But when his clever older brother, Musa, gets mixed up with some young political activists, everything changes . . .
Before long, bombs are falling, people are dying, and Omar and his family have no choice but to flee their home with only what they can carry. Yet no matter how far they run, the shadow of war follows them - until they have no other choice than to attempt the dangerous journey to escape their homeland altogether. But where do you go when you can't go home?
Reviewed by Caroline Bradley
Welcome to Nowhere is an important story, one that needs to be told and Elizabeth Laird, who is no stranger to bringing the experiences of people in Middle Eastern countries to the fore, does so in her usual sympathetic, yet honest and realistic style. Assiduously researched by Laird, who immersed herself in the land of her characters by taking part in the Syrian Refugee project, this story is accurate in its historical portrayal of the civil war in Syria and yet is essentially a human story.
Elizabeth describes it as ‘… a story of an ordinary family pushed into extraordinary situations, and how they live up to the challenge.’
Written in five parts, the story follows twelve-year-old Omar who has ambitions to run his own business and shows enterprise and initiative wherever he is on his journey. Omar’s older brother Musa is troubled by the plight of his country and also by his own limitations as a result of his disability (he has cerebral palsy). Eman, Omar’s sister is an aspiring teacher and a highly resilient character who adapts to the changing and continually deteriorating conditions under which the family must survive. She is forced to make a personal sacrifice and displays enormous courage in the face of adversity. Initially moving away from their home and out of the city to stay with relatives, Omar’s family of 7 are eventually forced to flee their homeland and end up navigating the community of a refugee camp with its official and unofficial rules.
Lucy Eldridge’s illustrations beautifully complement the text. The map at the beginning of the book is useful to orient children to the area in which the story is set. The double-page spreads preceding each new ‘part’ could be used to recall or track the story and draw comparisons by focusing on the detail.
There is so much to delve into including the family relationships, particularly between Omar and his older brother Musa, the role of women and their life prospects, survival, life’s basic needs and living without technology, the historical links and the refugee experience. A word of warning for sharing this story. Whilst I think it is perfectly appropriate for UK2 and beyond, there is a fleeting reference to the rape of a minor. The writing style is accessible with no overly complex vocabulary and mature children of mid-level reading ability would be quite capable of reading it themselves. However, I think this book is most suited as an Upper junior class reader, where points can be clarified or discussed as necessary.
Elizabeth says ‘A railway line ran past the garden of my childhood home, and I used to lie awake listening to the trains chug by, wishing I was on one of them.’ The train in this story is one Elizabeth would not have wanted to board. Omar and his family take the frightening journey from their beloved homeland to who knows where, as they make the heartbreaking decision to leave behind life as they have always known it.
The description of a line of hundreds of people snaking across a dirt track and one turning to the family with the salutation ‘Welcome to nowhere’ is shocking and haunting. The concept of ‘nowhere’ captures the essence of a non-place. How do you define somewhere to survive but not thrive, somewhere to exist but not to grow?
The final paragraph was where I felt a direct connection to this story, as Laird suggests it is up to us, the reader, to decide the fate of this family and others like them. It is a passive, yet very effective call to action. Embedded in the story, reflected in the lives of the characters the reader has come to know and care about, it is truly empathetic and simultaneously tugs at your heartstrings and attacks your conscience. This is not a true story but it is a story inspired by a truth, both terrible and uplifting. There is a reference to the aid agencies Elizabeth has worked with and how to support the Hope School at the end of the book.
Welcome to Nowhere would couple beautifully with Forced to Flee, a collection of true child refugee stories or, for a comparative fiction, Steve Tasane’s Child I for the refugee camp experience or No Ballet Shows in Syria for a potential story after the story.
The book has been translated into Danish, Estonian and Japanese, so Omar’s story is reaching far and wide into a world that needs to listen and to act.