Award-winning Irish children’s author Jane Mitchell focuses on the Syrian Civil War crisis and its effect on children in a new novel aimed at young people.
As one of the worst refugee crises in modern history, the Syrian Civil War has uprooted over two million children since it began in March 2011. The question of how to explain the scenes of human suffering that flood our media each day to the children of Western society has been a topic of heated debate for many. Irish children’s author Jane Mitchell has an answer – trust the young enough to tell it like it is.
Mitchell’s latest of work fiction, Without Refuge, tells the story of Ghalib, a 13-year-old boy impacted by the first stirrings of conflict in Syria. Forced to abandon their homeland, Ghalib and his family join the multitude of Syrian asylum seekers who cross the border into Turkey, struggle to survive tear gas attacks and squalid refugee camp conditions, and undergo the perilous boat journey into the waters of Greece.
Without Refuge, released in Ireland under the title A Dangerous Crossing and due for publication in North America in spring 2018, was written in just seven months. It is a deeply an affecting work, full of characters that perfectly reflect the universality of youth, reminding us that no aspect of religion or race can render a child any less a child.
This is far from the first time that Mitchell has tackled the multi-faceted theme of displacement of young people in her novels. Chalkline (2009) is the heart-rending story of Rafiq, a child soldier stolen from his rural town in Kashmir at the age of nine. Lighter in subject, Olivia’s Collection (1998) is aimed at four- to six-year-olds and describes a little girl’s attempts to make new friends after a family move.
Born in London to Irish emigrants, Mitchell found a new sense of place as a child when the family relocated, first to Northern Ireland when she was five (around which time she produced her first literary feat, a book of poems which she has kept to this day), and then, when she was seven, to Dublin. And, in a sense, she is still moving.
Based in Ireland, Mitchell travels widely – Europe, the Americas, Asia, Africa, and Australia. She has hiked the foothills of the Annapurna range in Nepal, crossed the Tongariro Alpine in New Zealand on foot, and climbed through the Sun Gate overlooking Peru’s ancient Incan city of Machu Picchu. Exploring the world is a surefire way to become more aware of the other people that live in it, and Mitchell is living proof. Her charity and aid work is every bit as significant as her skill with a pen. “I am interested in human rights, and particularly the rights of the child,” she says. “Children deserve to grow up in a safe environment, within a family who will protect and care for them, and with opportunities to learn, to have fun, to enjoy a childhood. But so many children the world over never get this chance: children in under-developed countries grow up fast because they have to.”
Mitchell writes, she says, because, “I believe it is important for young readers to learn about the lives of children different to them: children who do not have the freedom they have, who do not have the privilege of an education, of reading books, of enjoying the richness and power of story.”
On top of traveling and planning future projects, she works full-time with an NGO that provides local services for people living with disabilities, and often pays visits schools, reading groups and libraries all around Ireland to discuss her writing, human rights advocacy, and the intersection between the two.
I caught up with Mitchell after a Without Refuge reading and Q&A at the West Cork Literary Festival in Bantry, County Cork, this July, where she informed her young audience of the many things that people can do to spread awareness of – and provide aid for – the Syrian conflict. The children in attendance received her words thoughtfully, and with compassion; thankfully, though, they didn’t ask all of my questions for me.
Why is it important to you to that children are educated about human rights?
I believe passionately that words have the power to create empathy, to engender understanding, and ultimately to provoke action. And I believe that young readers deserve to learn about the richness and diversity in the world around them.
Some of the scenes in the novel, such as the tear gas attack, are realistically brutal. Were you ever tempted to self-censor given the young age of your readers?
It is often tempting to shield children from the harsher realities of life, such as death and war, but children have a remarkable capacity to empathize when something is presented to them in a way they can understand. With such broad media coverage of the civil war, they are very aware of the crisis, but perhaps don’t quite appreciate what it means. To this end, fiction can be a good medium to explore difficult topics safely. An honest story line that doesn’t shy away from the truth enables young readers to explore multiple perspectives and gain insight into complex issues. However, I try to remain sensitive to the young minds absorbing the difficult narrative. I always try to include a note of optimism and hope, and even a touch of humor to lighten the tone.
You visited an unofficial refugee camp in Calais to observe the daily life of migrants hoping to cross the Channel to the U.K. Why?
I wanted to do something practical to help the thousands of desperate migrants traveling from so many countries for safety and sanctuary in Europe. I had previously traveled to Palestine and to townships in South Africa to see the terrible hardships experienced by people living in these places. Visiting Calais was something else I wanted to do and it gave authenticity to Ghalib’s experience of a refugee camp.
Why did you finish the novel’s first draft before traveling to Calais?
The people in the Calais Jungle were at an extremely low point in their lives. It would have been ethically wrong of me to exploit their hardships and distressing experiences for the purpose of my fictional story. For this reason, I wanted to finish my first draft so I wouldn’t be overly influenced by what I saw and heard – I didn’t want to tell someone else’s story. I want young readers to understand the complexities of the Syrian conflict and the choices faced by refugees; to have some insight into the experiences of children like Ghalib, and not only to be moved by feelings of pity and sympathy and guilt.
What edits did you make to the manuscript after returning from Calais?
I made my fictional refugee camp a lot grimier, tougher, and dirtier than I had previously imagined. The tear gas attack was also something I added after my time in Calais, based on my personal experience of one, and the sights in the refugee camp are mostly things I saw in Calais.
Was there anything about the camp that came as a surprise?
The filth and litter. The puddles of foul water between the endless clusters of tents and tarpaulin shelters. The shockingly primitive washing facilities at cold water taps. The remarkable good humor of the refugees. How a smile can cross languages, barriers, religions and nationalities. How alike we all are at the end of the day.
Why did you feel it was important to use the real names of deceased Syrian children for your characters?
I was looking for authentic Syrian names for my story, and I also wanted some way to remember the hundreds of children whose lives have been needlessly cut short by the war in Syria. Early on in my research, I found on the Syrian Network for Human Rights the names of children who had been killed in the war, and this seemed a fitting tribute to these lost children. Where it suited my story, I chose siblings’ names (such as Ghalib and Aylan/Alan), and also tried to choose children from a range of age-groups, to show young readers that war does not discriminate in the innocent lives it takes.
The attempt by the refugees to reach Greece by boat is evocative of the “coffin ship” journeys undertaken by many Irish Famine refugees. Should Irish people have a specific empathy to the struggles of political asylum seekers today?
We are not so dissimilar to the thousands of refugees currently seeking protection and sanctuary in Europe. Irish people have left our shores for almost every country in the world: we have fled persecution, poverty, famine, and recession, in search of hope and a better life for ourselves and our families. For this reason, Irish people perhaps have greater understanding of and compassion for the struggles faced by the desperate asylum seekers of today.
What’s next for you, in terms of both your writing and human rights advocacy?
I want to write something closer to home on this occasion. Ireland is facing a housing crisis at the moment, with an excess of 750 homeless families living in hotel, hostels, B&Bs and family hubs. This is a shocking fact in a developed and peaceful European country. I want to explore this through the eyes of one such Irish teenager as she struggles to deal with homelessness and its impact on her and her family.
Thank you. ♦