‘I might be trapped here, never living in a house with solid walls again, never going back to school, a refugee for the rest of my life.’
Safiya and her family have had to leave their home in Syria, driven out by civil war. But, despite this, Safiya knows how lucky she is to still be living near her family and still alive. It’s hard to feel grateful though, when her house is a tent and they struggle to survive. It’s a moving story of a family who have to uncover secrets the war had hidden, and find out how to complete their family.
To talk more about this emotional book, I am lucky enough to have the author, Elizabeth Laird, answering questions on the importance of writing to enhance emotional literacy.
1) Your books tackle big topics for children. Why do you think it’s important for them to read about issues such as life for refugees?
Many kids in our schools have direct experience of refugee children in their own class. It’s easy for people to resent newcomers, especially those who can’t speak English. Parents with negative attitudes to refugees and asylum seekers will pass their views on to children, and this can lead to bullying. But if the situation of refugees is understood, and they are seen as individuals who have had to overcome trauma and turmoil in their lives, prejudices will be overcome.
2) How can books like ‘A House Without Walls’ help build empathy and understanding for children?
The role of fiction is to help the reader put on someone else’s shoes and walk around in them for a while. When through a story you feel what the characters are feeling, and see what they’re seeing, you begin to empathise with them. Empathy builds understanding, and understanding combats prejudice. Prejudice can lead to hatred and even to violence. Learning empathy is surely one of the most important aspects of a child’s education, and what better way to teach it than through fiction?
3) Was Safiya’s story inspired by anyone in particular?
No, Safiya is a combination of several girls I met in Jordan, both in Mafraq, a suburb of Amman, and Azraq out to the east of the country.
4) How much research did you do for this book?
I went to Jordan twice to research both Welcome to Nowhere and A House Without Walls. On my first visit I worked with teachers in two of the vast Syrian refugee camps. They loved the idea that I planned to write a novel. I asked them, ‘What are the main worries of your students?’ I expected answers to do with war, bereavement and displacement. But they said, ‘They worry about their body image, if they’re too plump or their hair is too curly, or they don’t like their nose. They’re anxious about their friendships: does my best friend still like me? They get upset if there are arguments at home, and they worry about their schoolwork.’ They made me see that Syrian teenagers are teenagers first and refugees second. They’re kids! Once I’d taken that in, I could see my way forward.
I returned to Jordan after I’d written ‘Welcome to Nowhere’. Only 20% of Syrian refugees live in camps. The rest manage as best they can in cheap rented accommodation, shacks and tents. I wanted to write their story, and I wanted my main character to be a girl. I met and talked to several families about their experiences in and around Azraq, a small, dusty town to the east of the country, which was originally no more than a truck stop between Iraq and Saudi Arabia. The resilience and stoicism of everyone I met never ceased to amaze and impress me.
5) After writing a book, do you ever think about what might happen next for the characters?
No – not really. They say goodbye to me when the book is finished, and all I can do is wish them well.
6) What message do you hope the reader is left with once they finish ‘A House Without Walls’?
I hope the reader will realise that every refugee is an individual person with a unique story to tell – one that is usually worth hearing!
If you want to buy ‘A House Without Walls’, you can do here.
And keep an eye out on my blog for a review on Elizabeth’s new book, ‘The Misunderstandings of Charity Brown’ – coming soon!
📚 Books gifted by publisher.