by Cathy Cassidy
Where do ideas come from? Sometimes they come from what is happening in the world around us, from a desire to battle injustice and tell a story that might just change someone’s opinion, open someone’s eyes. We’re all looking for the truth, after all. Now and then a story lodges in your heart and just won’t go away… Sami’s Silver Lining was like that.
It started slowly, the awareness of what was happening in Syria. At a Middle Eastern book festival several years ago, I was part of a panel event discussing how to encourage free expression and creativity in children when a Syrian man in the audience stood up to ask us what could be done when a country begins shutting down freedom. Tears streamed down his face as he told us of Syrian teens imprisoned for painting graffiti that criticised the goverment. ‘Help us,’ he begged. ‘Please!’ Officials told him that his question was not appropriate for a book festival, and the event moved on while I watched the man from Syria being escorted from the venue, still sobbing.
I remembered a long-ago Syrian boyfriend from my art college days, a beautiful boy, intense, dramatic, chaotic, the first to break my heart. I thought of a friend who’d had a Syrian partner for several years, and how after they split up he had returned to his country to fight against injustice. Early on in the conflict, he was killed in a barrel bomb attack.
News from Syria began to filter through into the newspapers, onto TV, slowly at first. When the shocking image of a rescuer holding the body of drowned toddler Aylan Kurdi hit the front pages of the tabloids in 2015, that coverage turned into a deluge. To begin with, Britain showed its best. There was an outpouring of compassion, a flood of offers to take in refugees. Local groups sprang up to collect tents, sleeping bags. warm clothes, food and medical supplies for those making the dangerous journey across Europe, and people volunteered to go out to Greece to help.
People wanted to get involved, wanted to reach out, help, make a difference… until suddenly, they didn’t. The tide turned almost overnight,. The worst of the media led a backlash against the Syrian refugees – why couldn’t they just stay in the border camps? Why should we give them refuge? Britain was ‘full up’. It was very sad, sure, but it was just a civil war, none of our business, and besides, some of these refugees could be terrorists, right? In the run up to the Brexit referendum, the media fed and amplified our fears. These refugees could take our homes, our jobs, our children. Worse things were said, shameful things. It felt like we had turned our backs, closed our eyes to the crisis unfolding in Europe.
Some people kept on helping, of course. Friends went out to Greece, and even a couple of my awesome ex-readers. It gave me hope… but at the time we were looking after our two ill and elderly mothers, who were living with us, so volunteering overseas was not an option. I couldn’t sleep for thinking about what was happening in mainland Europe. ‘There but for the grace of God go I,’ my Catholic mother always used to say, and she was right. Nobody chooses to be born into a war zone… war creeps up and ambushes us unawares. What makes a refugee any different from the rest of us? Just bad luck. Misfortune could happen to you, could happen to me. Yet what could I do to help? What could I do but lie awake and worry?
I began to tell myself a story, the story of a young boy who had left his home in Syria in search of safety… and lost his family along the way. As always with my stories, it started as a daydream… a boy with an outsized, tatty overcoat and a flute, his prize possession; a kind of modern day Pied Piper figure, gathering other children around him as they walked across Europe.
Sami’s Silver Lining was a labour of love, but the research was sobering. I found that if Sami had tried to complete his journey to Britain now, he would never have made it – some borders have closed, barbed wire fences guarded by soldiers put in place. I talked to parents fostering refugee children, to social workers, teachers, charity and volunteer workers. Through some refugee readers met at an event, I arranged to visit a local day centre where I shared a Syrian breakfast and talked to people who had made the same journey my fictional character had.
The people I met were amazing, determined, caring. I spoke to a man who claimed he had actually swum from Turkey to Kos, and even though this is the shortest crossing from Turkey to Europe, I admit I found his story hard to believe until he told me he had been a Syrian windsurf champion for several years running. His bravery took my breath away. Without British citizenship, he was unable to work in the UK, so came every day to the refugee centre to prepare food for the others. His dream was to open a grocery store, give something back to the town which had offered him safety.
I spoke to a woman who had been an engineer in Syria, her husband a doctor. They left a life of affluence to subsist on £30 a week, their children working hard to settle at the local school. She gave me sweets from Syria, cried softly as she explained that they were not allowed to work, to contribute, though they longed to. There were a lot of tears, some heartbreaking accounts and plenty of uplifting ones, too. ‘Tell our story,’ they told me. ‘Help people to understand.’
I hope that Sami’s Silver Lining has done that, in some small way, and I hope that the advance paid to me by Puffin has helped in a practical way too, shared between three charities who work tirelessly to help refugees, especially child refugees like Sami. Every week, emails and messages come in telling me about a school or library that have raised money for a refugee charity after reading Sami’s Silver Lining, groups of friends who’ve set up a lemonade stall or staged a cake sale, even one reader who sold hand drawn cards from her Etsy shop and donated the proceeds to charity. At the request of teachers, Puffin have created a brilliant set of teaching support notes for Key Stage Two which can be downloaded free from https://www.cathycassidy.com/teacher-resources/
The best news of all came from a member of the Puffin team who spent a week in Greece volunteering and arranged to send out books for a camp school working with unaccompanied refugee minors. The group voted unanimously that they wanted Sami’s Silver Lining as their class reader, and a set of books was duly sent out for them. I cried, but these were happy tears, I promise.
I created an imaginary boy carrying a whole world of pain on his shoulders, gave him a bunch of misfit friends and a talent for art and music, and charted his journey to learning to trust and love again. There are sad bits and funny bits and magical bits… just as in real life. Against all the odds, I found a way to give Sami a happy ending, a silver lining. I hope my refugee friends will approve.
This is a guest post from Cathy Cassidy and the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the FCBG.