When Stars are Scattered
This graphic novel for 9-12 year-old readers is a real masterpiece. It is based on the life of a Somali boy called Omar, who had to flee his rural village in Somalia in 1991, when he was four, and, together with his mentally challenged younger brother Hassan, ended up in the Dadaab refugee camp in Northeast Kenya. The book charts Omar’s journey from his arrival in Dadaab – “For me, the first years are lost” – to his (and Hassan’s) resettlement in the U.S. at age 18. Too many books on African refugee children are what this reality-based novel manages to avoid, for it is not a sob story that allows young North American readers to see such refugees as hapless victims for whom one can only feel benevolent but inevitably also condescending pity. Instead, the authors succeed in bringing both the real hardships of refugee camp life and the complex and dynamic emotions, friendships, and circumstances of the two boys to life on the page.
As for Dadaab realities, the book brings into focus the boredom and exhaustion that come with the inevitable and endless waiting – waiting in line for rations and water; waiting for the “empty days” (the last days before the UN distributes new food) to pass; waiting for a mother they are not sure is alive to come and find them, and waiting for months and years for their request for resettlement to work its way through UN and US bureaucracies. Apart from food, Omar lacks a school uniform and schoolbooks, a ball (instead of compressed plastic bags) for playing soccer, a lamp to study by, or a TV to watch. Omar also experiences the meanness of bullies, the bitter and sneering anger of the father of Omar’s best friend Jeri, feelings of jealousy of families who somehow get approved for resettlement abroad, Hassan’s sadness about their baby goat that dies because they have no food for it, and moments of hopelessness.
However, the young brothers’ lives are also rich and far from static. Omar’s love for Hassan, who is subject to convulsions and only utters the word “hooyo” or Mom, is a central theme in the story. This love changes over time, as Omar learns not to underestimate Hassan and to give him room to learn to do chores, take care of their goat, and play with the younger siblings of Maryam, one of Omar’s schoolmates. Omar is also strengthened by his friendship with his best friend Jeri, often harassed because of his limp, and with Maryam (and her friend Nimo), who persuades Omar not to drop out of school, as well as by the love of his foster mother and the kindness of strangers. It is a camp social worker who first persuades Omar to go to school and a UN caseworker, Susana Martinez, who keeps advocating for him even after she has been transferred to another continent. And when Hassan runs away after the death of their baby goat, it is a Somali family unknown to them who takes him in and shelters him. (In real life Omar later, in the U.S.. marries this family’s daughter).
Religion is touched on lightly and beautifully. The Eid holiday at the end of Ramadan, the fasting Month, is a day on which Omar and his friends not only get to eat their fill but also take part in the camp residents’ awe-inspiring communal prayer. And when, one evening, Omar has the crushing feeling that Dadaab is just one large prison camp, his foster mother tells him: “Life is only a prison if you make it one. Think of this more like … God’s waiting room.”
Young readers will also learn about the strength of girls in circumstances that are far from equitable. Maryam is the best student among the girls of Omar’s school when her family pulls her out of school to get married to an older and wealthier man, who can support her family financially. However, this is not the end of Maryam’s achievements and ambitions. She is the one who persuades Omar not to drop out of school and who helps Hassan discover his talents. She keeps studying and meeting with her friends. And, when the years pass – Omar lives in Dadaab from age 4 to 18 – and Maryam has a daughter, she dedicates herself to the girl’s education. The novel does not play down how Maryam is forced to scale down her aspirations, but it also manages to show her as a powerful and positive actor in her own life and that of those around her.
Moreover, perhaps inspired by her story-telling mother, Maryam finds her voice in the poem that gives the book its title and with which it concludes. The stars scattered in the night sky may seem lost, Maryam writes, but in reality have patterns, form constellations. In the same way, the lives of Somalis, who had lived under their one-star flag but were then scattered as refugees in all directions – are connected through their interwoven stories. Her charge to Omar and Hassan as they leave Dadaab to be resettled in the U.S, is: “Be like a star. Shine your light. Shine your story.”
Victoria Jamieson, the award-winning author of this and two other graphic novels, Iman Geddy, the amazing colorist, and Omar Mohamed, now a social worker and founder of an organization supporting refugee students, produced an moving and inspiring book. It comes highly recommended.
Lidwien Kapteijns. Wellesley College
Published in Africa Access Review (October 12, 2020)
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