Interview with Winnie Yeung, 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. Winnie’s interview is below (and Bakr’s is here), and both 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)

‘a sense of alienation and searching’:
an interview with Winnie Yeung

Deborah Willis (DW): Writing this book must have been a huge endeavor, on top of your full-time job as a junior-high teacher. What compelled you to take on this task?

Winnie Yeung (WY): Abu Bakr had his secret wish to tell his story but as I started to interview him, I had my own wish. Listening to his incredible stories, of course I was stunned by the massacres and mosque shootings. But, what really drove me forward was this family’s love and resiliency. I was in awe of it and I wanted to honour everything that they had experienced. Moreover, I wanted to somehow capture their light and joy. There’s some kind of special gravity and weight to having a personal story written down. So, my wish was simply to be able to place pages of this quietly brave life into Bakr’s hands. That’s what drove me to take on the daunting task of writing my first book.

DW: Did you fully understand what you were getting into when you decided to write this book? Did you know the work it would require? Did you imagine that one day it would be published?

WY: I honestly thought I would be writing a short story! So, no, I had no idea of the scope of the project. There were three main challenges that I didn’t anticipate when judging how much work this would be: how long the interviews would take, my lack of background knowledge, and the ever-expanding scope of the story.

The hours I spent working on this project was significant. First, our conversations took a long time. Bakr’s English only consisted of basic phrases so we relied on Google Translate a lot. This meant that there were often misunderstandings of how something happened and we had to figure a lot out through trial and error, pantomiming, and image searches. It was a time-consuming process.

Then, as I started to stitch the narrative together, my mind reeled at trying to understand the Syrian Civil War. If I was going to write about his world, I needed to understand it. And though Bakr gave me his version of what was happening, I knew that was only one boy’s opinion. I wanted the book to educate people.

There was a point in the interview process where it felt like I would never finish. We were six weeks in and I hadn’t even started writing yet but all I had were more questions. As I was trying to map out the story arc, there were so many blanks that it felt like I would never be finished with the interviews. And this was just with Bakr alone. I hadn’t even talked to his family or the teachers who taught him before me. There were parts of the narrative where the timeline just didn’t make sense and we discovered that he was remembering things incorrectly. As a result, I started sending him home with lists of questions.

Memory is such a tricky thing. Never mind how trauma and stress can affect how we remember events, but have you ever tried to get details out of a teenaged boy? There were so many fine details he just simply couldn’t remember because he didn’t really pay attention to them. The minutia is important to a writer, so that’s where I got to flex my writing muscles in this creative nonfiction genre. Early on in the Freehand edition, my editor, Barbara Scott said something that I loved: the type of writing I was doing was about prioritizing the truth with the writer’s tools of the craft. For both editions, if I asked specific questions that no one could recall the answers to, I would give it my best guess. For example, I noticed in other online photographs of Syria that people kept lots of flowers on their balconies. In one of the chapters, I added pots of geraniums to Najim’s balcony and almost a year later, someone found an actual picture of Najim’s apartment and it turned out they had begonias. It was up to me to bring the fine brushstrokes and colour in the rough outlines Bakr gave me. Bakr used to laugh at the questions I sent home. One day, he asked me, “Why do you need to know the colour of our curtains, Miss?” I told him to just trust me.

This was how his parents and siblings became more involved. They answered my many questions through Bakr. But, as his narrative took shape, I felt like it was missing something vital. This was a story that included, at the very least, nine other lives. I needed to interview his family too. In the self-published version because of my relentless deadline for finishing it before he left our school for Grade Ten, I only managed one marathon interview with his parents. After Freehand Books picked up the manuscript, I spent many more hours interviewing more members of the Al Rabeeah family. I loved this time with them. Being amongst the excited chatter of his siblings, and sharing endless cups of sugary tea, the stories truly blossomed. It was his sisters and mother that gave me those beautiful, charming details. The green curtains, Grandmother’s henna-stained hands. Aunt Ateka running out of the house wearing men’s sandals.

In the end, the writing of the two versions of Homes taught me so much. In an overwhelming, exhausting, exhilarating way.

As for whether or not I thought it would be published, the short answer is no. Once I was finished the self-published manuscript, I sat Bakr down and explained the next steps. It would include some publicity and maybe even public-speaking opportunities. Then, I outlined possible dreams for this book: perhaps there would be media involved, maybe I could get it into a local bookstore. Next, I told him about the impossibly big dreams: maybe this could go province or nation-wide. Maybe even actual publication. His eyes were wide and sparkly by this point and he said, “Can I meet Justin Trudeau?” We both laughed at our impossibly big dreams.

Sidebar: I did write to the Prime Minister’s Office for Bakr. We got a lovely letter from the PMO congratulating us on the book. 🙂 It’s my goal to get that boy there!

DW: The details are so immediate and the writing has such an effective clarity. Can you tell us about the challenges of writing in Abu Bakr’s voice?

WY: I wrestled with writing in Abu Bakr’s voice constantly. I am not a teenaged Muslim boy so writing as him and taking my voice out of it was really difficult. I would scrutinize everything I wrote and ask myself, “Is this how Bakr would tell it or is this me?”

I realized that this would ultimately be his story told through my lens. Just like in a game of telephone, there were bound to be distortions. How I perceived everything was a part of my writing, in the stories I choose to include or delete. In my word choice. So, I settled on capturing the essence of Bakr — his warmth, his joy, his steadiness — and used those as my markers for his voice.

This is why the book is not a memoir. It is not straight transcription or ghost-writing. I am not a journalist who reported the story exactly as it was told to me. I crafted a narrative arc that I felt best represented all the aspects of their shared experience. It was crucial for me to stay true to my perception of his voice so to create that for the book, I spent a lot of time observing how he told me a story and his own visceral responses.

First, his lack of English was the most difficult challenge in finding his voice. The way he expressed himself in English was clumsy and awkward because of the language barrier. He wasn’t fluent so finding his rhythm was difficult. There were certain little verbal ticks that I picked up on easily, like how he says “sure sure” a lot. To help find the way he really talked, I asked him to call and speak in Arabic to his cousins and friends while I listened. He thought this was weird but he humoured me.

Another way I tried to make it feel more like his voice, is in how sparse some parts of the storytelling is, especially the action scenes. When he talked about these events, he was so matter-of-fact. No embellishment, almost stoic. It struck me that these bombings were so melodramatic to me, because all I knew were the movies. For him, there was an air of casualty to it because it had become such a part of his everyday experience. His years in a warzone had normalized it for him. I wanted to capture that so those scenes were sparse, unsentimental, and immediate.

That, and I respected that he didn’t make it melodramatic. Don’t forget that I am surrounded by teenagers all day so the lack of over-blown drama was refreshing. He wasn’t doing this for attention; he was simply telling his truth. I wanted to honour that.

DW: How did you deal with writing dialogue in a language you don’t speak? Did you learn some Arabic for this project?

WY: With the language itself, it was tricky because there are so many regional dialects and accents. I had an Arabic teacher help me with spellings and the language but she is Lebanese so we tried to balance her regional tendencies with Bakr’s Syrian/Iraqi guesses at the transliteration and translation of words. Hafedh and Bakr both said “Inshallah” and in English, “Thank Allah” a lot but it took an ex to point out the differences between that and “Bismillah” and “Alhamdulillah” and all the other iterations of “In the name of Allah” for different usages.

Also, language is built on our habits so I would try and find the speech patterns that characterized Bakr. How did he sound when he spoke to his parents, as opposed to his cousins? From other Arabic students, I noticed the boys especially would always say, “Wallah, wallah” in their posturing and boisterous ways. I’d ask Bakr, “what sound would your mom or sister make if they were frustrated with you?” I used those hesitators and fillers that were so cultural and personal to make is sound more like them. Did I get it completely? Probably not. But, I sure tried! To an Arabic reader, I’m sure it would still sound like Arabic-esque with a really bad Anglo accent.

DW: The book is full of humour, which might surprise many readers. I was particularly taken with the fact that Abu Bakr’s family lands in Canada laughing. Did the humour arise naturally or was this a deliberate choice?

WY: OK, I don’t actually know if they landed laughing. All those things on the plane really did happen but I took liberties in arranging it that way! The laughter and humour just came so naturally with Bakr and his family that I wanted to capture it in the book.

