A Syrian Orphan Alone In Brussels In 'Nowhere Boy'

Sep 3, 2018

Author Katherine Marsh wrote the young adult novel Nowhere Boy — about a teenage Syrian refugee whose father dies on the journey to Europe — in part to help her kids make sense of big, complex topics like immigrant integration, terrorism and the refugee crisis.

In the book, the boy, 14-year-old Ahmed, and his father were originally trying to get to England, but as an orphan alone in Brussels, that dream fades. Instead, he finds himself hiding in a house where, upstairs, an American family — including a 13-year-old boy named Max — lives. Max finds Ahmed, and the two become friends.

The book is rooted in the time that Marsh and her family — including two young children — spent in Belgium after moving there from the U.S. in 2015. Her family was in Brussels during the refugee crisis and the 2016 terrorist attacks.

"Children love stories, and this at its heart is a story. It's an adventure story, it's a story about friendship, it's a story about belonging, and I think when I tell a story for children that may have these larger ideas in it, I try to keep to the idea of connecting you to the character's specific experience rather than talking in a large, pedantic way about it," she tells NPR.


Interview Highlights

On being in Belgium in 2015 during the refugee crisis

That year was the height of the refugee crisis. There were more refugees coming in to Europe – I think it was about a million that year. There was also a lot of news events that year, including the Brussels lockdown following the Paris terror attacks [in Nov. 2015], and then in the spring of 2016, Brussels had a terror attack. And that brought up a lot of issues that I thought would be interesting to write about.

... Schools closed down when we had the Brussels lockdown. And I actually had to explain to my children why they weren't going to school and what was happening. And it was interesting because when we lived in America, I did talk with them about the threat of gun violence and what to do, and I thought I wouldn't be having those conversations when I got to Europe. Instead I was having another type of conversation, which was what to do in case of a terrorist attack.

On watching the crisis play out in Brussels

Parc Maximilien, which is one of the central urban parks of Brussels, became a Red Cross camp for refugees. And when you went in that area you would actually see a number of refugees camping outside waiting to try to get some sort of immigration status. You would see refugees occasionally on the street asking for money. There were a lot of neighbors and friends we knew who ended up doing volunteer work to help refugees. So that was just part of daily life.

In addition, you would hear a lot of different opinions about the refugees, ranging from people who felt that Europe needed to keep them out, that they were threatening what Europe was to ones that were more welcoming but were dealing with these real questions of how do we integrate this many people into society and what's the best way to do that.

On how to present themes involving terrorism, integration and the refugee crisis to a young audience

I wrote this book in part because I wanted to help my children process this year in Europe. And I think that there are ways to write for children without being overtly graphic, but at the same time being honest. And I think it's important because kids do observe the world, they do see a lot and they pick up on attitudes particularly. And one of the things that I wanted to do with this book is to really start to separate feelings and facts, which was a real problem in Europe, where people were having a lot of strong feelings about things, but they weren't always connected to the facts on the ground. For example, people said "There are refugees, and they're terrorists." And the truth was that most of the terrorists were actually born in Europe.

On using her journalist skills to help inform the Syrian perspective

What I did is I went out and I interviewed a number of people — both Syrian refugees, unaccompanied minor, people who worked with refugees – and I tried to get as much kind of factual detail as possible in order to bring [Ahmed] and his experience to life.

Noor Wazwaz and Joanne Levine produced and edited this story for broadcast. Heidi Glenn adapted it for the Web.

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

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

"Nowhere Boy" is a young adult novel about Ahmed, a Syrian refugee whose father dies on the journey to Europe. Ahmed and his father were originally trying to get to England, but now, as an orphan alone in Brussels, that dream fades. Instead he finds himself hiding in a house where an American family is living. Here's the author, Katherine Marsh.

KATHERINE MARSH: (Reading) Ahmed realized what he was thinking, but he pushed the idea away. Someone would find him. He would be arrested for breaking into the house. But the idea wouldn't leave him. He had no money, no phone. He had nothing - just a fake passport and a watch, not even bus fare to get back to the refugee camp at Parc Maximilien.

GREENE: The author sat down with Rachel Martin.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Tell us about the family who is living upstairs.

MARSH: So there's an American family living in the house. And the father has come to work for NATO. And they have a son who is 13 years old named Max. He is in a family of achievers, and he himself has not been an achiever. And this is a fresh start for him, but he really does not want to be there.

MARTIN: He ends up discovering this boy who's living in his basement, and he connects with him. He feels like an outsider in some ways in Belgium. Obviously Ahmed is an outsider to the extreme. He is having to hide himself. He can't go to school. He can't be part of normal society. And Max decides that that's not fair, that that is an injustice, and he wants to help him change that.

