The Next Chapter

Why teenage refugee Abu Bakr al Rabeeah and teacher Winnie Yeung wrote about his family's life in Syria

Homes: A Refugee Story is now a contender for Canada Reads 2019, where it will be defended by Simple Plan drummer Chuck Comeau.
Abu Bakr al Rabeeah wrote Homes with Winnie Yeung. (CBC)
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In the memoir Homes, 15-year-old Abu Bakr al Rabeeah recounts what it was like to spend his childhood in the middle of a civil war. Though he witnessed tremendous violence in Homs, Syria, once finding and burying a stranger's jawbone, he was also surrounded by the love of a big, tight-knit family — his parents, two brothers, five sisters, grandmother, several uncles and aunts — not to mention the brotherhood of cousins he played soccer and video games with almost every day. 

Al Rabeeah has called Edmonton home since arriving in Canada as a refugee in 2014. Homes is written by his ESL teacher, Winnie Yeung, who agreed to help when her student revealed he wanted to share his family's story.

Homes is now a contender for Canada Reads 2019, where it will be defended by Simple Plan drummer Chuck Comeau

The normalcy of violence

Abu: "We [would] have a normal day. The next day, everything's shut down and suddenly there's a massacre happening outside. I can't go outside. My family kept us calm, sitting in the house, not doing anything. They tried very hard to keep us safe. 

"When [a car bomb] happened the first time, it was scary. But when it happened a second time, it's not scary anymore. That's what's happening now in Syria. That's what most of the people are going through. For example, if they're sitting and eating dinner and they heard the car bomb, [it's like] 'OK, we're going to continue that dinner. No problem.' People just [get] used to it. People have seen a lot and have been going through a lot. People are just keeping on and living this routine every day."

Wanting to share his story

Abu: "When I first came to Edmonton and I didn't know anyone. And no one knows about me or about my background. When I tell people I am from Iraq and I moved to Syria, most people are like 'Where is Iraq?' or 'Where is Syria?' or 'What's happening over there?' Most people don't know the reason I came here. That's what got my attention."

Winnie: "As an ESL teacher, we are always looking for ways to get our students engaged in speaking and and growing their vocabulary and speaking skills. I thought, well, what a great way — to see if he would be comfortable enough to talk about his life, if he's willing to write about it."

The writing process

Winnie: "We spent so much time together, after school, at lunchtime and sometimes even on the weekend, talking. When you spend a lot of time listening to someone, you start to notice their speech patterns, you start to notice the words that they like to use. That's what I used to write to sound like Abu Bakr. It was important that it sounded like he was telling the story. I asked to listen to him talking to friends or cousins on WhatsApp, make phone calls, let me hear you speaking in Arabic so that I can get the rhythm and feel for the way that Abu Bakr sounded."

Staying positive

Winnie: "He's telling me these horrifying things, these words that keep on coming up on our Google Translate screen — words like 'massacre,' words like 'shootings' or words like 'corpse,' 'blood.' And even though he was talking about these dark things, he has such a light in his eyes. He's so warm and he's smiling. I was inspired by the light.

"I kept asking, 'OK, well, didn't you get angry? Weren't you scared? How did you and your family handle it?' And it always came back to the idea that Abu Bakr's father kept saying, 'No, we just have to move on. We carry on. We have to you know be careful, live smartly. We're going to be there for each other. We're not going to let this bring us down.' That's what I love about this story and this family. They don't wear themselves like victims of war. They don't carry that. They just said, 'This is something that happened to us. It was significant, but we held together and we move forward together.' That's what inspired me to write this book."

Abu Bakr: "We basically experienced everything together. That's the thing that makes us stronger. We experienced the worst together, the hard times together, the times when we were bored together. We stayed strong and calm with each other. That kept us alive and strong in the war days."

Abu Bakr al Rabeeah and Winnie Yeung's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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