Writer turns folklore into comics for Syria’s refugee youth

Of all the images emerging from Syria’s civil war, it was the children that unsettled writer A. David Lewis the most. There were photographs of tear-streaked panic. Of round-cheeked faces caked in dust and blood. Of little bodies fleeing the carnage, only to wash up dead on foreign shores.

Day after day, the news echoed with the children’s names: Alan Kurdi, Omran Daqneesh, Bana al-Abed. And in each new face, Lewis found something uncannily familiar.

“I kept seeing the children, and they looked so much like my own children,” Lewis told ivoh in a recent interview. “I could just see their faces in those same desperate photos.”

Lewis was determined to act, but how? He and his wife had already donated money to relief efforts. As a Massachusetts-based scholar and comic-book author, he wasn’t sure what more he could do personally.  

“I teach college classes. I’m not an expert on Syria,” Lewis said. “I can’t give their basic needs: healthcare and security and legal fees and resettlement.”

But his wife pressed him, urging him to do something. Her words led Lewis to the realization that maybe, just maybe, a comic book might help the same vulnerable population that inspired him to act in the first place: Syria’s children.

Of the 13.5 million Syrians in need of humanitarian assistance, 5.8 million of them are children. Air raids have systematically targeted heavily populated areas, leveling schools and hospitals — places that are vital to children’s wellbeing and where they are known to congregate.

As a result, one recent study estimated that a quarter of all the civilian deaths in 2016 were minors. Those who survive remain vulnerable to issues like poor sanitation, a lack of healthcare and malnutrition.

Even when they escape to refugee camps abroad, Syrian youth face pressure to work dangerous jobs and submit to child marriages, in order to relieve their poverty. And though the warfare they fled may be miles away, the trauma of those events lingers.

Graphic novel writer A. David Lewis at WBUR. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

“They’re having to leave much of everything behind, including large pieces of their culture,” Lewis said. That sense of loss proved to be the driving force for his comic book project.

“The idea came to me that this is something I could do: I could find Syrian folktales, adapt them into comics, re-translate them into Arabic, and release it back to these kids, so that even if they’re not standing in Syria, they could still have Syria in their hearts and minds,” he said.

Once he settled on the idea for the project, Lewis says the whole thing came together “surprisingly fast.” The non-profit NuDay Syria agreed to partner on the project, and organizations like the Ilex Foundation and the Mizan Project offered early financing and resources.

And then there were the other comic-book creators Lewis knew, who were just as passionate about helping displaced Syrians — but were likewise unsure about how to use their art for good.

“When I presented this idea, many of them were enthusiastic to get involved without pay, just to get the premise off the ground,” Lewis said.

Together, they formed the Comics for Youth Refugees Incorporated Collective, or CYRIC, which put out its first publication last spring.

Refugee children receive comics. Photo by NuDay Syria.

From the get-go, Lewis knew he wanted to avoid some of the pitfalls he’d seen other comic book projects stumble into. As the Syrian war garnered more and more press attention, he noticed that Syria itself had become a kind of “ugly shorthand” for violence and displacement.

“It’s come up as a throwaway line in major TV and comic-book plot lines,” he said. “You can throw the word ‘Syria’ in now, and it means ‘refugee.’ So if Superman swoops over a group of Syrian children, we all know what that means.”

Lewis also bristled at the fact that most of the media he’d seen, however well intentioned, focused solely on raising awareness. It felt “targeted one-way,” benefiting Western audiences without mobilizing support for the Syrians it depicted.

“Raising awareness is excellent. I’m not knocking that. But there was no further call to action after the awareness raising,” Lewis said. Without that call to action, he feared the media portrayals could tilt toward “disaster porn, basically a voyeuristic ‘tsk-tsk’ of the situation.”

Lewis was hardly alone in tackling the Syrian crisis through the lens of comic books — one high-profile project, “Madaya Mom,” was helmed by none other than industry titan Marvel Comics — but Lewis saw his project as a unique opportunity to “reverse the polarity.” Instead of informing and entertaining a Western audience, his comics would inform and entertain a Syrian one.

