What happens to children’s imaginations when all around them is violence and chaos?
Imad Elabdala found he was increasingly troubled by the plight of children after himself seeing the horrors unfolding in Homs.
Driven by an impulse to inspire and guide children dealing with the dual traumas of war and flight, the 31-year-old engineer left his job and set about writing a book soon after seeking asylum in Sweden in 2013.
The result is Sarah’s Journey, a modern-day fairytale that succeeds in extracting hope and positivity from the depths of misery.
“I stopped working and decided to do something inspiring instead,” Elabdala tells The Local Voices.
“The world is becoming increasingly afflicted by hatred, violence, populism and extremism, and I lost hope in older generations.
“However, I have a hope to inspire the youth; to help prevent young refugee generations from being taken hostage by their post-crisis trauma, and by divisive ideologies.”
The writer went on a year-long expedition around Europe to collect relevant data about refugee children and the European countries where they now lived.
He also solicited the advice of psychologists and sociologists from Stockholm and Vienna universities before creating Sarah, the hero character he hopes will act as a muse and role model for refugee children.
Elabdala describes the resulting book as a “sustainable tool for edutainment.”
“It’s addressed to refugee children everywhere in the world, who are the victims of events they haven’t chosen to be part of.”
Healing through storytelling
Elabdala hopes his book will help refugee children reconstruct their capacity for awe and wonder.
“I lived in Homs and witnessed terrible massacres there. Those events and everything else that has happened since the start of the Syrian war have become a heavy burden for me.
“I thought: If it took so much time and effort for an adult like me to recover from the trauma caused by war, how much harder must it be for refugee children who lived through the war and had to flee their homes.”
Elabdala says it was important to strip the character of ethnic, ideological and religious signifiers. Instead Sarah represents universal experiences shared by refugee children in particular, and children in general. This, he beleives, will also make it easier for younger children to follow.
“The unifying element in this book is Sarah’s interaction with nature; she talks to the wind, and the sun engages her in a soothing dialogue. There are no complex cultural codes. Whether the refugee reader is from Syria, or from Somalia, all will be able to read and imagine.”
The daydream elements of Sarah’s story are set against a realistic backdrop. She flees a war, lives in camps, and harbours dreams of becoming a doctor.
“The structure is simple: There’s a negative story taking place in reality, made up of war and flight. These events are presented in the book but in a fairy-tale context, to trigger children’s unhindered imaginations, where they can invoke positive images and answers to their negative experiences just like Sarah does.”
By immersing themselves in Sarah’s journey, Elabdala hopes young readers will be able to carve out meaningful interpretations “without being indoctrinated by rigid facts”.
Empowering refugee children
Despite refugee children suffering from circumstances created by adults, the writer thinks it’s crucial not to portray them as victims.
“Sarah talks to the sun, the sea, trees, clouds, and the sky; she talks to nature, and nature is everywhere.
“If kids were deprived of their dreams, they’d become enslaved by their reality.”
Sarah’s Journey will be published in English, Swedish and Arabic, and will be distributed by Molham Volunteering Team, a prominent Syrian aid group.
A crowdfunding campaign to support the book will be launched this week. If you want to help a refugee child get a copy you can donate here from November 15th.
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