When Stars are Scattered
A heart-wrenching true story about life in a Kenyan refugee camp that will restore your faith in real-life happy endings. Omar and his brother Hassan, two Somali boys, have spent a long time in the Dadaab refugee camp. Separated from their mother, they are looked after by a friendly stranger. Life in the camp isn't always easy. The hunger is constant . . . but there's football to look forward to, and now there's a chance Omar will get to go to school.
This graphic novel by Vitoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed is astounding. I haven't read many graphic novels for children, I'll be honest but if this is anything to go by then it is a mode of writing that I need to learn more about.
The story is about Omar and his brother Hassan, who are Somalian refugees living in Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya. What makes the story so compelling is that it is based on Omar Mohamed's real experiences, growing up as a refugee. Through the story we get an insight into the life in a refugee camp, which is more than a camp as many of the people who live there, Omar included, stay there for years. A real sense of community comes through strongly in the book and there is a wide array of characters that surround Omar and his brother that support and challenge him through his journey in Dadaab.
I found the relationship between Omar, Hassan and their guardian Fatuma particularly compelling. Omar is extremely protective of his brother, who is disabled and is only able to say 'Hooyo' but as the story progresses, through the guidance and support of others around him, Omar comes to see that his brother is more capable than he has allowed. There is something very touching about this part of the story. Fatuma acting as an adoptive mother is very skilfully portrayed as well. As an adult reader you can see the signs of trauma in the way she behaves and refuses to speak much of her past-it is subtle and heart-breaking at times.
This is a story of contrasts, as life in the refugee camp is presented as both full of drudgery and monotony and then at a moments notice sudden change and drama; most notably this drama comes when people are called for interviews with the UN as this means they might begin the process of resettlement. The dream of many refugees in the camp seems to be to go to America which they have idealised into a sort place where dreams are realised and everyone is rich. This is another aspect of the heartbreak present in the story. As readers, we know that America is not what these people dream it will be and we know if any get to go there life will still be hard, but it is still better than the limbo of life in a refugee camp.
The story touches on many issues, including the importance of education to empower the powerless. With education comes opportunity. As a teacher I know this and face the frustration of children who don't always value the lucky position that they have found themselves in by being born in a country where they don't have to face war and famine and poverty other than on the news; something most refugees cannot claim. This is one of the reasons that this book is so important. Also for children that have been refugees themselves, this story gives them a chance to see themselves and have a story like theirs shared.
It is hard to empathise with something you don't understand and haven't experienced but 'When Stars are Scattered' puts the reader into the eyes of Omar in the refugee camp. I felt huge empathy with him and felt his hopelessness and frustration as he waited and waited for his chance at a better life. I shall be sharing this book with the children that I teach and it is my hope that they will come to empathise with Omar as well.
There are various sub plots to the main story arch including that of Maryam and Nimo. This is one of the most engaging stories and it touches on issues of gender inequality and the role of women. I won't go into detail of this story because I don't want to spoil it for anyone.
What makes the story truly astounding is the Afterward and the Authors' notes. I know reading the book that it was based on true experiences and the main story leaves us with a satisfying conclusion but still some unanswered questions-the Afterward goes on to answer these.
I haven't yet mentioned the illustrations-the writing and pictures are intermeshed beautifully and the pictures really do add an extra dimension to the story that make it so engaging. The illustrations are another reason why I think this story would be so effective with young readers. They can immediately identify with Omar as he goes through some of the same trials and tribulations that will be familiar to them, from playing football to dealing with annoying characters like 'Tall Ali' and fall outs and makes up with friends like Jeri, much of this childhood experience is almost universal-but in this case it is juxtaposed against the background of a refugee camp and the additional pressures of doing chores and looking after your brother and doing what it takes to survive. The familiar draws the reader into the experience of the unfamiliar.
I think I could probably talk about this book forever, it is so wonderful. It is complex and messy, which you would expect as it is based on real events. There is so much depth to the story and so many areas are touched on. I love the fact that through this story I got to see Omar and his friends as people rather than just 'refugees'. There is such a positive message about empowerment and education and hope in this story-I think it is a book that should be in every school. It would be a fine addition to any classroom from Y6 upwards although I think Y7+ would probably get more out of the subtleties and depths of the story.