Although traditionally considered a genre for adolescents, over the years, graphic novels have gained increasing popularity as a documentary medium for serious subject matter. As I wrote in a previous article for Muftah, several journalists have recently turned to the graphic novel to document the most pressing crisis of our time: the ongoing plight of refugees fleeing Syria.
Freelance journalist, Patrick Hilsman, and freelance illustrator, Chris Russell, are among those seeking to bring refugees’ stories to a wider audience. Recently, I spoke with both Hilsman and Russell about the graphic novel they are currently working on, and what they hope it will convey to readers.
Hilsman, who traveled to Syria for several reporting trips between 2012 and 2015, compiled countless stories of regular Syrians fleeing the regime’s brutality. Unfortunately, however, most American news editors were uninterested in these accounts.
Wanting to share these untold stories with a wider audience, Hilsman began to explore creating an independent visual project to capture these narratives. Through a mutual connection, he met Russell, who does freelance illustrations. After receiving permission from the Syrians who had been interviewed, the two began working on their graphic novel, which does not yet have a title.
Russell, who has followed current events on Syria, but is less of an expert than Hilsman, said what appealed to him most about the project was that the stories “don’t fit any of the archetypes of what a Syrian refugee is supposed to be.”
Readers will quickly get a sense of what he means by this, when they read about Ahmed* in the novel’s opening chapter, entitled “Graduation.” Hailing from a wealthy family that initially supported the Assad regime, Ahmed participated in pro-Assad demonstrations in the early days of the uprising. After hearing stories that exposed the state’s propaganda, however, Ahmed began to appreciate the regime’s brutality. Switching sides, he became an outspoken activist and began sharing his critical views online. As the situation in Syria worsened, Ahmed felt he had no option but to leave.
Now living in exile in Europe, Ahmed misses Syria, but, as he told Hilsman and Russell, his Syria no longer exists. As Russel explained, Ahmed believes “he can only have that connection [to Syria]…outside of his country.” He’s “happy to meet a Syrian” anywhere, whether “pro-Assad, anti-Assad, Kurdish, whatever.”
This dynamic, which defies conventional notions about political divisions in Syria, is precisely what Hilsman and Russell seek to illuminate in the stories they profile. Through back-and-forth Skype calls with their interlocutors, author and artist strive to capture nuance and complexity in every story. In the process, they are demystifying the political and religious intricacies of the conflict.
In chapter two, for example, readers meet “Z,”* a young boy from a Kurdish family, who lived in Aleppo at the time of the uprising. Z and his family supported the opposition from the beginning of the revolution. Living in a pro-regime neighborhood in Aleppo, the family was forced to flee when Al-Nusra Front began setting off car bombs in their area.
They sought safety in Afrin Canton, a Kurdish district near the Turkish border, where Z’s parents were originally from. To reach Afrin from Aleppo, they had to pass through Al-Nusra Front checkpoints. At each checkpoint, they were routinely asked questions about Islam and had to rely on their Muslim identity for safe passage. In Z’s own words, “If [he] was not a Muslim they would have killed [him].”
Once they reached Afrin Canton, an area controlled by the YPG, a Kurdish militia, they were relatively safe, because of their Kurdish identity. As Hilsman noted during our conversation, although Z’s family does not support the notion of conflating ethnic or religious identity with national identity, they were “very easily…drawn into sectarianism,” out of necessity.
Z eventually made it all the way to Germany, after enduring food shortages and violence in Syria, discrimination in Turkey, a dangerous boat ride to Greece, and being smuggled across Eastern Europe. Now a teenager, he loves video games and hopes one day to become a game developer.
Through Ahmed’s and Z’s stories, and many others, Hilsman and Russell hope readers will realize that highlighting these ordinary people’s voices is crucial to resolving the Syrian conflict. As Hilsman told me, “if their voice[s] were louder, it would help everybody.”
Responding to recent arguments that projects like these are intended to humanize Syrian refugees, Hilsman believes that “all of this is in no way humanizing because…refugees live in this strange, mesmerizing world, just as much as we do.” He believes that American readers will find a connection with the various protagonists, but also hopes it will encourage readers to seek out more stories about the personal experiences of Syrians in conflict.
*Names have been changed or replaced with an initial to protect the identities of the interviewees.