Syrian refugee and his ESL teacher turn writing exercise into literary nomination

An Edmonton ESL teacher and a refugee student from Syria are celebrating after a project that started as classroom exercise was nominated for a major literary prize.

Edmonton duo stunned at being shortlisted for Governor General's Literary Award

Abu Bakr Al-Rabeeah, left, was 15 years old when he started telling stories of life in Syria to practice English with his teacher, Winnie Yeung. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

An Edmonton ESL teacher and a refugee student from Syria are celebrating after a project that started as classroom exercise was nominated for a major literary prize.

Homes: A Refugee Story — by Abu Bakr Al-Rabeeah and Winnie Yeung — was nominated this week for a Governor General's Literary Award for non-fiction writing.

Two days after the nomination list was published, both teacher and student remained stunned.

"It's really just a very surreal experience," said Yeung, speaking on CBC's Edmonton AM on Friday.

"When I saw it was shortlisted, I kind of thought it was a hoax. This is so beyond my wildest dreams."

Al Rabeeah — who was just 15 and had been in Canada for less than a year when he started on this project — described the experience as "awesome."

Life beyond the war

The pair met at Highlands Junior High School in 2015. Al-Rabeeah had been asked to write a memory of his life, so he spent three days gathering his thoughts, popped them into Google Translate and eventually showed the work to Yeung, who was his ESL teacher.

She was immediately captivated by his story.

Al-Rabeeah wanted to tell people about his early years in Iraq, and then his life in Syria. He wrote about his father's bakery, the animals he had at home, and his family, including his seven siblings.

He wanted to give a sense of life that wasn't just about the war that has come to define the country in recent years.

The teacher and student continued to work on stories. Eventually, words like 'bombs" and "massacre" also came through Google Translate.

Yeung, who describes Al-Rabeeah as "quiet, strong young man," encouraged him to continue telling his stories. She initially thought she would write a speech that the Grade 9 student could use to tell his story once he went to high school.

Abu Bakr Al-Rabeeah, shown at 15 when he first started the writing project, is now in his final year of high school. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

When Al-Rabeeah told his family about the project, they didn't think anyone would want to hear their story.

"My dad was like, 'OK, Bakr, do your best,'" he recalled a bit wryly. "No one imagined it would go that far."

Those stories became a self-published book and the work was eventually picked up, edited, and re-published by Freehand Press. Yeung developed a relationship with Al-Rabeeah's family, and interviewed them extensively, too.

The writing partnership is an interesting one. Yeung describes Al-Rabeeah as "my storyteller, my star." Yeung jokingly called herself his "little writer monkey."

Standing with her writing heroes

Yeung describes herself as a lifelong reader but had no writing experience when she started recording Al-Rabeeah's stories.

"Writing that book was the most terrifying thing I'd ever done. I'm always asking my students to write, but when it came to my own writing, it was an exercise in vulnerability for sure," she said.

Now, she's being nominated for an award that her literary heroes, such Margaret Atwood, have won.

Yeung said it has been a "blessing" to be part of the Al-Rabeeah's journey in Canada. 

"What I love about him and his whole family is that at no point did they ever carry themselves around as victims as war," she said.

"They're so strong and resilient. I wanted to show everyone what I was seeing in this incredible family."