Enforced incapacity due to a broken ankle has given me the opportunity to read these two books. They are very different, but both reflect some of the deep physical, practical and emotional challenges facing those who have to flee their countries, and are intensely moving.
Friends from church gifted me “The Beekeeper of Aleppo”, a fictional account of a Syrian couple’s harrowing journey from Aleppo to the UK. Nuri is a beekeeper, and Afra his wife, an artist. They live a simple life surrounded by family and friends in the beautiful city of Aleppo until war destroys the city and their home and their son is killed. Afra loses her sight, Nuri is threatened by militia, and they have to leave. Their journey is full of danger, deprivation and fear, and the impact of their loss is profound. Yet Nuri and Afra keep going, in the hope of refuge in the UK with their beekeeper cousin Mustafa.
Although this is a novel, the author Christy Lefteri, herself the daughter of Cypriot refugees, writes with authenticity. She bases her book on her time working as a volunteer at a Unicef supported refugee centre in Athens.
This is a compelling story, delicately and compassionately told. Read it, and be ready to be deeply moved.
In contrast, “No longer strangers” is a true story. Written by a persecuted Christian, Javed Masih, he tells how he was forced to uproot his family from their home in Pakistan and seek asylum in the Netherlands. Throughout the hardships they experience, the inhumanity of the bureaucratic process, the emotional and practical issues they have to face every day, the family find inspiration and encouragement through their faith and the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.
One example of the need for hope was when Javed, his wife Nasreen and two children found themselves at a new hostel, miserably cold and hungry in a tiny cramped room and desperately missing their home. The heating didn’t work, there was no food and Nasreen was forced to beg at reception for teabags so they could make themselves a hot drink. Then Javed reminded the family of the story of the nativity, of the lack of proper shelter and care for Mary, and Joseph. Despite the hard conditions, the glory of the birth of Jesus filled Mary and Joseph with happiness and thankfulness to God. Through the retelling of this Christian narrative, Javed and his family found hope and comfort to help them in their difficult situation.
While this book is a real and uplifting testimony to the family’s Christian faith, it is also an uncompromising account of the impersonal and often uncaring asylum process. Reading it gave me a better understanding not only of the complexities faced by asylum seekers but also of the tremendous courage and tenacity any asylum seeker needs to get through it all, whilst at the same time coping with the loss of their home, former life and country and the profound loneliness of being a stranger in a foreign land.
Europe’s “welcome” to refugees and asylum seekers has not always been wholehearted. Javed’s story shows the tremendous strength it takes to cope with a different way of life, an unknown language and a cold climate and should prompt us to do all we can to help.