“I’m hoping it tells them they are not forgotten, that they have value even to those people who may never meet them,” Lewis said. “And that getting this gives them a sense that not everything can be taken from them.”

But Lewis was not Syrian, so in order to find folklore and other pieces of Syria’s oral storytelling tradition, he did what academics do best: He started to research.

No source was too obscure for Lewis’s purposes. He found inspiration in picture books, “a number of really scholarly, egg-headed journals” and even a “really Orientalist British journal” from over a hundred years ago.

Not all the stories, however, were suitable for young children still recovering from warfare, heartbreak and upheaval. So Lewis consulted with mental health professionals, aid workers and other experts to avoid depicting scenarios that might be triggering.

For the first comic book he planned to release, Lewis selected three folktales. The first two he chose for their lessons about morality and resilience.   

Comic book illustration depicts the Syrian folktale, “The King’s Daughter’s Earring,” and the drawings are by Belgian artist Rob Croonenborghs.

One told the story of a pious jeweler, whose faith is tested when the earring his king entrusted him to fix vanishes. The other recounted how a widowed mother chose to go hungry so her five children could eat, only to have her children divide and share their food with her.

“It’s about sharing, but not to the point of destruction. Sharing in a healthy way,” Lewis explained.

For the third story, though, Lewis wanted something a bit different. He opted for a dash of the mystical: a fantasy tale about a miller confronted with mischievous “djinns,” also known as genies.

The first run of the comic book was eight pages long — the work of three artists, one letterer and a translator. This past April, nearly 400 copies were packed and shipped to Syrians in need, along with containers of supplies distributed by the nonprofit NuDay Syria.

The comic book itself was titled “Haawiyat” — a romanization of the Arabic word for “container.”

NuDay Syria founder Nadia Alawa helped coordinate the distribution effort, sending comic books to refugees in Turkey and displaced citizens within Syria itself. In an email to ivoh, she describes how the displaced children in Syria are currently living in sparse conditions.

Some find shelter under plastic tarps that serve as tents. Others are cramped inside one-room homes they share with their families. Their day-to-day lives are focused on gathering food, blankets and other necessities.

The “Haawiyat” comic book, she said, was a rare opportunity to satisfy the children’s other needs — for creativity and learning — in an environment otherwise devoid of toys and literature.

“This really was the only book they had owned and could call their own for years, ever since they lost their homes and had to flee,” she said. “In the midst of so much loss and need, it is easy to forget the spirit of the child and their intellectual hunger.”

Comic book cover. Courtesy of A. David Lewis and the Haawiyat project.

For Lewis, the first comic-book shipment was only the beginning. He plans to release a longer, 64-page version of “Haawiyat” in 2018, complete with over a dozen folk stories. He’s currently in the process of recruiting more artists to participate.

Lewis ultimately believes these folktales have a role to play in the displaced Syrians’ lives, even if some are never able to return to Syria. “These children need to be able to maintain their own identity while they assimilate. Assimilation is not about photocopying the society that you’re in blindly. It’s about incorporating,” Lewis said.

He sees comic books, in particular, as playing a vital role in forging cross-cultural bonds.

“Comics themselves are a sort of universal teaching space,” Lewis said, tossing out a few examples from around the world: manga in Japan, bandes dessinées in France, fumetti in Italy. “It’s a reasonably universal experience for a kid to enjoy these kinds of stories. It has its own bonding value.”

But a comic book’s power doesn’t end there. Lewis points to the medium’s history as proof it can be used to mobilize entire populations for the greater good.

“This is something that comics is actually very good at. It has a history of raising money for war bonds. It has a history of giving suggestions for civil rights action and for protesting,” he said.

And that’s ultimately what Lewis hopes to do: contribute to a tradition that inspires more than just sympathy, but action.

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