A Syrian Teen, Forced To Flee 'A Land Of Permanent Goodbyes'

Feb 2, 2018
Originally published on February 2, 2018 7:43 am

Atia Abawi is used to looking at war through the eyes of a journalist. She's made a career in news covering Iraq and Afghanistan — the latter being the country her own family fled in the early 1980s.

Increasingly though, Abawi has turned to fiction.

"It was a way for me as a journalist to go beyond those 700 words or that two-minute clip," she says. "To give insight in a way that I couldn't as a journalist, to give the full story, a depth that the reader could take in and find a way to empathize more with the people who are struggling."

The people struggling in her novels are young — she writes for teens. And the story behind her latest book, A Land Of Permanent Goodbyes, is drawn from a global crisis that's been dominating headlines the last few years: Refugees fleeing the war in Syria. Abawi researches her fiction like a journalist, interviewing real people, traveling to refugee camps and poring over shocking photographs.

The book begins in an unnamed Syrian city with a teenage boy, Tareq, surrounded by his bustling, tight-knit family. It details Tareq's excruciating journey, leaving behind people and places he loves, almost from the very moment a bomb hits his family's home.


Interview Highlights

On the day that Tareq's home is struck by a bomb

Tareq was having a normal day with his family. His mom was cooking in the kitchen, his grandmother was enjoying a small glass of tea, his little brothers and sisters were playing and watching TV — just the typical day in their lives. And that typical day is destroyed by an airstrike. He's sent to the hospital where he does get some good news that his little sister is alive. But then a doctor takes him to a room and he sees his two 6-month-old little brothers dead on a gurney. And it seems very dark, but it's a situation that happens all the time, and really it's based on real characters, including those twins. I've seen pictures of the twins laying on the gurney, and it's the sad truth.

On what inspired her to write A Land Of Permanent Goodbyes

I was researching a completely different book when I myself was captivated [with] what I was seeing on my own TV screen, when I was seeing those families who were making that first step out of Syria. I thought about my own parents, and what they went through and what they continue to really go through despite them leaving Afghanistan in 1981. It's not an issue of, "Oh, I want to leave for a better life." Yes, you want to leave for that better life, but you're also leaving behind your whole existence really.

My mom was pregnant with me when they escaped [from the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan]. I was born a refugee in Germany in our first stop, and then we came to America when I was 1. And so when I was watching these refugees making their journey and I saw what they were going through, I knew that this was just their first step.

And for Tareq, the character in my book, he goes to Turkey. He's a second-class citizen there. He's going to go to Europe. He's going to be a second-class citizen there. There are people who don't want him. There are people who fear him, despite him being the one who's really afraid.

On the responsibility of re-telling stories about the refugee experience

There's not just one refugee with one story. There are those who left with a lot of money. There are those who left dirt-poor from a village. There are those who come from Syria, those who come from Afghanistan, those who come from Somalia or Sudan. But I did take the responsibility very seriously. In fact, I internalized it a lot. And it makes it much more difficult because you are shedding those tears as you're doing your research. ... You look at your child or your family and you're just so grateful for what you have. And then you're wondering why you have that, and they don't anymore. And then you also think about the fact that tomorrow this could be taken from us as well.

But I did take it very seriously, and I kept in touch with some of the people that I interviewed, the ones that I could keep in touch with, because I could never go to Raqqa because it was under ISIS' control. I was directly in contact calling a Syrian from Raqqa on WhatsApp. I would send him my chapters, and he would tell me, "Well this seems a little unrealistic. It's more like this." And then I would tweak my story to whatever he told me. Luckily he was able to get out. He's in Europe right now. But it was something that I did take to heart.

This story was edited by Shannon Rhoades, produced by Kevin Tidmarsh, and adapted for the Web by Sydnee Monday and Patrick Jarenwattananon.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Atia Abawi is used to looking at war as a journalist. She covered war in Iraq and in Afghanistan, which is the country her own family fled in the early 1980s. But when the stories she wanted to tell pushed up against the limits of a news cycle, she found fiction.

ATIA ABAWI: It was a way for me as a journalist to go beyond those 700 words or that two-minute clip to give insight, to give the full story a depth that the reader could take in and find a way to empathize more with the people who are struggling.

MARTIN: The people struggling in Abawi's novels are young. These books are written with teens in mind. In her newest novel, she dares readers to look beyond the headlines of one of the biggest news stories in recent years, the story of Syrian refugees. Abawi researches her fiction like a journalist. She went to refugee camps in Turkey. She sat down and heard the stories from refugees. The culmination of all that research is a novel about a Syrian teenage boy named Tareq who lives with his family in an unnamed Syrian city. We meet him on a normal day.

