Escaping Wars and Waves: Encounters with Syrian Refugees profiles a few dozen people in five geographic locations, involving three trips to refugee camps between 2013 and 2017, as well as a few additional interviews. Kugler’s approach to representing the refugee crisis was to interview refugees in order to directly learn more about the situation and their experiences. This dialogue-driven style of storytelling means the book lacks an overarching narrative and functions a bit more like a scrapbook, a collage of different people and the objects that surround them in their everyday lives. This scattered narrative seems to reflect a life in pieces, fragments of a life lived in limbo—waiting for paperwork, not knowing how long you may have to wait in order to be approved to move to your next destination or when you may be approved for resettlement, with the fear of deportation constantly lurking in the background.

Much like a scrapbook, there are a lot of layers to the art. People are often drawn in many positions simultaneously, several arms drawn to represent gesticulations while speaking, an outline of a hand holding coffee while a colored-in version lays crossed against a stomach. Sometimes an element is repeated out of context as an outline, such as someone’s nose floating in front of their face or an eye repeated off to the side. Words and letters occasionally escape the edges of speech bubbles. Notes and annotations crowd the pages, and objects are almost excessively detailed, making you wonder what the purpose is of labeling socks cast aside by a tent or a plastic spoon near refugees sleeping on flattened cardboard boxes. The reader is left lost and seeking direction, searching for a route among the chaos. You must scan the page carefully, worried you might miss a detail. The art works with the storytelling style to encourage a non-linear reading experience engineered to slow the reader down and allow them to spend more time with what is otherwise a fairly short book. Different parts of the page are occasionally numbered in order to guide the reader.

Escaping Wars and Waves brings a perspective to the refugee crisis that many other comics on the subject lack. Many of the interviewees mention missing Syria, whether they are sharing photos of beloved cats or reminiscing about their hometowns. One person aptly says, “For us Europe is not a dream land. It is not paradise… it is not heaven. I prefer Syria. But without the war.” The book dispels myths that readers might hold about refugees. Someone explains that their priority is not to qualify for government benefits, but rather “to get on with our lives.” Because Kugler’s interviews take place over four years in five different regions, the book effectively demonstrates how the reception to refugees has changed over time, from policemen scolding refugees with a simple “try again tomorrow” to an increased militaristic guard. Citizens became more aggressive, charging Syrians more than locals for the same products, and smugglers became even greedier, doubling their fees for questionable transportation options.

It’s unclear if the names given are made up to protect identities, but based on one encounter I’m guessing they’re not. Only one of the encounters is not illustrated, with the subject referred to simply as “The Afghan,” with a note from the author explaining that he did not want to be photographed or recorded. That being said, in his preface, Kugler notes that during several of his trips, women were particularly uncomfortable with being photographed (photographs which were necessary as drawing references), even if he did receive permission to do so. He explains that he felt it was important that their voices were heard and their stories were told, not seeming to recognize the hypocritical and disrespectful nature of not centering refugees’ wishes and comfort.

The book doesn’t have a conclusion, only a fairly lacking one-page postscript that fails to effectively wrap up the book. It’s unclear what kind of tone the author intended for the reader—empathy and understanding without further action? No additional resources are provided or referenced in regards to how to help refugees or take action, aside from a possible low-key recommendation to support Doctors Without Borders. I found this aspect fairly disappointing, especially after reading such impactful stories.

The book’s content is emotionally difficult, but would not be inappropriate for a young adult audience. However, regardless of where it is shelved, collection development is essential in order to ensure that readers have enough context for the work and can find more information about the refugee crisis.

Escaping Wars and Waves: Encounters with Syrian Refugees
By Olivier Kugler
ISBN: 9780271082240
Pennsylvania State University Press, 2018
NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16), Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+)

  • Maria Aghazarian

    Past Reviewer

    Maria Aghazarian is a librarian at Swarthmore College and the Lower Merion library system, in the stretch of southeastern Pennsylvania otherwise known as the “greater Philadelphia area.” Her love of graphic novels started with manga in middle school, but exploded after graduating college when she learned that superheroes aren’t the be-all and end-all of comics. She aims to support small and independent presses, and manufacturers of sturdy bookcases.

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