Until I read Boy, Everywhere, I never knew that children’s voices were right there, back in the origins of the conflict of Syria. In 2011, seeing uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, fourteen-year-old Mouawiya Syasneh and his friends wrote ‘Your Turn Next, Doctor’ on the wall of their school in (in reference to President Bashar al-Assad’s former career in ophthalmology). Detainment of the teenagers (for over a month) along with their abuse by police triggered protests which, in turn, brought the full force of Assad’s regime down upon his people. ‘So a war began and millions of people became homeless all around the world because some kids wrote some bad stuff about the government,’ summarises Sami, A.M. Dassu’s protagonist. ‘Insane.’
Sami is not much younger than Syasneh; he only learns about the graffiti tale and the history of the war, from his Mama, when the family are already fleeing the country. He has grown used to the conflict, he says: to electricity blackouts, an army checkpoint outside his school, to stories about friends of friends getting killed or injured. Yet he has also been relatively untouched by the war, even knowing that his surgeon father has been looking after the wounded. Sami’s story begins in a bubble of comfort and normality – wealth, in fact: maids, drivers, PlayStations, tablets. A reader like me, for whom the conflict is safely ‘elsewhere’, has an unnerving experience in those opening chapters, waiting for the blithe, likeable young protagonist to feel the jolt of remote matter hitting home. Unnerving, not only for what we know will follow for Sami, but what we recognise in his complacency.
It takes a few pages for the novel to turn nightmarish. Violence erupts close to home, and impacts brutally on Sami’s family. Then, his parents are making plans, and events move entirely out of his control, sometimes beyond his understanding. Why are the family selling their car, in anxious haste? Why can’t Sami tell his friends what they’re doing? Why are they planning to set out to sea in a fishing boat, when the whole family know the risks? Can anything ever be done for his sister – or the friend he makes on their journey – or any of them? Dassu does a great job of taking us through the experience of countless desperate refugees, but she deserves more praise for making Sami’s situation feel particular to him: his guilt, his anger, his fear.
In particular, this is a novel about Sami’s efforts to remain true to himself while his world is in disarray: to maintain his sense of morality and civilisation whilst slipping between the boundaries of society. It would be easy to make this the story of someone forced into passivity and victimhood, particularly as the novel progresses and becomes, if anything, even darker (despite following the legal process of claiming asylum to the letter, Sami and his family do not find peace and security on their arrival to Manchester). Sami finds himself in opposition to his family, as much as he is to those who are hostile toward him. His story becomes an internalised one, his actions increasingly hard to predict. Is he going to do the right thing – and what, precisely, would that look like?
I’d have to go to Turkey. That was where we’d flown to before getting into Europe. I went back to Google and searched for a map of Turkey. I memorised the five major cities, went back to the Manchester Airport website, and typed them in. Finally! There was a flight from Terminal 1 to Antalya in the evening. The flight took four hours and forty minutes. I can survive that in a luggage hold, I told myself. I had to.
This is a thought-provoking and heart-breaking read at times; for young readers learning about the experience of refugees, it will be eye-opening, while for readers like me who should know more about these experiences, it’s a spur towards learning, and doing, more. It’s also a gripping novel, one that I couldn’t resist returning to for just one more chapter – and then just one more. It’s a story about trauma and disassociation, but in small, powerful ways, it’s about connection: how strangers can support one another, how seemingly remote experiences are part of the same story, how family can be tested, and endure. Never lapsing into sentiment or hollow documentary, this story is alive and unpredictable, embodying all the optimism and pain of a child’s voice speaking in the midst of conflict.
Boy, Everywhere is published by Old Barn Books. You can buy it from Waterstones here, from Bookshop.com here, or support your local independent. Despite my first assumptions on seeing the front cover, I wouldn’t recommend it to readers younger than twelve. For younger readers interested in the experience of refugees, there’s a great list here put together by BookTrust. Meanwhile, you can directly nudge things in a better direction via this organisation: https://choose.love/