Stories about Syrian refugees settling into new lives

Whilst sometimes we read to escape what is going on in the world, it is real life and the questions it poses that has been a source of some of the most vital stories I’ve read in the past few years. One theme which frequently appears – the relevance of which seems to be only ever more acute – is the experience of people from Syria, the war there, and the resulting movement of people.

Apple Cake and Baklava by Kathrin Rohmann, translated by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp and The Fox Girl and The White Gazelle by Victoria Williamson (@strangelymagic) are two new young fiction novels – both of them débuts – about the experiences of Syrian families who have been granted asylum and are trying to settle into new lives in the West; in Germany in the case of Apple Cake and Baklava and in Scotland in Williamson’s novel.

In Apple Cake and Baklava we meet Leila, a new girl in Max’s class in rural Germany. They soon become friends, bonding over sweet treats and an understanding that Max develops about how his family’s experience during the Second World War is not so different in some ways to that of Leila and her family 70 odd years later.

I was particularly struck by the way Rohmann contextualised the current movement of people away from their homes under duress by reflecting it against another, historical flight of people. I also really enjoyed the representation of older people – in this case Grandparents – in her novel, finely translated by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp. Her decision to keep a sprinkling of German and Arabic words in her free-flowing, easy-to-enjoy text seems entirely appropriate in a book about approaching and learning about new cultures.

The Fox Girl and The White Gazelle explores many very similar issues – trying to navigate new customs and traditions at the same time as wanting to stay loyal to the ones from back home, the challenges of understanding and being understood and not just on a linguistic level, friendship, hope, enormous loss, what makes a “home”, and how food can bring people together.

Outsiders for different reasons, Syrian refugee Reema and a Glaswegian young carer (and bully) Caylin live in the same block of flats and one day they discover that they share a secret. Initially they wish it wasn’t shared, but over time it helps them build bonds, learn about each other and themselves, and most importantly offers them hope.

This book works so well on many levels. It’s a pacey adventure with a gorgeous secret at the heart of it. It’s storytelling – the weaving of the plot, with interspersed short poems from an otherwise silent character in the book – is finely crafted, with a real skill at drawing out parallels between the lives of the two girls who on the surface seem to lead such different lives. This subliminal showing-not-telling of how, when you start to look, we share more than that which separates us is a powerful and profound experience. It’s language is exciting and playful, peppered with Glaswegian words and phrases, giving a piquant local flavour as well as enabling us (non-Glaswegians) as readers to experience a little bit of what Reema goes through as her own English improves. With threads about being a child carer of an adult, depression and the impact it has on people, jealousy, blended families and girls being great at sport (a nice little challenge to traditional gender roles) this is a generous, satisfying and rewarding read.

If pushed I’d probably say that Apple Cake and Baklava is the better book for slightly younger readers – say 8-10 – whilst The Fox Girl and The White Gazelle is maybe more one for the next bracket up. Both have been enjoyed by my 10 and 13 year olds, not least because as a result of reading them we made baklava and lebkuchen and even tried deep frying mars bars…

Yep, we’ve eaten richly the last few days!

Here’s my 13 year old’s review of the two books:

“The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle
Brave – Insightful – Hopeful

Switching between the points of view of Reema, a refugee from Aleppo, and Caylin, a school bully with a rocky home life, Fox Girl tells the story of how a family of foxes brings the girls together and helps them realise their dream. Both the girls balance their very different-yet-similar-school trials, their home life, how they view each other and what they want to achieve as the fox struggles to keep her cubs alive. The whole book is like a delicately balancing see-saw.

Decorated with elegant corner art and poignantly written with shots of excitement, this book tenderly explores the lives of the two girls. The story bring to life relevant issues in a way that makes them understandable for teens, something that is hard to accomplish. I learnt new things from this book, and particularly liked Caylin’s Glaswegian dialect. The poetry provided by mother fox is something to look forward to a the start of each chapter; you feel what she feels as the condition of the cubs fluctuates.”

“Apple Cake and Baklava
Sweet – Comforting – Cultural

When Leila came from Damascus, she took wit her a walnut from her Grandmother’s garden. She keeps it in her pocket everyday at her new German school, until one day she loses it in an accident. Obsessed with finding it, and aided by her friend Max, she desperately hatches a plan to return to Syria, but his is cut short by an unexpected kindness.

Ideal for fans of The Fox Girls and the White Gazelle, who are looking for something shorter to read, this sparking short story captures the tension of easing into a new place in a tale of kindness and baking. The contrasts of Max and Leila’s home lives warm our hearts towards both of them, and we immediately want to visit the lovable grandmother characters. In a well-imagine setting with plenty of questions to be asked [why is Leila’s mother so against them setting up their own bakery?] and things to be learned, this book is one to read with a mug of chai and some chocolatey shortbread. Or even some apple cake or baklava!”

Please go and find both books as they are a treat to read – even without the baking which might ensue…

2 Responses

  1. Thank you for these great insights to the two books – from you and your daughter!
    I’ve been curious to read The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle, but didn’t know of Apple Cake and Baklava, which I’m now very keen to read.
    I adored the refugee based books Goodnight, Boy by Nikki Sheehan and Do You Speak Chocolate? by Cas Lester.
    It is sad that we have such human suffering to lead to such great creative writing. Tanya

  2. Simone Fraser

    There is so much hope, in these books and others dealing with differences, that there may be a time when people read these classics with amazement that acceptance was a struggle and diversity was not the norm everywhere. Much more can be explored…
    Thank you, Zoe for your presentation of these books – always huge-of-heart – and the gorgeous and intelligent reviews of your huge-at-heart daughters.

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