiction about war, the effects of war and violence on children's lives, oral histories from marginalized people, or autobiographical representations of war.

     For more information about Deborah Ellis, readers can see the CM "Profile" as well as the biographical profile on her publisher's website.

Highly Recommended.

Huai-Yang Lim has completed a degree in Library and Information Studies at the University of Alberta and currently works as a research specialist. He enjoys reading, reviewing, and writing children's literature in his spare time.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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