ABAWI: His mom was cooking in the kitchen. His grandmother was enjoying a small glass of tea. His little brothers and sisters were playing and watching TV. Then that typical day is destroyed by an airstrike.

MARTIN: The book, "A Land Of Permanent Goodbyes," details Tareq's excruciating journey from the moment the bomb hits his family's home.

ABAWI: He's sent to the hospital, where he does get some good news that his little sister is alive. But then a doctor takes him to a room and he sees his two 6-month-old little brothers dead on a gurney. And it seems very dark, but it's a situation that happens all the time. And really, it's based on real characters, including those twins. I've seen pictures of the twins laying on the gurney, and it's the sad truth.

MARTIN: Tareq's story - we just described how we meet him. He has endured this inconceivable loss. And then that's just the beginning, right? Like, those are just the opening pages. And he eventually makes it to Turkey, and then he's beset by a whole other set of challenges that are just inconceivable. Presumably, you heard those stories too of people making it one step. Talk about what it's like for people who get only so far and then are again faced with other decisions about, how can we go on?

ABAWI: What really motivated me to write the story, in fact, I was researching a completely different book when I, myself, was captivated with what I was seeing on my own television screen. When I was seeing those families who were making that first step out of Syria, I thought about my own parents and what they went through and what they continue to really go through, despite them leaving Afghanistan in 1981.

It's not an issue of, oh, I want to leave for a better life. Yes, you want to leave for that better life, but you're also leaving behind your whole existence, really. My mom was pregnant with me when they escaped. I was born a refugee in Germany in our first stop, and then we came to America when I was 1.

MARTIN: Your parents fled the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan?

ABAWI: Yes. So when I was watching these refugees making their journey and I saw what they were going through, I knew that this was just their first step. And for Tareq, the character in my book, he goes to Turkey. He's a second-class citizen there. He's going to go to Europe. He's going to be a second-class citizen there. There are people who don't want him. There are people who fear him, despite him being the one who's really afraid.

MARTIN: Can you tell me about the experience of hearing all these stories and what I imagine would be a profound responsibility to make sure that you were paying tribute to those stories that people entrusted to you and doing right by those people and those stories? And at the same time, you only have one narrative to tell. You only got so many characters with whom to imbue with all these experiences. Did that feel like a burden or a responsibility to get it right?

ABAWI: Absolutely. And you're absolutely right in saying that there are many narratives. There's not just one refugee with one story. There are those who left with a lot of money. There are those who left dirt poor from a village. There are those who come from Syria, those who come from Afghanistan, those who come from Somalia or Sudan. But I did take the responsibility very seriously. In fact, I internalized it a lot. And it makes it much more difficult because you are shedding those tears as you're doing your research - not in front of the person that you're interviewing, but later, you come home, and you think about it.

You look at your child or your family, and you're just so grateful for what you have. And then you're wondering why you have that and they don't anymore. And then you also think about the fact that tomorrow, this could be taken from us as well. But I did take it very seriously. And I kept in touch with some of the people that I interviewed, the ones that I could keep in touch with because I could never go to Raqqa because it was under ISIS's control. I was directly in contact, calling a Syrian from Raqqa on WhatsApp. I would send him my chapters. And he would tell me, well, this seems a little unrealistic. It's more like this. And then I would tweak my story to whatever he told me. Luckily, he was able to get out. He's in Europe right now. But it was something that I did take to heart.

MARTIN: Is there someone you met who you you're worried about right now?

ABAWI: All of them, every single one of them. Many of them made it to Europe, but there are many that are being pushed out and being sent back to places like Afghanistan. So I do think about every single one almost on a daily basis.

MARTIN: There is a paragraph that stood out to me as crystallizing a lot of what this book is about and what you referenced earlier, the idea of empathy. And this is a paragraph near the end. It's when Tareq is kind of pushing back the horrors that he sees in the water because he has spent so much of his journey in the water trying to get to safety, if you don't mind sharing this with us.

ABAWI: Absolutely, love to.

(Reading) The sea kept tormenting him. No matter how much he rattled his head, the memories were far stronger. They were all he could see. And the truth is they will never fully fade. He will continue to have flashbacks and nightmares throughout his life. The memories will fill him, making him anxious. Some humans can shrug off stress better than others. But when your soul feels too much, that trauma makes a home in your heart. But it's not a weakness or even an illness. To feel so much means you can find empathy. When you can sense the pain of others, that is a power to hold onto. That is a power that can change the world you live in.

MARTIN: The book is called "A Land Of Permanent Goodbyes." It is a novel written by Atia Abawi. Thank you so much for talking with us.

ABAWI: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ABAJI'S "KADIKOY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.