Tag Archives: europe

The Cat I Never Named: A True Story of Love, War, and Survival by Amra Sabic-El-Rayess with Laura L. Sullivan

Standard
The Cat I Never Named: A True Story of Love, War, and Survival by Amra Sabic-El-Rayess with Laura L. Sullivan

img_8275

This amazingly captive 370 page, nonfiction autobiography details life during 1992 through 1995 in Bihać, Bosnia through the eyes of a 16-year-old Muslim girl.  The horrors of war, her determination to survive, a lifesaving cat, and her coming of age, all come together to make for a compelling read that is both reflective and inspiring.  I had a hard time putting the YA/Teen book down even knowing that she would obviously survive and being vaguely familiar with the Serbian attacks and ethnic genocide that occurred.  In an easy to read flowing first person narrative, somehow the book avoids being overly political, while still managing to convey the role of the media, the international world, and the hateful mindset that turned friends and neighbors into enemies.  I think teens, 15 and up, should spend some time with this book as well as adults, it really serves as a wake up call to how fragile nations can be when we turn on one another.  We must know the past, to as not repeat it.

SYNOPSIS:

The book starts out with Amra on a train returning from Belgrade where she took tests as she is one of the brightest kids in the region.  Immediately it is made clear that she is incredibly smart, and independent as she travels alone into the heart of Serbia.  The war has not yet come, but on the return trip Serbian Nationalist soldiers board the train and she is desperately afraid that she will be sexually assaulted.  Fortunately, she does not “look Muslim” and the soldiers physically leave her alone.  Her naivety, however, is lost as she realizes the war is closer than her family thinks.

Her family lives in a beautiful home that they designed and saved for, they wear hand me down clothes and watch expenses as a result.  Amra has a younger brother Dino, her older brother seemed to have some disability and has passed away, her parents are honest and value education. Her family is everything to her, they are incredibly close knit.  They are ethnically Muslim, but do not practice.  She mentions it regularly, that they are being attacked for a religion they do not practice.  They wear bikinis and date, eat pork and drink alcohol, they identify first as Bosnian and then as Muslim.  But they do identify as Muslim and they suffer for it, over and over and over again.

The story sets the stage by showing how diverse Bihać is and how Serb, Croats, Bosnians, Muslims, Christians, Catholics all live together.  It is Amra’s birthday, it really isn’t, but they could not afford the food and gifts at the time of her 16th birthday, so they are celebrating it now with a sleepover with her closest life-long friends.  When Amra and her father go in to town to get the cake, they see tanks rolling in, refugees from other cities seeking safety and Amra and her father start handing out whatever money they have and take a couple home with them.  At the party, they don’t discuss what they have seen, but when Amra’s best friend, a Serb, cannot spend the night, the parties tone changes and the mood is set for the next chapter in Amra’s life.

At school she shares how Muslims are treated and forced to take Russian, while the Serbs are encouraged in English, while the children get along as many are mixed ethnicities, there is rampant favoritism from the adults.  When one day only the Muslims arrive at school, the Serbs have all secretly evacuated in the night, there is no more denying that the war has come to Bihać. With the comfort of her cat, who she simply calls, Maci, cat in Bosnian, and his “luck” to somehow delay her or warn her of bombings, she and her family endure the first wave of attacks by hunkering down in a cousins basement.

Ultimately they decide that they cannot stop living.  Death is striking at every turn and no one is more safe in one location than another and the family returns home.  They still have electricity at first, but it soon disappears, the phone lines stay, but food starts to get scarce.  At times the family goes out of the city to stay with family on a bee farm and survive off the honey, but it is not safe there either.  School resumes a few days a month, but all the Muslim’s records have been “lost” and paper is in short supply.

Over the four years of the war, Amra’s aging diabetic father is called to fight, an explosion at the house renders her mother deaf, friends and family are killed while somehow the day to day of surviving continues.  Amra graduates from high school, works as a tutor when she cannot pursue her own education, and finds work as a translator for international workers after she teaches herself english.  There are times she is so malnourished her hair is falling out, her gums are bleeding and she blacks out, and there are times when the family is able to trade honey for food and can open a small store in the corner of their house.

The resiliency and heartache is not something a review can capture, you feel for Amra at every turn, both in delight as well as in fear and devastation.

