By Simon Demetriou
Omar, the 12-year-old narrator and protagonist of Elizabeth Laird’s novel, realises upon fleeing Syria that ‘Nobody saw us as real people… We were just refugees.’ Welcome to Nowhere performs the important task of teaching us that every refugee is a real person and that the dismissive way with which the popular consciousness groups millions of real, unique individuals under a label does a disservice to all of humanity.
The tragic thing about Welcome to Nowhere is that the story is predictable. Anyone who has been paying even the slightest bit of attention over the last decade or so can see where the novel’s plot is heading. Laird’s writing ensures that even if we can predict much of the outcome, the bond she creates between us and her characters keeps us reading and hoping and despairing along with them.
Omar belongs to a family of seven, the middle child of five. Originally from Bosra, where his father is a civil servant, Omar spends his days loathing school and dreaming of becoming an entrepreneur. His elder brother, Musa, aspires to overcome the physical limitations of his cerebral palsy by applying his enormous intellect to the pursuit of political change in Syria. The eldest of the five siblings is Eman, a studious and independent young woman who dreams of going to college and becoming a teacher, despite her father’s assertion that education is of little value for women.
Then civil war erupts. Musa has become involved with the teen activists whose efforts sparked the revolution, and Omar finds himself helping his brother in a high-stakes game where the price could be all their lives. The family flees first to the countryside and then to the Jordanian border. It is as they arrive at the Za’atari refugee camp that Omar hears the fateful words, ‘welcome to nowhere’ and the novel’s sensitive exploration of the refugee experience really begins.
It should be clear that Laird is ambitious in this book. Life with a disability in a still intolerant society could be thematic material for an entire novel. So could the plight of women in a world where they are still treated as objects to be traded among men. So, of course, could the refugee experience in itself. That Welcome to Nowhere manages to make its thematic weight subordinate to a well-told and moving story is testament to Laird’s skill.
This is a book aimed at children. I do not believe in ‘children’s fiction’ or – even worse – ‘young adult fiction’. There is only good fiction and bad fiction. Good fiction should be read by everybody; bad fiction by nobody. Welcome to Nowhere belongs to the first category.