Vancouver’s yearly Writers Festival is known for its display of promising young talent who can transport their readers to far off places. Some places can be paradise, others… a war-torn country forcing its children to flee.
Among those searching for a better life were Abu Bakr al Rabeeah and Javier Zamora. A co-author of Homes, al Rabeeah and his family fled Syria for a safer life in Canada. While Zamora, author of Unaccompanied, escaped El Salvador and eventually crossed the Mexico-U.S. border on foot, and alone. Both boys overcame extreme obstacles to share their stories and heal invisible wounds.
“I used to think writing could heal it all. Now I know that writing is only the beginning of healing,” says Zamora.
The 2018 edition of the Vancouver Writers Festival runs Oct.15-21.
A boy’s story
When nine-year-old al Rabeeah left Syria his cousin told him to “Do something great for Syria.” He assumed his time in Canada would be spent learning English and enjoying the stability Canada offered. He had no idea his English teacher, Winnie Yeung, would teach him by encouraging him to tell the story of his childhood and immigration to Canada. His wish to share his story would not only be granted in the classroom, but on the world stage. While working with al Rabeeah, Yeung would convert his story into a book and now both are set to attend a sold out show at this year’s Writer’s Festival. Teachers are known for inspiring their students, but often those they teach inspire them.
“This is not a book about the victims of civil war. Homes is a story about one family’s love and resilience, and how childhood never really deserts us,” says Winnie Yeung, co- author of Homes.
Inspired by the resiliency of the human spirit, Yeung began the journey of helping al Rabeeah work through both traumatic and forgotten memories. At first Yeung was stunned and appalled by the massacres and mosque shootings, but she found that the unity and strength of the al Rabeeah family pushed her forward. She wanted to honour everything they had experienced and capture their light and joy. With the help of Google Translate, Yeung and al Rabeeah were able to improve al Rabeeah’s English and weave a narrative. Al Rabeeah credits his past for making him more appreciative of what he has. He’s thankful for all those past experiences, both positive and negative.
“Going through times where my family was poor and couldn’t afford everything we wanted, makes me enjoy all the little things I have now. Going through a time where I couldn’t play outside of my house makes me patient. Every single situation I went through has taught me something,” says al Rabeeah.
With the help of Yeung, al Rabeeah plans to complete his education and find something he’s passionate about.
“In the rush of life, we often forget that the people we interact with have these entire histories that shape who they are, even if they are young kids. It reminds me of the grand function of art: It brings our humanity into focus,” says Yeung.
Dreaming through words
At nine-years-old Javier Zamora fled El Salvador and the civil war and made his way to the United States. Travelling alone and on foot he faced challenges many adults wouldn’t have to go through in their lifetime. After being reunited with his family, Zamora began writing poetry as a search for control: something he desperately yearned for as a child. With a volatile immigration status he found that poetry gave him a sense of “completion” in an uncertain world. The drafts led to revisions, and the revisions led to a series of poems that would transport Zamora into the future he always hoped would take shape. Though the experience was difficult, he felt it was the only path forward. The future he had dreamed of began to feel attainable for the first time in his life. The poems came in short bursts, as more and more memories were recovered.
Unaccompanied explores how immigration and civil war affected both Zamora and his family.
As life became easier in the United States, Zamora found himself with offers to attend UC Berkeley, New York University, Stanford and Harvard. Though it may sound like a dream come true, Zamora is quick to remind readers that he doesn’t believe in the idea of the “American Dream,” when it does not apply to everyone deserving of its benefits. Zamora feels change is coming to the United States, but also believes immigration will be a defining issue of the 21st century.
When Zamora joins fellow book lovers at this year’s Writer’s Festival it will be the first time he leaves the United States with his green card. It may appear to be a small trip, but Zamora’s journey to Vancouver marks a new and defining experience for him.
“I hope I feel like I’ve grown. That the individual that wrote those poems is wiser, happier, healthier, and in a better place in their life. But, also grateful. Grateful that I lived through those experiences and thrived,” he says of the things he’s gained from his poetry.
For more information, please visit www.writersfest.bc.ca.