The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees by Don Brown [in Shelf Awareness]
The Unwanted’s first two images couldn’t be more jarring: on the title page, a hijab-wearing woman raises her hand to her face in overwhelming distress; a turn of the page reveals a girl holding flowers, smiling back over her shoulder as she walks across a town square lush with greenery. Both are victims of war, the former made desperate by a nation in ruins, the latter still innocent, destruction about to uproot her young life.
While the factious situation in war-torn Syria is difficult even for adults to comprehend, what writer/illustrator Don Brown (America Is Under Attack) offers here is an empathic account of how everyday citizens – especially women and children – take tortuous paths toward survival. They are The Unwanted, who, without a future in their own country, must search elsewhere for home.
Galvanized by 2010’s Arab Spring, Syrians demand the end of tyranny in 2011. “Teenage boys scrawl ‘Down with the regime’ on a wall,” sparking widespread protests, divisions and death. Millions flee toward Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, then further, to Greece, other European nations, North America – anywhere they’re granted entry. Surviving doesn’t guarantee safety: too often, refugees are resented by already depleted countries and rejected by intolerant governments. Too many experience unsettled, grueling lives as refugees.
Using a similar format that won him awards for Drowned City, Brown presents a graphic hybrid of history and facts – explained in text boxes – with scenes of personal experiences. Brown plainly types out, for example, what happened: “The civil war destroys schools across Syria, leaving millions of children without a place to learn.” He humanizes the event by showing two students witnessing their school in rubble, who dare to challenge their impossible circumstances by declaring, “I want to be a doctor.”
Beyond numbing data, Brown gives faces and voices to the refugees, as he chronicles various journeys out: “We gave the babies sleeping pills so they wouldn’t cry,” a fleeing mother reveals. “I tried to catch my wife and children in my arms. But one by one, they drowned,” a man mourns over his survival. “I have a two-year-old brother. My mother is pregnant. My dad is sick. It’s up to me alone to bring bread to the table,” a child explains about life as an “unregistered refugee.” Brown’s panels can’t – won’t? – contain all that the Syrians must endure, as weapons, explosions, fleeing crowds, suffering victims repeatedly break through panel outlines. Yet amid the struggles, Brown won’t abandon hope: the lamenting woman and the little girl from the introduction return in the final pages, safe in a future that “is now.”
Brown’s decision to “focus on the refugee experience” without minimizing “the complex religious, political, and cultural web that describes Syria” took him to Greece to visit refugee camps in 2017. His author’s note and journal summaries are included at title’s end; also added are the sources of his dialogue bubbles, together with an extensive bibliography. In urgently humanizing The Unwanted, Brown’s sobering explication and tenacious advocacy prove both necessary and revelatory.
Shelf Talker: Don Brown reveals the faces and voices of The Unwanted, Syria’s refugees who have survived atrocities, whose search for safety is too often met with resentment and rejection.
Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult