Interview with Abu Bakr al Rabeeah, about Homes: A Refugee Story

Homes by Abu Bakr al Rabeeah with Winnie Yeung. Cover design by Natalie Olsen, kisscutdesign.com.

Homes: A Refugee Story tells the true story of Edmonton high school student Abu Bakr al Rabeeah, whose family left Iraq in 2010 in search of a safer life. They moved to Homs, Syria — just before the Syrian civil war broke out. As told to Winnie Yeung, Homes tells Bakr’s story of growing up during the Syrian civil war, and ultimately moving with his family to a new home in Edmonton, Canada. It’s a story that’s both heartbreaking and hopeful, about the devastation of war and the enduring love of family — an urgently necessary read for understanding Syria and what it’s like to be a refugee.

Just before the publication of Homes, award-winning writer Deborah Willis chatted with Abu Bakr al Rabeeah and Winnie Yeung. Bakr’s interview is below (and Winnie’s is here), and are also available for download in PDF format for classroom use, discussion guides, and book clubs.

(Download the interview with Abu Bakr al Rabeeah)
(Download the interview with Winnie Yeung)

‘I think it’s a great beginning’:
an interview with Abu Bakr al Rabeeah

Abu Bakr al Rabeeah. Photo by Samuel Sir.

Deborah Willis (DW): It requires a lot of trust and faith to put your story into someone else’s hands and allow them to tell it. How did you know that Winnie was the right person for this task?

Abu Bakr al Rabeeah (ABaR): I love how Miss Winnie was interested to listen to my story. She was deeply into my story, she made a lot of time to hear it. And as a person who has been through a lot of life experience in that time, I could tell from Miss Winnie’s eyes that she is the one who deserved to hear my story and what’s inside me. She showed me that she cares about what’s happening in Syria and Iraq.

DW: You seem to have a capacity to find joy and fun, even in a stressful, terrifying world. Is finding joy a deliberate decision or does this come naturally to you?

ABaR: I think it more naturally came to me, because life is way more simple out there. I was living in the war like all people in Syria, trying to move on and live my day. Leave the past away because it’s the past, and pray to God, hoping to have a better future.

DW: You have very clear memories, such as of the bullet casings. Does having your memories contained in a book, to be shared with others, help those memories to stay with you or does it make them seem more distant?

ABaR: Some stories just stick in my mind because they just have a big space in my mind and heart. Some of them my family helped me to remember. The details were the hard part, the dates etc.

DW: There is a lot of talk in the media lately about trauma and the ways that reliving it can be triggering. Did you consider this when deciding to tell your story? Was it difficult to relive the violent moments?

ABaR: I didn’t really consider about the media.

DW: Do you recognize and remember your younger self when you read this book?

ABaR: Yes, I always remember how young I was, and the big difference between the young Abu Bakr in Syria and Abu Bakr now, and how I’ve grown up from that time to this time.

DW: This book poses big questions, such as, “Why would a loving God ever allow this kind of violence to happen to anyone?” Was it difficult or scary (or maybe liberating) to be this honest?

ABaR: The violence happened not because we love God. It wasn’t about God at all. It was political. Violence didn’t come from God. It came from people. For me, I’m not worried at all about this kind of question.

DW: What does your family think about this book? What do they think about the attention you’ve received?

ABaR: My family wishes me the the best of luck about the book. They like how people loved the story and how the story touched people deeply. They always think about how kind my teacher was to write a book and make all the effort to write it and to hear the story.

DW: You wanted to tell your story. Does that goal feel complete now? Or will you continue to tell this and other stories from your life, in some way?

ABaR: I think it’s a great beginning. I really hope this book is successful to the highest point. I will always continue to help the people in Syria and Iraq, in some way more than stories.

DW: Yousef asked you to never forget Syria and to tell your story. Does he know about this book? What does he think of what you and Winnie have done together?

ABaR: Yousef knows about the book, and I told him his name is in the book. He asks me about what’s new with the book. He thinks that we have done a very big thing, because no one imagined the story would go that big.

DW: What do you miss most about Syria and about Iraq?

ABaR: That’s the hardest question! 🙂 I simply miss everything. I miss the streets. I miss the people over there. I miss my big family in Iraq. Everything.

DW: At one point, you pray for peace, not from the war, but for peace in your heart. Do you think you have, or will find, this type of peace?

ABaR: I pray for the peace in my heart and for faith in God, that he is the one who will protect us from the violence. I think I have it as long as I keep praying to God.

DW: You mention that coming to Canada was sometimes especially difficult for your father, who was used to taking care of things. How else did immigration change your family and its dynamics?

ABaR: We all take care of things. Everyone helps, everyone has a job in the house and helps our father. It changed with the lifestyle here. Everyone is busy with his or her studying or work, which makes us have less time to see each other and meet.

DW: You speak a lot of the “suffocating, quiet safety” of Canada, as well the solitude and loneliness and fear of immigration. What would you say to a refugee family who are experiencing this change now? What advice would you give?

ABaR: I always tell them that me and my family have been through this before, and you guys will pass this situation. It just takes time to get used to life over here. Patience is very important in this kind of situation.

DW: What does home mean to you now? Do you consider yourself to be home in Canada?

ABaR: Home means to me a place that I grew up in, am happy to be in, have had all the happy moments with my people. I consider myself living in a great and fair country. Canada is a great home that protects all my family and lets them live their lives.

Interview © Deborah Willis and Abu Bakr al Rabeeah, 2018

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Also read Deborah Willis’s interview with Winnie Yeung