The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees

The Unwanted covers the crisis in Syria from 2011 through 2018 by focusing on the many ways refugees have left or have tried to leave the country, enduring dangers such as smugglers, border police, and deportation in trying to seek resettlement in other countries. In an author’s note, Brown asserts that his purpose in writing the book was to focus only on the refugee experience, rather than try to sum up the complicated cultural landscape of Syria. However, in many ways the book focuses on being a refugee in the broadest possible sense. Experiences are anonymized and generalized; we do not follow any individuals and none of the characters, despite representing real people, have names. If any individual appears repeatedly, it is only over the course of a few panels. The longest we follow an individual is four pages, from a jihadist checkpoint to a smuggler’s boat, where he disappears into the crowd of other refugees, each one indistinguishable from the last, where their greatest power comes from their numbers rather than their lives. The refugees as people are not central to the story, but rather serve as a mass of fleeing people without identity. The result is a depersonalized representation of the “refugee experience,” homogeneous in its portrayal, with the primary focus on the act of fleeing rather than adequately addressing resettlement, rebuilding community, or homesickness. The author does not discuss nor seem to grapple with the difficulty of consolidating the struggle of millions into a single story, though he notes he felt like a “voyeur to tragedy.” While drawing up a fictional narrative about real events can be similarly problematic, the approach Brown takes feels more voyeuristic, like a documentary divorced of emotion.

While it’s clear that the book is well-researched, with nine pages of bibliography and four pages of author’s notes in which he describes his visits to refugee camps in Greece in 2017, by generalizing the experience it lacks emotional depth. In the notes about his visits, Brown describes the settings, not the people; he remarked that it seemed “unnecessary and cruel” to ask refugees to “recount their awful experiences,” but at the same time it removes the opportunity for interpersonal connection and getting to know the people past their status as a refugee. The people portrayed don’t really participate in the story. They have no control over the narrative. We begin to understand their struggles, but not who they are as people. We see a portrayal of their hardships, but not of who they are. While I can appreciate that the quotes used were taken directly from refugees, because they were pulled from the articles mentioned in the bibliography, it adds another layer of removal from their source, adding one more degree of separation and maintaining the distance between reader and refugee. Many of the quotes are said by refugees directly to the reader, turning their faces away from the violence depicted to describe the circumstances. Separating them from the story creates an eerie and unnerving feeling, as if a horror movie broke the fourth wall. Additionally, because Brown takes pieces from different people’s lives and experiences, the narrative of the book is not driven by the people, but rather reads more like a collage or scrapbook.

The Unwanted resists some comic book conventions in its style—the art is in panels, but the text is mostly narrative text, complete with paragraph breaks, indentation, and a serif font, which I’m not sure I’ve seen in a graphic novel before. The art is somewhat abstract and imprecise, a very sketchy style, lending a sense of impermanence fitting to the work. Often people’s eyes are portrayed as dark, shadowy sockets, which only adds to the feeling of removal, drawing the reader further away from the experiences of the people portrayed rather than closer to them. Violence cannot be confined by borders—black clouds of smoke rise past panel boundaries, explosions burst into the gutters, guns peer past the panels, escaping their own borders to search for the refugees who are crossing borders. A “flood” of refugees stream in from off the side of the page, ignoring the panel boundaries completely. While the art is mostly watercolor, some aspects seem more like mixed media, in particular, explosions that take up an entire page.

One aspect of the book that struck me as strange was that at no point do any of the characters address Syria as their home. There seems to be a total rejection of the country, with no discussion of nostalgia, homesickness, what they love, cherish, and miss about the home they had to abandon. In this sense the story seems very one-sided and flat, and might have benefitted from a deeper exploration of the characters as people.

The book only serves to strengthen the image portrayed on the cover and by the title; The Unwanted frames refugees as a problem rather than as people. It focuses on fear, and feels like watching a horror movie, where you are forced to watch panicked characters flee from the danger that haunts them. I found it more anxiety-inducing than empathy-provoking. Unlike other works that I’ve read and reviewed about refugees, this book does not leave the reader with recommendations for ways to become involved, though a portion of the proceeds from the book are donated to The International Rescue Committee. Brown’s goal may have been to capture the “refugee experience,” but I found that The Unwanted was a missed opportunity for deeply connecting to people rather than to the traumas they’ve experienced.

In addition to the heavy subject matter, in regards to content warnings, librarians wishing to shelve this title should be aware that the book shows corpses, blood, and military weapons, but without portraying graphic violence or deaths.

