Atia Abawi, a young adult novelist, was working on a very different book when an epiphany occurred.
Sitting in her apartment with her young son, she was watching news reports of Syrian refugees on the deadly smuggling routes to Europe. Suddenly, she knew she had to write about that experience instead.
It would not be just any story of the flight from war in Syria. It would take as its subject matter one of the conflict’s darkest episodes: Raqqa under the brief-lived but blood-drenched , where public executions were commonplace.
In a sector of publishing dominated by dystopian fantasies like The Hunger Games, her subject matter for would be the most real and sinister of dystopias. She would tell the story of Tareq, a young Syrian whose family escapes Isis-held Raqqa – where he witnesses a beheading – and subsequently travels through Turkey and Greece.
It is a theme with which .
A dual Afghan-American citizen, she was born a refugee in Germany after her parents fled the civil war in Afghanistan in 1981. She went on to become an award-winning journalist, herself working in for four years.
“I was originally researching a book on the Israel-Palestine conflict,” says Abawi, speaking from Los Angeles, where she is currently on a book tour. “I was watching the news, holding my son and watching other women with their children on the highways of Europe, feeling uncomfortable while I was in my cosy apartment.
“I thought, here were families risking everything to save their children – and it made me think about my own parents, who did the same. I could see my parents in those Syrians who had had normal, happy lives turned upside down.”
Calling her publisher, she said she wanted to abandon the book she was working on and travel to Greece and Turkey to write about these refugees; to explain to a young audience what it was to live through the worst of conflicts and risk everything to escape.
The sensitivity of the subject – and her own engagement with it – meant she was concerned it should ring true to any Syrian refugee who read the book. To check it passed muster, she asked a doctor from Raqaa – and activist with campaign group – to cast an over the story.
I was lucky that my parents made that hard decision. It wasn’t a decision about self, but to save the family
“He’s in Serbia now. He was my eyes and ears on the journey to escape Raqaa. I’d seen lots of videos from inside Raqaa. But I had described it as a virtual ghost town. One of the points he made was how that was wrong, how people were still walking around. How the checkpoints worked on the road to Aleppo, and who manned them.”
The awareness of displacement for a child, as Abawi admits, is often complicated. The choices that her parents made, and their own emotions about those choices, are things she has only come to appreciate fully with age and after becoming a parent herself.
“Growing up [in Virginia] you saw their struggles but you didn’t understand it.
“I asked my mum about how she was treated in Germany. There were people who welcomed us when she would take me in a stroller with my brother to buy ice cream. But there were others who would spit in our direction and say, ‘Damned foreigners’. Later, in America, as I got older, I remember the side glances you would get in a shop for speaking a foreign language. Thinking you are some kind of criminal or ‘other’.”
The result, she explains, is not a sense of belonging in two places – America and Afghanistan – but the opposite. “Technically, I’m a dual citizen of Afghanistan and the US – but I say I am a ‘dual foreigner’ in both.”
If the images on television were unsettling, the reality on the Greek island of Lesbos was even more disturbing.
“What was striking about the island were the lifejackets – thousands and thousands strewn everywhere in makeshift dumps. And most of them fake. You could count all the human lives. The little ones with Spider-Man figures and flowers. All those parents who took the risk. Seeing the graveyards, with their dirt mounds and little mounds. How people died in hope of trying to live.”
Although Abawi concedes her choice of subject is a “difficult” one in a literary field that has rarely dealt with conflict in the Middle East – despite the success of young adult writers who have set novels in wartime, like Michael Morpurgo and John Boyne – she believes dealing with and the Syrian refugee experience is important.
“What I love about young adult is that you are aiming both at young people as well as adults. Hopefully, their parents will pick it up as well. A young adult novel can give something past a glimpse in a 700-word article or a news clip. Give a sense of the truth and humanity behind the refugee experience.
“I have been lucky to get good reviews so far, but I was nervous about how readers would respond. I was hoping to open people’s eyes, not least because there are so few young adult books whose subject matter is realistic international fiction.”
She was also acutely conscious as she was writing – at the end of the Trump election campaign – of how profound the issue of refugees was rapidly becoming, not only in the US but also in Europe.
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“To be honest, a lot people who voted for Tump were voting directly against everything that was me. It was an important moment for me. I thought the world was becoming more open-minded with social media. I thought we can humanise the other. Now I realise how far we have to go.”
There was one reader whose reaction she was especially keen to garner: her own mother, who made the same decision that Tareq’s family makes.
“I think it is different for everyone. I was lucky that my parents made that hard decision. It wasn’t a decision about self, but to save the family. They had waited a couple of years after the war had started in 1979.
“My mother approached dad and said, ‘We have got to leave.’ And he said, ‘No. I need to stay in my country.’ She said, ‘I am going with my son and unborn child.’ And so my dad agreed, telling the then-communist regime that they were just going on vacation.
“When she started reading the manuscript, my mum kept having to put it down because she was crying. I think, as I get older, I get it.”