My daughter has gotten super into graphic novels, which I love. My library has a so-so collection of these, but there’s a library in the next town over that has an absolutely fabulous collection of graphic novels for the middle grade set, so I was browsing through there one day, trying to find her new books to fall in love with, when I came across When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed (Dial Books, 2020). A quick glance at the premise had me immediately tossing it into my bag…for me. (My daughter got like four other books that trip, so it’s all good!)
Omar Mohamed and his brother Hassan are growing up in Dadaab, a refugee camp in Kenya, because their native Somalia hasn’t been safe for years. Their father was killed there; they became separated from their mother when they were fleeing and haven’t seen her since. Hassan is nonverbal; Omar spends his days taking care of him. A fellow refugee serves as a foster mother, but really, the boys are on their own, dreaming of a better life in America, Europe, or Canada.
When Omar finally gets the chance to go to school, he hesitates; what about Hassan? When his friends and foster mother encourage him, he nervously takes his first step towards a better life and finds out he’s actually an amazing student. But school is not without its challenges, and for his female friends, the odds are stacked even higher. And even when prayers are answered, those answers may not always be what Omar anticipated, nor are they easy. Life as a refugee is a struggle everywhere, but there are some refugees who manage to use that struggle to better life for everyone, and Omar Mohamed does just that.
What a beautiful, remarkable, soul-tugging book. This would be an excellent introduction to life in a refugee camp for the younger crowd. It’s a thick book, but as it’s a graphic novel, it’s easy to read and the pages fly by quickly. Omar’s story is tragic, though it does have a happy – or at least a happier ending than most. The hunger he and his brother experience, due to their meager rations, is constant; the images of the two of them sleeping alone in a tent their entire childhoods is one that will likely make an impression on even the most internet-jaded of middle grade readers, as will the images of Omar’s pregnant schoolmate who has been forced to leave her education behind and get married while still a child herself.
This book doesn’t sugarcoat the refugee experience, but it’s not a super-harsh book. It cuts off when Omar and Hassan are able to leave Kenya behind to be resettled in the US (though it does give an update on what their lives were like after they came here); I’d love to see a follow-up of a more fleshed-out version of their stories, because I’m always interested to know what life is like for the immigrants and refugees who come here, and what I can do to make life easier for them. Omar has started an organization called Refugee Strong, which aids refugees in places like Dadaab, providing them with support and educational materials, which is something I find remarkable. It would’ve been entirely understandable if he couldn’t face the trauma he’d been through there and just focused on building a life in the US for himself and his brother; instead, he turned back and works to make a better life for all the people still there. Amazing.
If you’re looking for a beautifully illustrated graphic novel that tells a remarkable story of resilience, When Stars Are Scattered is a great choice.