Comics has proved to be an ideal format for explorations of the refugee crisis over the last few years. From Broken Frontier Award-winning offerings like the Red Cross’s Over Under Sideways Down (illustrated by Karrie Fransman) and Kate Evans’s Threads: From the Refugee Crisis, through to the work of PositiveNegatives or Samya Kullab, Jackie Roche and Mike Freiheit’s all-ages Escape from Syria, there are so many excellent relevant graphic narrative offerings out there that we put together an ever growing resource list here at Broken Frontier.
Published by Faber & Faber, When Stars Are Scattered tells the story of Omar Mohamed and his brother Hassan, two Somali boys growing up in a refugee camp in Kenya. It’s a true account of events, with Omar’s tale being illustrated with an engagingly animated appeal by Victoria Jamieson (Roller Girl). Our introduction to the two brothers is also our introduction to the stark realities of life in the Dadaab camp the boys reside in. Here food is scarce, daily queues for water take hours, they are separated from their missing mother and the monotony of every day is one of their greatest challenges. Omar also has the added responsibility of looking after his brother who doesn’t speak beyond one repeated word and has been prone to seizures in the past.
In the supplementary material and afterwords at the back of the book the collaborative process between Omar Mohamed and Victoria Jamieson is elaborated on. Through a series of meetings where Omar recounted his story, Jamieson incrementally brought each chapter of it to life by adapting it for the comics page. It’s a remarkable achievement, tracing the brothers’ lives over a period of some years and occasionally jumping timeframes as we observe their relationship with each other, their wider circle of friends and their legal guardian Fatuma.
With a first person narration that is sometimes painfully honest and unafraid to be self-critical on occasion, there’s an immediate sense of intimacy between author and audience here. It ensures our emotional investment in Omar’s plight is there from the very beginning of the book, allowing us to share in both his achievements and his setbacks. Initially the camp is depicted from a child’s eye perspective, its sprawling world seeming daunting and all-encompassing. As the years pass, Omar’s commitment to his education and finding a new life overseas are balanced by his fears over his missing mother and the realisation that the civil war in Somalia means the brothers can never go home again.
Unsurprisingly, there’s an obvious sense of displacement throughout but there are also elements of community and found family which play a vital role in making the cast’s existences in the camp bearable. That makes it all the more poignant when the possibility of relocation in the US rears its head and jealous tensions build up between Omar and his friends Nimo and Jeri. These scenes of division between close-knit friends are among some of the most heartbreaking sequences In the book, though the brothers’ flashback escape from the civil war remains the most affecting.
Jamieson’s visuals perfectly capture the duality of the story, from the stark disappointments and challenges the brothers face to the quiet humour that peppers the book and the hopefulness that, against all the odds, is never quite relinquished. She reminds us of the intensity and the claustrophobia of the camp environment through tightly-panelled pages with occasional shifts in perspective to double-page spreads also underlining its expansive environs. Iman Geddy’s colouring is vibrant throughout but never inappropriately ostentatious in its depiction of the grim locale that confines Omar and company.
Suitable for a wider, all-ages audience, the book follows up on Omar and Hassan’s story in the years after the graphic memoir finishes with a number of text pieces that complete the story (for now). Those wishing to donate to Omar Mohamed’s Refugee Strong project can do so here. A compelling insight into the refugee experience When Stars Are Scattered is an excellent addition to a growing list of first-hand comics testimony to one of the greatest crises of our time.
Omar Mohamed & Victoria Jamieson, Iman Geddy • Faber & Faber, £9.99
Review by Andy Oliver