WHY I LIKE IT:

It has a map! Seriously, thank you.  I love that the book is so emotional, it doesn’t get hung up on dates and events, but how whatever is happening affects Amra and her view of the world.  As a character, ultimately a person, she doesn’t stay down, she is capable and strong, which is so remarkable in the best of times and absolutely heroic living through this war.  The cat is a remarkable character, and while at times it seems forced, it is a great thread that keeps her story being relatable on all levels.

There are a few chances for Amra to leave her family and get away to safety, the first time it is presented to her she would have to change her name, she decides she cannot.  This is a testament to her love of her family, but also to her identity.  She is proud of who she is, which is mind blowing to me.  I talked about it in my review of The Day of the Pelican, about how Bosnian refugees I got to know in the late 90s knew nothing about Islam, but were being slaughtered for being Muslim.  Repeatedly she talks about how in Bosnia there were some conservative traditional Muslims, but that most of them are not, her family is not.  Yet, my heart truly cried out when her and her mother are trying to get food from drunk soldiers and are certain that they are going to be raped or blown up by land mines and she says the only prayer she knows.  One that she learned after the war started: “Auzubillahi Minahs Shaitan ir Rajeem.  Bismillah ir Rahman ir Rahim.  Rabbi Yassir wa la Tua’ssir, Rabbi tammim bil khayr.  I seek refuge in Allah from Satan in the the Name of Allay the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.  O God make it easy and don’t make it difficult, O’ God, complete this with good.”  

She explains the cover of the book at the end, “the book’s jacket presents my authentic self, a liberal Muslim teen, yet a Muslim who was still so profoundly hated.  The jacket illustration serves as a reminder that the hate is a product of its perpetrators rather a reflection of its victims.

FLAGS:

The book is about war, it has rape, sexual assault, death.  At times it is descriptive and detailed, not sensationalized, but powerful.  There is kissing, boyfriends and girlfriends, nothing lewd.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I learned about this book from Lovely Books Podcast when she interviewed the author: https://lovelybooks.buzzsprout.com, it is a great introduction along with many of the interviews and articles that Dr. Amra Sabic-El-Reyess has done.

I would love to do this as a book club, but I think it would have be done on a high school level, not middle school.  The dialogue and understanding I would imagine surrounding this book would be compassionate and thoughtful.  I hope those leading book clubs for older students and even adults will consider this book.

Nowhere Boy by Katherine Marsh

Standard
Nowhere Boy by Katherine Marsh

boy

I was not expecting to be so absorbed by this 362 page AR 5.4 book.  I knew it was about a Syrian refugee in Brussels and his friendship with an American kid living in Europe for a year, so I knew that Islamaphobia and immigration would all be factors.  I also knew that as a middle grade book it would be optimistic, and a bit of a stretch at times,  but when I had to pause in the first chapter to wipe the tears off my cheek, I knew that while it could be billed as, another refugee story, it really was going to be a poignant story about humanity and friendship and family and making a difference, so I settled in and was swept off to Belgium and the adventure of two determined kids.

SYNOPSIS:

The book opens with 14-year-old Ahmed on a boat with his father hoping to reach Greece from Turkey, when the boat stalls, his father and two other men, the only other people on the dinghy that know how to swim, jump into the sea to drag the boat.  When a storm swell hits them, his father is lost and Ahmed, who left Syria when an explosion killed his mom and sisters, is all alone.

Max is 13 and his parents and sister have just arrived in Belgium for a year.  Not a great student, Max learns that he will be going to a local school where French is spoken, and will be repeating 6th grade.  Less than thrilled with the news, he is additionally hurt that his parents didn’t tell him first.

The two stories start off separate with Max trying to find his footing in school and scouts where he understands very little, and has no desire to learn, and is also getting picked on by a kid named Oscar.  He learns about the history of his street and house during World War II from his after school tutor and a police officer that used to live in the house they are renting and makes regular checks on how it is being maintained.  

 Ahmed has been staying with Ibrahim and his family, another man that tried to drag the boat in the sea, but with news that they are probably going to be forced to return to Iraq, suggests that Ahmed register in as an unaccompanied minor so that he could find a place to stay.  Ahmed knows that if he registers in Beligium he will never make it to England, he hires a smuggler for 300 Euros to get him there.  When the smuggler steals his money and his phone, Ahmed worries his organs could be next, and jumps out of the moving car,  

Ahmed runs through a neighborhood looking for shelter and safety and some warmth from the frigid air.  Ahmed finds the basement of a house unlocked, he then finds a wine cellar room that is empty and decides to stay for the night as he figures out his next step. One day turns in to two and before he knows it, he has a routine of finding food upstairs during the night, which he records so that he can repay the family one day, caring for the family’s discarded orchids, and working on his English.  Then one day Max goes downstairs and discovers Ahmed living there.

