Review by Michele Murray
Homes looks like a small, unassuming book. Not so. This is, in fact, a HUGE story, with multiple layers. There is much to move you within its 217 pages.
Homes tells the story of the Al Rabeeah family—an Iraqi family of 10 (two parents, five daughters and three sons)—who, because of persecution in Iraq, move to the city of Homs, in northern Syria and then eventually to Edmonton, Canada, as refugees. The title, Homes, is a clever play on words. ‘Homs’ is pronounced ‘homes’, and at the heart of the book is the question: What is home?
What is ‘home’ to a displaced family that must leave everything behind multiple times? What is home, when you are a teenage boy growing up in the chaos of war? What is home, when you must leave everything familiar, and come to a new land, a new culture, and a new language?
The story of the Al Rabeeah family is told from the perspective of Abu Bakr, the second of the three sons. Bakr, as he is known, tells how his family, because of persecution in Iraq (they were Sunni Muslims in a predominantly Shiite Muslim world) flees to Syria—to settle in Homs—when he is nine, in December of 2010. By March of 2011, when Bakr has turned 10, the people of Syria begin peaceful demonstrations calling for national unity and democracy, and by April of 2011, the Syrian government begins to respond with increasing violence. The steady descent into vicious civil war—first, with what seemed like random, one-off incidents of government snipers shooting at people leaving mosques on Friday afternoons, to focused, deliberate and wider-spread raids of the areas of Homs in which demonstrators lived—is told through the eyes of this young boy.
We hear about the suffering: how Bakr, his parents and siblings, and other regular Muslims, were caught in the middle of the war. We in Canada received reports of what was happening in Syria, and it quickly became difficult for us to understand who was fighting whom. What this book makes clear is that this was not apparent for the people on the ground, either. “When the grenades exploded or machine guns rattled, you never knew if the attack was coming from the government or the anti-government militias that fought to control the streets of Homs” (p. 19). It was utter chaos, and Bakr, and his family, were caught in the middle.
We hear of how Bakr lived through the turmoil of war, and how they became used to it.
“After three years of living in civil war, we had become strangely numb to the random violence that bubbled up around us” (pp. 19-20).
Bakr talks about how he and his friends would get mops and buckets to rid the streets of pieces of human flesh and bone stuck to the sidewalks; how he buried a man’s jaw, found on the roof of his family’s chicken coop. Not usual activities for a 13-year-old boy, but, activities that, out of necessity, he and his friends became accustomed to doing.
He tells how he learned to fall asleep, to what he calls the “strange lullaby” of the “singing” sniper rifles, the “chorus of machine guns,” and “the soprano screech and baritone tremor of the mortars” (pp. 62-63).
How resilient we humans can be. That’s one of the many ways this book will move you.
But Bakr also tells about how he and his cousins made games out of used bullet shells, how they played soccer in makeshift fields—sometimes having to stop playing and seek shelter when gunshots flew—and how, in Damascus, one of his cousins suggested they make kites out of scraps of rice bags and twigs—a suggestion that embarrassed Bakr, since flying a kite was for younger children, not for 12-year-old boys, and certainly not with the makeshift items used. But, because he and his cousins were bored out of their minds (they were not in school, and so had to find some way to pass the time), he agreed and spent many happy hours flying his kite over the city of Damascus.
The teenage years are difficult enough without the challenges that Bakr faced. You will be moved by the manner in which this young man matures in the four years covered in this book.
In December of 2014, the Al Rabeeahs arrive in Edmonton as refugees. The final chapters of Homes describe the relief—but also the loneliness, the “islands of grief”—that each member of the family experiences as they try to learn English and find their way in Canada. The words of Bakr’s father anchor the family: “Life must always go on, Bakr. Death doesn’t matter. Money doesn’t matter. What matters is living your life with your family, with the people you love. What we face, we face together” (p. 44).
Wherever loved ones are, is home.
It is Winnie Yeung, one of Bakr’s high school ESL teachers—and a first-generation Canadian herself—who connects with Bakr and slowly (since his English is not strong) hears his incredible story. Trust develops between the two, and Winnie begins to write down the story of this family. And so Homes came to be.
Together, Yeung and Al Rabeeah have written this story so that other Canadians can know it. So they can be inspired by it.
You will be.