During our interviews, we spent so much time laughing, especially at our misunderstandings. For example, you know how you see movies with death threats nailed menacingly to doors? Well, when Bakr told me they had notes on the door, I immediately pictured that scenario. When I read that passage to him, Bakr burst out laughing. Having lived though that situation, he pointed out that if people physically hammered a note to the door, it would obviously bring someone to open the door and ruin the whole anonymous threat effect. We laughed so hard about this.

And just being with his family, there was always laughter. When his sisters were telling me how they remembered that big weapons depot explosion, they collapsed into giggles because what they really remember from that experience was their favourite aunt running out into the street in mens’ sandals while clutching her own shoes in her hands. Or, Abrar, the youngest sister being left behind and how furious she was. Bakr hadn’t even mentioned these things. Their laughter showed me the most important thing about them: how they weren’t victims. They weren’t broken. They lived it the best they could. That was so inspiring.

Because of that, the humour was just as important as the bombs and shootings, if not more.

DW: This book is very emotionally honest and searing in its details. Did you have to push Abu Bakr for his thoughts, feelings and experiences? And how did you balance respect for what he had been through with the requirements of a writer who needs to tell a compelling story?

WY: Actually, I worried about Bakr’s mental health through the process a lot. As a teacher, I knew enough about trauma and how even innocuous memories could trigger a flood of buried emotions. I worried and watched for signs of PTSD, going so far as to ask a therapist about potential signs to look for.

And with Abu Bakr, I allowed him to lead the conversations. By this I mean I started each of our sessions with, “What do you want to talk about today?” He told the stories when he felt ready to, in the order he was ready to talk about it. I watched his reactions carefully. If he was talking about an especially traumatic event, I would pause and ask him to do an emotional check-in. How was he feeling in telling the story? I was careful never to knowingly push. And we would often spend a long time debriefing our interviews.

Often, our interviews would feel like therapy sessions and I worried I wasn’t handling it well enough. After all, I wasn’t a trained professional. But, as a teacher, our students share trauma with us on a regular basis so it’s not like my job didn’t prepare me for this. I treated him like any other student or friend in need in those times. How could I lovingly and gently guide this person through this really dark moment?

Again, with my choices to make the action scenes sparse, I didn’t need much detail from him. If there were very specific details, I used my imagination to fill in the blanks rather than to make him dive deep in his mind for them. For example, in the scene where the family is loaded in the van on their move to Damascus, all Bakr told me was he was so scared because there was this soldier who playing with his rifle. Because I didn’t want Bakr to put himself back in that immediate moment, I extrapolated details and feelings. I thought, how would I feel if a soldier was staring me down and playing with his gun? What details would I notice? What would scare me?

DW: You have been a dedicated reader for a long time and it shows in the natural flow of your prose. Do you plan to continue writing? Do you have another project in mind?

WY: I’d love to keep writing because I am learning so much in this process. I’ve spent two years thinking about this boy’s story, I’d love for a chance to tell one of my own. However, I haven’t chosen my next project yet. After writing such a serious, weighty book, everything of my own feels a little frivolous.

DW: What does ‘home’ mean to you? Has working on this project made you think about your own home, or the concept of home?

WY: You can’t escape the cliché, but home is where the heart is. This family shows us this truth. They moved around a lot but they had each other so it didn’t matter so much. That’s why I settled on the name, Homes. I liked the play on words with their city, Homs, but I also felt that they were home no matter where they physically were.

As for my own home, writing this reminded me a lot about my own family. We are first generation Chinese immigrants. I was born in Edmonton but my parents moved here when they were young adults so they’ve spent more time in Canada than in their hometown of Hong Kong. Regardless how different my situation is from the Al Rabeeahs, there is a common thread that runs through any immigrant family’s experience. Many friends of mine have commented on this as well and they couldn’t be more different: families of political dissidents fleeing from Chile or German families moving because of work. We all have a sense of alienation and searching. Uprooting your family and landing in a country where you don’t speak the language and you’ve lost economic security is a deep sacrifice but my grandparents and Bakr’s parents say the same thing: you will have more opportunities here than back home. This is our new home now.

Interview © Deborah Willis and Winnie Yeung, 2018

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Also read Deborah Willis’s interview with Abu Bakr al Rabeeah