MARSH: Yes. And that's right. The character of Max is very much based on the experience of our family who came to Brussels as expats. And he feels very lost there. And I wanted to write a book in which I had a character who really was outside of his comfort zone. And it's something that I wanted to write about because I feel like as Americans, we often don't feel outside of our comfort zones. And particularly at this time, in this moment, we cling to our comfort zones. And I wanted children, American children who maybe don't see themselves as outsiders to imagine themselves as being outsiders in the world.

MARTIN: So what was happening at the time that your family was in Belgium. I mean, this was - you were there when the refugee crisis was at its height, right?

MARSH: That's right. And it's interesting because we arrived in Brussels in the summer of 2015, and that year was the height of the refugee crisis. There were more refugees coming into Europe. I think it was about a million that year. There was also a lot of news events that year, including the Brussels lockdown following the Paris terror attacks. And then in the spring of 2016, Brussels had a terror attack. And that brought up a lot of issues that I thought would be interesting to write about.

MARTIN: So conversations - difficult conversations, inevitably...

MARSH: Yes.

MARTIN: ...That you had to have with your own kids.

MARSH: Exactly. I mean, the schools closed down when we had the Brussels lockdown. And I actually had to explain to my children why they weren't going to school and what was happening. And it was interesting because when we lived in America, I did talk with them about the threat of gun violence and what to do. And I thought I wouldn't be having those conversations when I got to Europe. Instead I was having another type of conversation, which was what to do in case of a terrorist attack.

MARTIN: What about the refugee crisis itself and how it was playing out? I mean, where did you see that manifest in your life? Did you, as a family?

MARSH: Yes, definitely. So Parc Maximilien, which is one of the central urban parks of Brussels, became a Red Cross camp for refugees. And, you know, when you went in that area, you would actually see a number of refugees camping outside, waiting to try to get some sort of immigration status. You would see refugees occasionally on the street asking for money.

There are a lot of neighbors and friends we knew who ended up doing volunteer work to help refugees. So that was just part of daily life. In addition, you know, you'd hear a lot of different opinions about the refugees ranging from people who felt that Europe needed to keep them out, that they were threatening what Europe was, to ones that were more welcoming but were dealing with these real questions of, how do we integrate this many people into our society, and what's the best way to do that?

MARTIN: So this is big stuff. I mean, these are big issues - terrorism, integration, the refugee crisis - right from the get-go in this book. In the first few pages, Ahmed is going through this loss as he's trying to get from one place to another and loses his dad in the process. And I know this is a question that authors who write young adult fiction always get, but how do you parse those themes, those very complicated, deeply emotional ideas? How do you present them to a young audience?

MARSH: That's such a wonderful question. And I love to answer it because not only am I an author, but I'm a parent of children. And I wrote this book in part because I wanted to help my children process this year in Europe. And I think that there are ways to write for children without being overtly graphic but at the same time being honest. And I think it's important because kids do observe the world. They do see a lot. And they pick up on attitudes particularly.

And one of the things that I wanted to do with this book is to really start to separate feelings and facts, which was a real problem in Europe where people are having a lot of strong feelings about things, but they weren't always connected to the facts on the ground. For example, people said, you know, they're refugees and, you know, they're terrorists. And, you know, the truth was that most of the terrorists were actually born in Europe.

Now, for children - children love stories. And this at its heart is a story. It's an adventure story. It's a story about friendship. It's a story about belonging. And I think when I tell a story for children that may have these larger ideas in it, I try to keep to the idea of connecting you to the character's specific experience rather than talking in a large, pedantic way about it.

MARTIN: Yeah. I mean, I have to admit I was near the end of the book, and my 6-year-old happened to be looking over my shoulder. And all of a sudden, I'm reading out loud to him. He - you know, he doesn't know what's going on in the world. He's still just 6. But he was captivated about what was happening to those two boys.

MARSH: Yes.

MARTIN: And kept wanting me to go - read on. Read on, Mommy. What is happening to those boys?

MARSH: I mean, I think good children's literature works on a variety of levels. And there should be something that you as an adult bring to it just because you know the true horrors of some of this. And then a child can read it and focus on different parts of it.

MARTIN: Right. So even though he's only 6, at the end of it - and we'd only read a little bit, but I got the excuse to talk to him about a refugee. What is a refugee? Who is a refugee? And we hadn't had that conversation before.

MARSH: That's great.

MARTIN: Do you think about those people who you saw in Maximilien park and wonder...

MARSH: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...Who they are?

MARSH: I mean, I think of all the people. And one of the things I did - because my background is as a journalist, so I felt in order to be responsible as an author, I needed to do the reporting to get that Syrian perspective. So what I did is I went out and I interviewed a number of people - both Syrian refugees, unaccompanied minor, people who worked with refugees - and I tried to get as much kind of factual detail as possible in order to bring that character and his experience to life.

MARTIN: The book is called "Nowhere Boy." The author is Katherine Marsh. We've been talking about her book here in our studios in Washington. Thank you so much for coming in.

MARSH: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.