(To read other articles in our Arts-Policy Nexus series click here.)
After fleeing Syria, a nation badly bloodied by civil war, refugees are finding themselves trapped in migratory limbo for long stretches of time as they await placement in foreign, and often unwelcoming, lands.
Of the staggering 4.9 million displaced Syrians currently residing in refugee camps, nearly half are children. Syrian children are forced to suffer new traumas within the camps in their fight for survival and acceptance.
Now, international and U.S.-based artists have joined forces to help Syrian children cope with the psychological challenges of this arduous adjustment period. Or such is the hope of the Syrian comic book Haawiyat.
The brainchild of A. David Lewis, an acclaimed American comic book writer and graphic novelist, Haawiyat features eight vibrant pages of well-known Syrian folk tales published entirely in Arabic: “The Miller and the Two Gins,” “The Story of the Five Cakes,” and “The Story of the King’s Daughter’s Earring.” When choosing the stories, Lewis and his team used caution to avoid conjuring traumatic memories for the children.
“We had to pick folk tales that were either personal or were abstract,” said Lewis. “I’ve been conferring with mental health professionals about what themes are important to call out and what themes, at least at first have to be avoided, or what scenes will be detrimental.”
As a whole, the comic explores important themes of forgiveness, hope, and determination in times of strife. Of the three stories, “The Story of the Five Cakes” best exemplifies the comic’s message of compassion. The tale, which comes from a collection compiled by Syrian poet, Samir Tahhan, and translated by American anthropologist, Andrea Rugh, follows a mother’s journey to feed her starving children.
Discovering she only has five cakes in her cupboard, the mother selflessly grants each of her five children a cake, even though doing so would leave her hungry. The children, in turn, meet her compassion by halving each of their cakes and giving them back to her. Presented with their sacrifices, the mother donates the cakes back to the community so that no other child will be forced to face hunger—a metaphor for the profound beauty of communal compassion in seemingly hopeless times.
Shipping out in early April to Northern Syria and Turkey with the help of NuDay Syria, a New England-based relief company, the comic hopes to offer children comfort and recovery through art and the relatable messages of its folk tales.
“Storytelling is a psychologically and a sociologically endorsed need,” said Lewis. “Being gifted something physical after everything has been taken goes a long way toward healing and toward feeling that the world doesn’t just take. They get things of value, because the kids themselves are of value.”
Haawiyat will not be the first comic to shed light on the Syrian crisis. Last fall, ABC News and Marvel Comics released Madaya Mom, a free digital comic, based on the true story of an anonymous mother’s battle for survival in the war-torn city of Madaya.
While other comics have been made in an effort to elicit empathy in a Western market, Haawiyat will be the first to recognize actual Syrian children as its exclusive, target audience.
“Comics don’t need to be made for us with our internet connection and sitting in our cozy offices,” said Lewis. “We need to be providing helpful narratives or reconnection to Syrian culture for those who have been dislocated.”
With Lewis’ tireless work—alongside fellow creators and collaborators—Haawiyat embodies artistic resilience and the power of the artist to effect positive, humanitarian change.
“Artists have a responsibility to be aware of the climate in which their art is being produced,” said Lewis, commenting on the role of the artist during times of political unrest. “If they feel their art fulfills a function, and that can be entertainment and escapism, because we actually do need those things to stay human, then it’s up to them to determine whether they’re fulfilling their responsibilities as artists.”
Monica Rodriguez is a photographer and journalist based in New York, NY. She enjoys writing about human rights, tech, U.S. politics, and foreign affairs. In addition to Monica's reporting, her written work includes poetry, short stories, and longer pieces of fiction.