Journalist Vanessa Altin’s The Pomegranate Tree, published this month by Blanket Press, sounds like a hard-hitting, moving, and important book – as far as I know, it’s the only children’s book to be published so far about the Syrian conflict. I can’t wait to read it, and was delighted when Vanessa offered to share with our readers a piece on why she wrote the book.
“Don’t talk to me – you’re a Paki and you’re bombing our country,” – That was one of the happy comments shouted at my 12-year-old daughter, Rozerin, recently.
Other winners include: “You can’t sit with us and you can’t play with us ‘cos you’ve got Muslim bugs and Kurdish bacteria,” which was jeered at her younger sister, Amelie, in primary school.
Why anyone thinks Kurds come from Pakistan, or that Pakistan is bombing Britain I can only attribute to ignorance.
I’d like to say these comments didn’t hurt – but of course they did.
The truth is my girls are mixed race. I’m English, the daughter of teachers, raised in Essex – their dad is Kurdish, one of eleven brothers, raised in Turkey.
For the girls, their mixed and varied heritage is the norm. It bothers them not one jot. They don’t see themselves as different from their Kurdish cousins who live in a village on the Syrian border, or from their English school-friends with their smart phones, instagram accounts and delight in ‘Dubsmash’ and making ‘Musically’s’.
No – the problem doesn’t lie with my girls – but with those who don’t understand life beyond their own experience and are frightened of the unknown. The ignorant.
For my girls ‘the norm’ has always been winters at our home in the UK, enjoying stew and roast dinners, carol concerts and Christmas and catching up on crappy TV.
Summers have always been spent in Turkey, where their dad and I work as reporters, filing news to the British press, while the girls enjoy hanging out with their cousins, the sunshine, swimming, ice-cream and lots of salad!
It was while working in Turkey two years ago that I was sent to look for some British teens, believed to be making their way across the country to join Islamic State in Syria.
I never found the wannabee jihadi girls – but when I reached the border town of Suruc I did discover hundreds and thousands of other children – the ones that had fled the raging battle for Kobani.
They’d tumbled over the border into Turkey – with no more than the clothes on their backs, many unaccompanied by their parents, who’d stayed behind to fight IS.
These kids lived where they stood – on the street, relying on the kindness of locals to feed them. It was completely over-whelming to see. We did what we could – raised some money, bought some essentials – but it barely scratched the surface of the suffering. It wasn’t enough.
Meeting these hungry, homeless yet resilient and determined kids, living in mud, not knowing if their parents were alive or dead or if they could ever go home has changed me. It slapped things into perspective in my world.
They’re desperate to go back to school. They fear they are being cheated out of their future. No home, no family and no education. That’s if they survive the war and starvation.
I tried to explain what I’d encountered to my girls. But they couldn’t really take in the enormity of the situation – even though they’ve met refugee children in Turkey, played with them, shared drinks and sweets.
But they don’t really understand what it’s like to walk a mile in their shoes. That’s what prompted me to write The Pomegranate Tree – to try and bridge the gap between them and the real world.
The book includes many real events I witnessed or reported on some shocking – too shocking and too much for the staff at a private girls school, who’ve decided not to let their girls read it.
Now I realise ignorance isn’t a crime – but it isn’t an excuse either. If some children are having to live through this war, is it too much that we should know about it and understand what they’re going through?
They’re not sorry for themselves and they don’t want your pity. They want the war to end so that they can go home and be with their families and return to school. They don’t want to be living in camps or traipsing across Europe or drowning in the Med.
We can’t fight their battles for them – but we can fight the fear, hatred and ignorance that is spreading right here in the UK.
Don’t fear books – fear ignorance.
THE POMEGRANATE TREE
By Vanessa Altin
Illustrated by Faye Moorhouse
‘My name is Dilvan
I’ve just eaten a pomegranate
This morning my baby sister was beheaded
Oh God, don’t let that be real’
Dilvan is a thirteen-year old Kurdish girl who lives in Turkey with her family. In the summer of 2014, a black plague swept across Syria – a killer cult which is spreading misery and murder. Dilvan’s family has been ripped apart by this war. Her father brothers have gone to fight and her mother has been put on a truck at gunpoint in front of Divlan and her sisters. On the morning we meet Divlan, she is fairly sure she has just seen her two-year old sister beheaded.
Through the pages of her diary, we follow Divlan on her quest to find and reunite her family with courage, hope and a determination to fight, maybe to die – but never to surrender.
The Pomegranate Tree is fiction based on real people and real events. Vanessa Altin met everybody in the book and saw most events happen in front of her own eyes. She was inspired to write the book after meeting the swathes of refugees on the Turkish/Syrian border. This is the first book written for children on ISIS and the Syrian conflict and it could not be published at a more poignant time. It is a very important and beautifully written book that reflects the horrors of Syria through the eyes of a child. It will shock young adults in places and leave readers with the coldest of hearts moved to tears.
About the author
Vanessa Altin is a hard news journalist turned author. She splits her time between the UK and Turkey with her Kurdish husband and two daughters. It is too dangerous for her to return to Turkey at the moment.
Vanessa has reported widely on the atrocities in Syria and particularly on the struggles of the swathes of refugees on the Syrian/Turkish border.
Vanessa was so moved during a recent trip, she launched a social media campaign for a Kurdish refugee camp, raising thousands of pounds for their children in just 48 hours. She and her husband loaded trucks full of clothes, toys, pens, paper – the most basic of things to make the daily lives of these children, who have witnessed unimaginable violence, more bearable.
These children inspired Vanessa to write The Pomegranate Tree.
She feels it is time they had a voice that reaches out to the rest of the world.
About the illustrator
Faye Moorhouse is an award-winning illustrator whose sensational sketch-like drawings perfectly compliment the narrative of Dilvan.