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'I Hope That People Choose Empathy': A Conversation With Atia Abawi

The journalist and novelist discusses her new novel about a Syrian refugee—and the power and reach of the young adult genre.
A picture taken on February 21st, 2018, shows a smoke plume rising following a reported regime air strike in the rebel-held enclave of Hamouria in the Eastern Ghouta near Damascus in Syria.

 A picture taken on February 21st, 2018, shows a smoke plume rising following a reported regime air strike in the rebel-held enclave of Hamouria in the Eastern Ghouta near Damascus in Syria.

A Land of Permanent Goodbyes, a young adult novel that dramatizes the experiences and realities of a Syrian refugee journey, was inspired by a moment not of war, but of peace and safety: specifically, the security that journalist and author Atia Abawi enjoyed in her apartment in Jerusalem in 2015 while holding her nine-month-old baby, watching on television as devastation unfolded in Syria, thousands of miles away. This was several years ago now, but the violence on Abawi's screen would look much the same, if not worse, today.

Every moment and fictional character in A Land of Promised Goodbyes is based on true circumstances that Abawi gleaned through interviews with numerous refugees, and Abawi uses this reporting to drive a compelling storyline—a style that reflects Abawi's background as a journalist and foreign correspondent. Abawi's novel follows the journey of Tareq, a teenage boy who flees his Syrian hometown with the remaining members of his family after his mother, grandmother, and several siblings are killed in an airstrike. Along with his father and sister, Tareq traverses borders from Syria to Turkey to Greece, seeking anything better than the war-torn town they left behind and facing trials typical of the modern refugee's journey. It's a novel filled with harrowing scenes of despair and separation, even as its characters embody a pervasive sense of hope in a time of turbulent displacement.

The conflict in Syria continues to surge in especially violent ways, worsening in some areas amid the deepening involvement of other states in the region. Despite signs at the start of 2018 that war in Syria might come to an end, it has instead escalated on multiple fronts. Bordering countries, such as Turkey and Israel, and those far away, including the United States and Russia, are actively engaged in conflicts in the region that extend beyond the tensions that ignited the war in 2011.

This seven-year-long civil war has come down on civilians; more than 400,000 people are dead as a result of the conflict. Between March of 2011 and August of 2013, one in every 10 people killed was a child. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, over 5.5 million people have registered as Syrian refugees since 2011. Between April of 2011 and December of 2017, over one million people had applied for asylum in Europe, seeking safety within other countries' boarders, much like Tareq, the teenage protagonist in Abawi's novel.

Abawi's book reflects a journey traveled by millions, including the trails of her own parents, who fled Afghanistan in the early 1980s. Abawi was born a refugee in West Germany and moved with her family to the U.S. at the age of one. Before turning to fiction, Abawi spent years covering news and war in the Middle East for CNN and NBC News.

The award-winning author writes for young adults, but does so with a storyline and prose style that will engage older readers too. She has crafted a novel that works through years of complexity to help her readers empathize with, and understand, the history of a conflict half a world away. Abawi spoke with Pacific Standard on the phone about the importance of factual writing in fiction, the human history of displacement and resettlement, and the power of the young adult genre to evoke empathy.


You covered war in Iraq and Afghanistan through your reporting for CNN and NBC News. What led you choose fiction as the vehicle for this story?

As a journalist, you cover the story, but you're limited to 700 words or a two-minute clip on television, if you're even allowed two minutes; sometimes I had to give the news in 45 seconds. Writing a novel allowed me to give the reader a deeper look into the situation. As consumers of news, we just see the bits and pieces, and we want to know more, but we often don't take that further look in.

With my first book [The Secret Sky: A Novel of Forbidden Love in Afghanistan] and this book, I interviewed various people when I wrote these stories, and put them together into one novel to make it concise from beginning to end.

Atia Abawi

For this novel, you specifically chose the story of a Syrian refugee. How did you decide on this particular story?

I didn't report on the refugee story. I had my child in January of 2015, and it was probably around nine months later when I saw what was unfolding on my screen, with refugees going into Europe, walking on the sides of highways, and I was holding my child, my nine-month-old, cuddling him, dressing him and keeping him warm in my cozy apartment where I was safe. I was watching other mothers trying to protect their own children but no longer in a safe environment. Their lives were turned upside-down, in the exact way that it happened to my parents 35 years prior, when they had to escape Afghanistan during the Soviet war. I saw a reflection of my mother in a lot of these mothers who were trying to get a better life for their children.

I just kept thinking how lucky I was that my parents made that decision, and how lucky I am right now that I could be holding my child and not worrying about what's going on.

How was writing this story different from the news reporting you've done in the past?

With this refugee story, I wanted to go from Syria to Turkey and then to Europe. It required a lot of research in both Turkey and Greece, and obviously I couldn't get inside Syria, but I could talk to people through WhatsApp and social media. I employed methods of journalism in researching the story for the novel: talking to refugees, interviewing them, recording my interviews with them, and constantly going back to what they said along the way.

You chose to use destiny, or fate, as the narrator, which seems to allow you a lot of flexibility in telling your story.

I first wrote it in first-person narration, from Tareq's perspective. It didn't feel right. Then I wrote it in third-person narration and compared the two. It still didn't feel right. When I thought about the concept of Destiny and wrote it from the point of view of Destiny, it felt better, it felt right, so I went with that.

I feel that the history of humanity is the history of displacement and migration. In our past, we've all had ancestors who have had to make that journey, so I thought the best person to tell this story would be Destiny, not Tareq, the main character, or Alexia, a volunteer.

Aside from choosing narrative fiction, why write for young adults? What were the challenges of writing about war for young adults?

The reason I wrote for young adults is because I find it a good way of reaching young people as well as adults. As an adult, there are some young adult books that I love and feel do such a great job explaining some things that are harder to explain than "adult books." Like The Hunger Games, for instance: I feel like the author, Suzanne Collins, did such a great job researching post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the effects it has on young people. A lot of our soldiers who are going into war, the marines who are going into war, are young people that are coming back with PTSD. I think she did a great job explaining that, and a teenager or adult who picks up that book can be really intrigued by it.

People hear so much about the Syrian conflict, see it in the news but don't understand the base of the conflict. What new insight do you hope readers take away from your book about the refugee journey?

This isn't just a book for people who support refugees; I want it to also be a book for people who don't support them. I'd love to hear what they think once they read it. They might not come away saying: "Oh, I support them now," and if they don't, I'd like to know why—because everyone has a good reason for why they feel the way they feel.

I think the main purpose of my book is to increase empathy. Fear is understandable: I understand why people are afraid. It's human nature to be afraid of what you don't know and what you don't understand. It's often terrifying to think: "OK, that can happen to me." You don't want to put yourself in those shoes, let alone put your family in that situation. But I hope that people, instead of being afraid, instead of choosing fear, choose empathy, where you can just try to understand even a little bit of what someone's going through.

I met one teacher who, with my first book, came to her students and told them that, if they borrow her book, they have to send her a paragraph of what they took away from the book. She shared one of the paragraphs with me. It was a young teenage boy who was around 13 years old, and he said that, prior to reading the book, he hated Islam. He used the words himself. He said: "I was bigoted toward it and now I understand that it's more complex of a situation and that not all Muslims are bad. It's the ones who are manipulating fundamentalism that are bad." That was really cool to read.