Welcome to Nowhere – Elizabeth Laird

In my fairly limited experience of having to explain difficult concepts to children ( just don’t ask what I told my young niece, at my stepmother’s funeral, when she asked where Granny was…) I would imagine talking about war is right up there with the hardest. This isn’t just a case of being naughty, or risking a broken limb or even making mum, dad or Aunt Jane sad – this is trying to explain politics, greed, mindless violence or killing in the name of a ’cause’. On the one hand I can understand wanting to protect children from even the knowledge of such things but, on the other, I’m sure any parent wouldn’t want their child to learn about such huge issues without them being at least present.

welcomeElizabeth Laird’s Welcome to Nowhere seemed to me to be a good way for older children (9/10+?) to explore issues raised by war in general and the war in Syria in particular. It is the story of Omar, a young boy who dislikes school and wants to be a rich businessman when he grows up. So far, so much like kids all over the world (including any who have ever seen The Apprentice…) but Omar and his family live in Bosra, a city in Southern Syria with a rich history. The city is popular with tourists until it becomes caught up in the conflict in 2012 and Omar’s displacement begins. At first they move cities and then to the country as their new home also becomes unsafe. Omar isn’t interested in politics, although his brother Musa (who has cerebral palsy) does become involved, but it is very hard for anyone, even children, to avoid fighting and religious conflict in Syria. Eventually the family has to leave the country altogether and they make their way to a refugee camp in Jordan.

I liked the characters in this book. They seem very much like real children (even if they are in situations you would hope that no child could ever be in) and all the politics and dangers are seen through their eyes. I didn’t feel that these dangers were glossed over but, because our main storytellers are children and therefore, perhaps, a bit more adaptable to change they are moved on from quite swiftly. I would imagine that this book could help youngsters (and adults) to understand what it could be like to experience war first hand yet from a civilian viewpoint.




An Unsafe Haven – Nada Awar Jarrar

Home is a funny thing. My first home was a bungalow in Laindon, Essex which had been part of the plotlands developments of the mid-C20th. There was no central heating, no bathroom, only an outside loo (with some huge spiders) and I swear you could see big gaps in the skirting boards that showed the outside world. But I was happy there, I had my family, I had enough to eat: it was home. I’ve only ever really moved home three times (once with my family, once to my first property up in Durham and, finally, once to the house I now live in with my husband) and I’ve been lucky enough to feel that each of these places has been a true home. Some of this is to do with having familiar things around me (I’ve still got a few books, pictures, soft toys and crockery which I had as a child in Laindon) and a huge amount is to do with the fact that I have lived in all these places with people I love. So, home is a place but it is also the people you share that place with.

unsafe havenNada Awar Jarrar’s latest novel, an Unsafe Haven, seems to me to be about what home means to those who are living in some of the most unstable areas in the world – war-torn Syria and a Lebanon which still bears the scars of its own conflicts. It is the story of a group of friends – Lebanese Hannah and her American husband Peter, their Syrian artist friend AnasĀ  and Maysoun an Iraqi woman working for the Red Cross in the refugee camps – and how they deal with the realities of living in a region fractured by a patchwork of ongoing conflicts. Events which in our own relatively safe lives would be difficult or stressful take on even greater significance in these circumstances. An illegitimate child, career dissatisfaction, problems with the in-laws could all, under these conditions become matters of life or death.

The story is, in some ways, slight. Anas’ wife is not responding to phone calls back home in Damascus and he discovers she has taken their children away to her parents in Germany. A young woman and her son are saved from a traffic accident and need help to be reunited with their family. Peter is unhappy in his administrative role since, as a foreigner in the country, he is not allowed to work as a doctor. But the book goes deeper than the plot itself – I found myself thinking about aspects of the ever-changing system of hoops which refugees have to jump through, even in welcoming states like Lebanon, and that I really must read much, much more about the background to the many overlapping wars, conflicts and regimes in the Middle East. I felt that I became more aware of some of the cultural differences between the West and the Arab world and the problems faced by those who try to straddle both. And, in the end, I returned to my thoughts of home. Those who escape from countries like Iraq return because they want their children to know about their heritage. But they return to chaos, with formerly well-off families reduced to selling their jewellery, books and treasures – in fact their heritage – to survive. People use their homes – even if they are tents in a refugee camp – as a way of trying to create the illusion that the world is still normal and safe. And in the end which do you choose? Safety or home?