Deciding he isn’t a terrorist, Max decides not to turn Ahmed in nor tell his parents, and the two become friends.  The two enlist Farah, a nice Muslim girl at school to help, and they get Oscar too, to forge papers to get Ahmed in to school.  While the biggest problem should be keeping a kid hidden in the basement, and keeping him fed and entertained, the situation is compounded as terrorist attacks by Muslim extremist plague the city and Europe, making everyone on high alert.  The police keep checking in and anti immigrant sentiment rises.  When Ahmed gets accused of being a bomb maker his secret is out, but can his knowledge of how a jewish boy was hidden in the neighborhood during the war keep him free? Nope, I’m not going to spoil it, you have to read it, trust me, you’ll thank me for it!

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love, love, love, the history parallel, and the truth in the story of Albert Jonnart and Ralph Mayer that is woven into this modern fictional story.  I love that Max so plainly says that the stories are the same and that laws that aren’t right shouldn’t be followed, yes! The book reads a lot like Refugee by Alan Gratz crossed with The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q. Rauf with the kids being so heroic and determined and awesome, throw in a dash of The Diary of Anne Frank, switching out a boy for a girl, a Muslim for a Jew, the basement for the attic, and a diary for a fictional story, and you have this book.

I love that the adventure and excitement shows how resourceful kids can be even when they don’t share common language.  Max speaks English and is learning French, he is helping Ahmed learn better English and some French, when they talk to Farah who speaks Moroccan Arabic /Berber, they often have to go through Oscar who speaks French and English.  Yay, for American television and kids who’s hearts are bigger than the obstacles they are taking on.  Additionally, when the kids hit a dead end, they reach out to Jews in America for help, knowing that the two religions have more in common than politicians and the media would like to think.  Seriously, kids should rule the world.

Ahmed is a religious boy that prays, refuses meat even when hungry to ensure it is halal, and makes sure that Max knows in Islam kindness and charity are the norm and commands, not the violence that people are doing in the name of his religion.  A lot of the moms of the kids at school where hijab, and the author gets the Islam right and believable.  It doesn’t get preachy, but a fair amount of information about Islam is shared.

FLAGS:

A lot of lying. Some violence, death, hate speech. There is mention of smoking and the adults I think drink wine at one point.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I’m hoping to do this as a middle school book club selection, because it really is so good.

Author’s website: https://katherinemarsh.com/books/nowhere-boy/

Teaching: https://www.teachingbooks.net/tb.cgi?tid=60364

 

The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees by Don Brown

Standard
The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees by Don Brown

unwanted

I try and keep an eye on what is available at Scholastic regarding Muslim characters and Muslim authors since for many kids the Scholastic Book Orders might be the most interaction they have with seeing available books, and for others, they may see a book in a library or other book store that they have seen on a Scholastic flyer and pick it up for that reason of familiarity.  Granted I might be completely wrong in this assessment and just be trying to justify my review of a non fiction 103 page AR 5.7 graphic novel that talks about Muslims and refugees, but nonetheless I try and read the Scholastic books that feature Muslim representation to a very captive audience.

IMG_6981

SYNOPSIS:

The book takes facts about the plight and flight of the Syrians as they are forced to leave their homes due to war, and the horrors they face on their journeys to finding a new place to call home, and illustrates them.  The book focuses more on the exodus than on the politics that forced them to leave.  There are no characters or story lines, but rather illustrations to the headlines, articles, and facts that detail the truths about the collective experiences of many Syrians.  It seems every single sentence is referenced at the back of the book, which is probably a good thing as it is non fiction and this is a researched book, not a book of anecdotal stories or an OWN voice retelling.

IMG_6985

The book in muted tones tells how the young boys scrawling graffiti is what is attributed to the spark that set Syria ablaze with frustrated citizens standing up to an oppressive regime.  The pictures show different factions policing the people for trying to have pianos, to kicking people out of the homes and torturing them or killing them.  As the situation elevates and no end is in sight the book, then follows people leaving by foot into neighboring countries, and then fanning out as border countries refuse to let more people stay.  Eventually, many are forced on to rafts to countries further away, but as their resources deplete, many Syrians have no where to go and are unwanted.

