For more years than most of us have been alive, desperate people have been trying to escape from homelands no longer safe, in the sometimes unjustified hope that some other country will take them in. It would seem that the story of the refugee is the quintessential narrative of our time.
Homes is such a story, but unusual in that it is a child, Bakr, who tells us what it was like to live in countries torn apart by sectarian hatred, before his family came to Edmonton in 2015. Bakr is in some ways “Everyboy.” He is mad about soccer, likes to spend time hanging out with friends, conducts much of his life on his cell phone. However, his experiences have made him both more watchful and more responsible than most children have any need to be. He learns, at the age of seven, that he is a member of a vulnerable population when his teacher slaps him for having a Sunni name, something the teacher apparently feels entitled to do in an area of Iraq that is Shi’a dominated.
The situation worsens and his family flees to Syria for safety. Their illusion of having found peace is shattered when their mosque is fired upon during service. Soon, massacre follows massacre. After what Bakr calls “my first car bomb,” his father “grabbed me by the shoulders and turned me this way and that, like a man inspecting a melon at the souk.” After an explosion near their home, Bakr finds a man’s jawbone on the roof of the family’s chicken coop. “The skin was clean-shaven and smooth,” he notes. “The teeth were perfectly straight.” He is thirteen, and deals with this discovery alone, by taking the jawbone to a park and giving it what he hopes is a dignified burial.
Through all the horror of those years, Bakr’s parents try to keep life as normal as possible for their children. When their application for refugee status is finally accepted, they are somewhat stunned by their reception in Edmonton, where volunteers with welcome signs meet them at the airport. Bakr, now 14, is enrolled in Highlands Junior High, where his teacher communicates with him by texting him in Google Translate. She tells him that the school cafeteria serves halal and vegetarian for Muslim students, and that a special prayer room has been devised for his use.
In his next school year he will have a new ESL teacher, Winnie Yeung, the co-author of this book, who has done a fine job of turning one family’s journey into the story we read here.
At a time when borders are closing, and when the US is confiscating refugee children, readers will be glad that Bakr and his appealing family have found a new home in Alberta—even as they sorrow for the thousands and thousands of desperate others for whom no safe haven seems to be available.
—Merna Summers is a former writer-in-residence at the U of A.