Friday, 28 August 2015

Writing for language, reading for joy: children's books for refugees displaced by ISIS in Iraqi Kurdistan

Writing for language, reading for joy: children's books for refugees displaced by ISIS in Iraqi Kurdistan

'There are so many stories /
more beautiful than answers.'
 Mary Oliver

One of the greatest stories I was ever told came from my Arabic teacher and friend, Asia. It was a story about language and courage. She told me that when she was a child, her mother wanted her to learn Kurmanji, a Kurdish dialect forbidden at the time in Syria. To learn Kurdish was a crime against the state, punishable by arrest and imprisonment. 

Kurdistan, a state like Palestine that now lives in the imaginations  of few instead of the world maps of many, has long been oppressed in the Middle East. And yet the Kurdish language and culture survive and thrive across vast parts of Turkey, Syria and Iraq. Geo-political autonomous regions are recognized, for example, in the Iraqi Republic, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) of northern Iraq, but for Asia in Syria it was a language that was near impossible to learn. 

Nevertheless, every week a woman would arrive with a book nestled secretly beneath her clothes to teach Asia the forbidden language. After each session they would burn the papers, to erase any trace of their encounter and their learning. Amazingly, the lessons took seed in Asia's mind and she now speaks, reads, and writes perfect Kurmanji, and teaches Arabic to students (like me) lucky enough to have her as their teacher in Beirut.

It was language that drew me to Lebanon in June 2014: the Arabic language and the promise of being able to communicate better with friends from Syria I had met in Damascus years before the civil conflict began. This autumn I will return even further east, to Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, where millions of internally displaced people have set up refugee camps as the appalling sectarian violence continues. This time the call comes from AMAR, the foundation I have been writing two books for this summer. The two titles, The Lake Where Frogs Live and The Starling's Visit are being written and illustrated for those children who have been internally displaced by ISIS. 

These books aim to confront the inter-community tensions that exist between previously isolated communities who now live together in close quarters. AMAR have requested that the books be trilingual, with the Kurdish dialect of Sorani alongside formal Arabic and English, to break down language barriers and confront this painful omission of Kurdish language learning. It was therefore with great pride that I worked with the Kurdish doctoral community at Exeter University to translate Kitabna's fourth and fifth books.

But these books are also just simple stories, created in the Kitabna style: warm and hopeful children's stories, set in refugee camps, where girls and boys have equal voices.

The Lake Where Frogs Live is a tale about a family of frogs who live in a lake where displaced families are settled in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The frogs love to hear people laugh, and help their new neighbours to laugh again.

The Starling's Visit is a tale about a girl who discovers the migratory patterns of starlings in her camp close to Erbil. 

And helps a new friend to avoid the cooking pot and settle in.

I think we all have mantras that guide us through life, and a few for me have come from the Canadian poet, Mary Oliver. She writes in one poem that 'There are so many stories / more beautiful than answers'. When I first read these words I was struggling with the realities of living in Lebanon and engaging with the Syrian refugee crisis. They seemed to sum up my approach to the endless questions I was asked by displaced people living in their tented settlements in the borderlands: how long is this going to last for? Where is my brother, sister, father, mother, teacher? Where do we go from here?

So many of the Syrian and Palestinian people I met in Lebanon were experiencing varying degrees of statelessness, homelessness, and hopelessness, with all the frustrations and anxieties that followed. Every family has relatives who are illegally crossing continents in seek of a better life, or feared drowned in Mediterranean, fleeing a civil war that is predicted to continue for fifteen years longer.

Few answers can provide comfort, and having no answers to give, I decided instead to write stories. That was how my writing project for refugees, Kitabna ( started last September. Kitabna is Arabic for "our book" and seeks to write, illustrate and distribute bilingual Arabic-English children's books to children displaced by conflict.


The Giant Watermelon, and recreating the Watermelon School with the children of one of El Marj's refugee camps in the Beqaa Valley, Lebanon, and planting watermelons this spring in Aley, Lebanon.


There was magic in that approach and the magic continues to spread, from Lebanon to Turkey to Palestine and even to schools in New Zealand, where the New Zealand Red Cross have ordered copies to talk to children about conflict and displacement. And now our books are off to Iraqi Kurdistan.

I find Mary Oliver's words at the centre of my work at the moment, as I put together these stories and work on a book of children's stories written by the Syrian and Palestinian children we have read with in Lebanon, and work on ways to take our books and our initiative to those displaced communities in Jordan, Turkey, and much closer to home, Calais. There is no easy answer to displacement; but there can be beautiful stories, amidst the deeply painful stories people have lived and continue to live.

Thanks for reading.

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