IMG_6984

WHY I LIKE THE BOOK:

I like that it is real and graphic and violent, it doesn’t show everyone getting a happy ending.  I think many children’s books focus on the heroes trying to help or people having a happily ever after, but by upper elementary, readers need to know that the situation is dire and no resolution is in sight.  The author tries to explain the Sunni and Shia differences by using Christian divisions as examples, and he shows jihadists torturing people, and he does use statements about Islam and music, and I don’t know how a child would take these labels as they don’t come with much explanation.  On the other hand he does highlight that some countries would only take Christian Syrians, so I don’t think he is advocating one faith over another, but the details about Muslims for some reason seemed a little forced to me.

IMG_6983

I think his agenda or purpose was to show how the world, with the exception of a few countries, have really turned their back on refugees.  It says in a footnote at the end “that in the first three months of 2018,” for example, “the United States has accepted 11 (refugees) for resettlement.” The facts, the maps, the diagrams, really drive home the point and do evoke an emotional response, which I think is needed.  A few of the pictures are also incredibly resonating, such as the one of the man stating he couldn’t save his family from drowning.

IMG_6992

FLAGS:

The book shows violence and death.

IMG_6982

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

The shortness of the book, might not make it an ideal candidate for a Book Club, but the value in such a book makes it a great addition to any and every classroom.  I don’t know how many children will read this book on their own.  It isn’t fun or compelling, its factual and depressing.  But, I think it is important.  Nonfiction is often hard to convince children to read, so I like that it is a graphic novel and I like that the information can all be verified.  I think children need to be encouraged to read things that might not be easy and fun, and have a way to discuss how such readings make them feel.  Furthermore, If you are a teacher teaching references, this book is a great example.

 

My Name was Hussein by Hristo Kyuchukov illustrated by Allan Eitzen

Standard
My Name was Hussein by Hristo Kyuchukov illustrated by Allan Eitzen

IMG_3215

It isn’t often that a 32 page AR 2.4 picture book will haunt you after you read the last page.  Especially a book with short simple sentences, that is poorly organized and reads like two separate nearly disjointed stories, but alas this book has stayed with me for months and upon rereading it to write this review, the images and empathy and reflections stirred have not lessened.  This is an important book to read, to think about, and to return to sporadically as your children and their understanding of the larger world grows and evolves.

IMG_3217

Hussein is a Roma, or a gypsy living in a small village in Bulgaria.  Their ancestors migrated many years ago from India and they are Muslim.  Hussein and his family love Ramadan and the delicious smells of food and warmth of grandparents and family all year round, but particularly during the blessed month.  

IMG_3218

Eid is the best, with family and fun and new clothes.  Hussein loves his life and his name.  It was his grandfather’s name and his grandfather’s grandfather’s name.  But then one day all that changes.

IMG_3219

Tanks and soldiers with guns come to their village and close that mosque and tear up their identity cards and tell all the minorities that they must choose Christian names and give up their culture and identities.

IMG_3220

Hussein and his family do not want to give up Islam and their names and their traditions, but they don’t know what to do.  Feeling like they have no choice they change their names and Hussein asks the reader at the end if you would call him Hussein or Harry?  

IMG_3221

The last page of the book is an author’s note, and tells that this is based on his own life story.  That in the 1980s Bulgarian minorities were forced to change their identities.  That more than one million Muslims, including Roma, Turks and other minorities were forced to choose Christian names and that until he was 22 years old, his name was Hussein.

The illustrations are illuminating to the images that the simple words discuss.  Truly they are a powerful and integral part of the story.  The women wear hijab and the use of color to set the tone is spot on.  The book is hardbound and the 8×10 size allow the pictures to be enjoyed fully.

IMG_3222

The book published in 2004, was not easy to find which is unfortunate as it really sheds light on a recent history not known in the US at all, and one that should be known and remembered.  The first part of the book reads like a Ramadan story detailing iftaar and Eid and how Ramadan is celebrated by this culture, but the second half goes back to Ramadan and how it is different with the soldiers and the pressure to give up who they are.  There aren’t a lot of details about who the soldiers are or why they have come or what they are going to do to the Romas, but the fact that in recent history and this was what people were faced with, should be a powerful reminder to us all at how fragile this world is and make us appreciate that we aren’t forced to make such a decision.