Two Graphic Novels on "Borders"

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Illegal

Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin

Illustrated by Giovanni Rigano

Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, 2018

The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees

Don Brown

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018

Two graphic novels, written for a middle grade and teen audience, respectively, address the refugee crisis in Europe. Both center the experiences of refugees, rather than centering on geopolitical causes and effects of their mass migration. 

Illegal weaves a fictional narrative from factual threads. Written in the first person, most of the book follows Ebo, a 12-year-old Ghanan boy, who leaves his village in pursuit of his older siblings. His brother, Kwame, left a note with friends in the village, promising that he would make it to Europe and pay for a helicoptor to transport Ebo to a better life. Ebo has his doubts; he’s heard stories about people going missing on their way to European shores. Not wanting to be left alone with his deadbeat uncle, he boards a bus to Niger. 

The rest of his story rings achingly familiar to those who have followed the news. Poverty, smugglers, traffickers, soldiers and police all threaten their safety. Ramshackle trucks and rickety boats, all overcrowded; hunger, thirst, and illness; and the desert and sea themselves claim hopes and lives. Ebo, a talented singer and hard worker, remains hopeful, though not unbelievably so in the face of all he suffers.

After the fictional narrative, Illegal also contains firsthand testimony from a refugee woman who made it to the United Kingdom from Eritrea. Helen’s story contains both explicit and unwritten traumas. She ends it with gratitude and hope.

In both narratives, readers confront what it means to be a survivor. Neither stories have an ending, only a stopping point. We care about what will happen next, and realize that we and our governments are largely responsible for that.

The Unwanted approaches narrative differently, in Don Brown’s signature style. He lifts quotes from news stories and places them in speech bubbles, in between matter-of-fact third person narration. He includes a bibliography at the end, as he does with all his nonfiction graphic novels. 

For those of us whose news cycles have been dominated by Trump and Brexit, The Unwanted serves as a primer or reminder of how the civil war in Syria has unfolded. Though the author states he could hardly contain all the nuanced events and political players in the short graphic novel, preferring to focus on the experiences of actual refugees, he effectively summarizes events from 2011 onward. 

The multiple narratives of The Unwanted offer glimpses. Refugees are quoted but not named, referred to instead as a man, a mother with two young children, two friends. Brown has a way of zooming in and out, from collective to individual experiences, factual context to commentary. As an afterword, he includes a few journal entries from his 2017 visits to refugee camps in Greece. Of all the observations he records, reports of youth suicides unsettle me the most. Surprised? No. I know how trauma affects the brain and the psyche. Still, the cost of neither preventing nor healing trauma far outweighs the cost of raising healthy kids in healthy communities. What would you do for your child? What would you risk?

The moral quandary of the writer who reports on calamities reflects that of the reader: have we any right to witness this suffering? Does it stir us to action, make us more compassionate than we were before, arm us with information with which to campaign? Are we posing as saviors, or helping? Ultimately, in such a dire, ongoing humanitarian crisis, hand-wringing seems too self-indulgent. We can listen, we can advocate, we can support financially when we are able. We can welcome, and be good neighbors. The creators of Illegal make a strong statement in support of human rights and dignity. A portion of proceeds from sales of The Unwanted has been donated to the International Rescue Committee. 

Across the Atlantic in the U.S. Southwest, elements of these stories struck me. Coyotes and cartels operate similarly to traffickers in North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and Europe. The desert accumulates unmarked graves, like the deserts and seas of our opposite hemisphere. Refugees and immigrants flee torture, violence, political instability, and poverty. They’re often scammed out of thousands of dollars, only to end up in more dangerous situations. If one escapes exploitation, heatstroke, starvation, dehydration, kidnapping, and execution, arriving sin papeles risks detainment and deportation. We don’t have city-sized refugee camps, but we do have detainment centers, overcrowded apartments, and slaughterhouses. We have ICE raids and tear gas. We suffer xenophobia, fear-mongering, and economic pressures.

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We have no excuse to lose hope when those who migrate under such harrowing circumstances manage to keep it alive and keep working for a better future. As Sahir Noah, poet and refugee, writes, “I will write my dreams on the walls of hope.” A wall founded on hope, built on humanitarian principles, maintained with pragmatic and sustainable solutions, may be the only wall we wealthier nations can afford.