Part of the PEN Atlas #RefugeesWelcome series.
Translated from German by Ruth Martin.
At the start of 2014 – more than a year before the number of refugees in Germany began to increase – some friends and I became heavily involved in looking after refugees in our small town near Hamburg. It meant that I knew a lot of individuals and families who were refugees – some of them with tragic stories. So at the start of 2015, I agreed with the town’s press officer that I would write a little series of articles about these people for our local paper – just so that the inhabitants of the town could see the individual stories that lay behind the collective term ‘the refugees’. And while I was still deciding which people I should approach about this, I had an enquiry from Onilo, a company which produces online animated picture books for interactive whiteboards in schools. They asked if I could write a refugee story – something I was wonderfully well prepared for just then!
The story was intended for primary-school children, so for me that ruled out the most tragic fates: it meant I didn’t want to tell the story of one Syrian family in our town with three children, two of whom had drowned in the Mediterranean; or of another, whose eldest child had been shot while sitting beside his father in the car as they drove through their city; or of the 19-year-old Afghan boy whose parents and sister were shot by the Taliban, and whose bullet wounds from the same attack mean that he uses crutches and has difficulty moving around. Children don’t like reading stories that are too much of a burden for them – they can’t process them, and if they are forced to read these stories, they protect themselves by just not letting them in, not allowing themselves to be touched by them. Thirty years as a children’s author make me very certain of this.
That was why I settled on a family with a rather ‘average’ story of escape: in 2013, four children and their parents made it safely to our town from the city of Homs in Syria. The two eldest children (who were nine and ten at the time) now speak such good German that they were able to tell me their story. So we sat down with them at their home – their mother was there as well – and they narrated it. I was terribly afraid of re-traumatising the children, and so I started by simply asking them about their friends in Syria, and the games they played with them – the children could then decide for themselves if and how far they wanted to recall their experiences of war. I also thought it was useful to show German children: Look, they haven’t always been refugees! They were children like you with a nice house and lots of friends, who went to school and had fun! They’re actually just like you! That makes it far easier for young readers to identify with characters: a refugee is something completely different from me, he’s poor and hardly able to speak my language; but a child who gets up to mischief, goes to the fair, plays football with his friends, is actually quite a lot like me! Only by this means does a story about refugee children really become comprehensible for young readers in Germany.
As time went on, my two narrators seemed to spur each other on. Each of them kept thinking of more to say – and all on their own, they eventually started talking about the bombs. They talked about having to hide under their desks at school, and finally about their escape and the fear and the hunger they felt during the long trip across the Mediterranean. I didn’t actually have to ask any questions. Of their own accord, they both told me the things that were important to them – and the things they were able to bear.
Afterwards, they wrote down the names they wanted to be known by in the story – I felt it was important to make everything anonymous, so that the children couldn’t be identified against their will. Given the incredible media attention the story has received over the months following its publication in book form, I’m very, very glad of this decision.
Anonymization also meant changing some of the details. But by and large, the story is quite simply an authentic report by two Syrian children.
Since the book was published I have been overwhelmed by the reactions to it. Children write to me, school classes write to me, people who take care of refugees write to me; invitations for readings and lectures have come in thick and fast. But the thing that has made the greatest impression on me is the reaction from German children when I read the story somewhere. For one thing, they usually ask straight away what they can do to help; for another, something I suspected while writing it has proved correct: the dramatic high points of the story – the bombs, the fighting in the streets, the crossing of the Mediterranean – are not what affects the children most. They are more moved by all the things they recognise from their own lives; things they can imagine happening to them. When Rahaf, the little girl, has her doll Lulla taken from her by the people-smugglers, and never gets her back, German children are deeply affected. They ask if Rahaf has a new doll now – and if not, they’re prepared to send her one of their own.
For me, all this is very moving – and it’s something I never expected when I was writing the story, at a time when no one could have guessed the extent to which the refugee movement would become an issue for us all.
#RefugeesWelcome: this piece is part two of five in a PEN Atlas series responding to the refugee crisis. Read other pieces in the series.
Good Chance, a theatre dome established in the Calais ‘Jungle’ from October 2015 to March 2016, has erected a solidarity dome at London’s Southbank Centre, with events and workshops running throughout this week. Find out more here.
Illustration © Roberto Sitta/CreativeConnection, 2016.