The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees
By Don Brown
ISBN: 9781328810151
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: Teen


Amina is a young Syrian girl who is flung from an overcrowded boat that is carrying refugees. In the water she recalls sepia-toned memories of her family and what prompted her journey without the accompaniment of her family. Her meditations on playing hide-and seek and cooking with her mother are interspersed with scenes of her falling deeper through the water. She recalls her parents going into town and her mother’s last words to her, “Remember Zenobia!” Zenobia was an ancient Syrian queen and a symbol of strength, power, and independence. But Amina’s parents do not return, and her uncle comes to try to take her to safety. They journey through desolate towns destroyed by war, to a fisherman’s boat, where her uncle gives all his money so that Amina may know soon peace. In the water, she drifts to a sanctuary where no soldiers can harm her, finding solace in the strength of Zenobia, but heartbreakingly in the wrong direction.

While the book is fairly short, several artistic techniques are used to slow the reader down and meditate deeply upon the story being told. Words are used sparingly in the book, which features many large panels, evoking a wide expanse of time. Whole minutes could be spent on the two-page spread of Amina stepping outside her door and taking in what she sees—wide columns of black smoke, a destroyed tank, an ominous plane overhead, and not another person in sight. Sometimes a page depicting a single scene will be split into several panels, signifying the fragmentation and loss of that experience, something that can never be experienced as a whole again. Horneman mostly uses flat colors throughout the book, lending a sense of simplicity that seems appropriate for a story being told from a child’s perspective, but does not make the art any less impactful on the reader.

Dürr and Horneman are both Danish, and it is unclear why they were moved to tell this fictional story about a refugee, as no authors’ note accompanies the book. Zenobia reminds me in many ways of Khaled Hosseini’s Sea Prayer, a short and highly visual book that was inspired by three-year-old refugee Alan Kurdi drowning in the Mediterranean Sea in 2015. Similarly, Zenobia works to build empathy for refugees and the risks they have taken for peace, though there is no clear call to action to the reader. In an interview I found quoted online, Dürr responds that he intends for Zenobia to act as, “a few minutes of silence in honor of the victims.” Nonetheless, it stirs in readers a great pain that desires resolution, rather than to sit with this feeling of hopelessness and despair.

Other than the fact that it is utterly heart-wrenching, the content of the book is appropriate for children. Death and war are present, through the depictions of destruction, a few (not graphic) dead bodies pictured among rubble, and as an overwhelming presence overshadowing her story. While the book is told from a young perspective, the publisher markets the book as a story for both children and adults. I would agree that this heavy tale is essential for adult readers in order to humanize the stories that the news depicts of refugees, particularly those that focus only on their tragic journeys and not on their lives as individuals, their memories of home and hopes for the future.

By Morten Dürr
Art by Lars Horneman
ISBN: 9781609808730
Seven Stories Press, 2018

Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq

American involvement in the Middle East has been going on for over a decade, and stereotypes and conceptions about those involved are quite common. But what are the stories of those living there? In Rolling Blackouts, cartoonist Sarah Glidden explores the experiences of citizens and refugees by chronicling the trip she took through Turkey, Iraq, and Syria with her journalist friends, Sarah and Alex, and a military veteran, Dan. Among the individuals and groups they meet are a man accused of terrorism and deported from the United States; Iraqi refugees living in Syria; and refugees living in former prisons. The result is a thoughtful, nuanced narrative that examines these experiences and the role of journalism.

Early on in the story, Glidden claims Rolling Blackout’s focus is on the process of journalism and its ethics. However, as a reader, I found the stories of those interviewed more compelling and more immediately visible. Glidden weaves Sarah and Alex’s struggles of finding and developing a good story into the narrative, and these elements help contribute to the reflective nature of the story as well as to humanize the journalists, who, according to Sarah, are frequently viewed with suspicion and disgust.

The meat of the story lies in the experiences of the people the group interviews. Glidden does not force individuals’ words to fit a particular narrative. As a result, Rolling Blackouts reveals the wide variety of opinions and experiences among those directly affected by the conflict as well as the messy nature of the lives affected. Glidden’s simple, clean artwork allows readers to focus on the individuals’ experiences as they describe them. Glidden excels at demonstrating characters’ personalities through gestures and expressions, and the soft colors evoke a thoughtful mood. The artwork fits well with the slower pacing of the story: Rolling Blackouts is not a book to be read in one sitting, but rather requires one to pause to reflect on the stories being told.

Rolling Blackouts will appeal to teenage and adult readers seeking a nuanced story about the impact of the conflicts in the Middle East. The book also would provide a great opportunity to discuss journalistic ethics and the methods of constructing a story. Because this book does not provide much historical context, readers seeking background information will want to look elsewhere. That being said, Rolling Blackouts’ thoughtful portrayal of the experiences of those in the Middle East will give it a place in most library collections.

Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq
by Sarah Glidden
ISBN: 9781770462557

Drawn and Quarterly, 2016