Have you ever followed a trail of shiny stones, one more lovely than the other, until you found yourself deep in the woods of wondering…?
STEPPING STONES: A Refugee Family’s Journey by Margriet Ruurs, artwork by Nizar Ali Badr, Orca Book Publishers, 2016
First I read an article in Bookbird, A Journal of International Children’s Literature. The article was written by Margriet Ruurs, an award winning author of more than 30 books for children. She, too, was following a path of pebbles, first showing up on Facebook. She saw the artwork of a Syrian sculptor from Ugarit, now living and working in Lattakia, Syria. He simply arranges rocks on the ground or on a rectangle of plywood – except it’s not so simple. His images tell deeply emotional stories.
Author Ruurs had to find this artist, had to ask him about his life and work. Her article in Bookbird details her determination to find him and her inspiration to write a book about a refugee family’s journey to find a peaceful life. She wanted Nizar Ali Badr to tell this eloquent story in stones undergirded by his own intriguing story: a gifted artist managing to create in spite of a multitude of deprivations.
I had to follow the trail to her book, too, as reader. I had to know how her search ended, as well as more about the artist himself.
Ruurs’ story follows a young girl who is forced to flee her home when war comes to her Syrian village and “Life in our village changed. Nothing was as it had been.” The pebble people who are her family say good-bye to the rooster and the goat and go to the end of the earth where they must cross a vast sea. The physical burdens of the pebble family’s belongings bow the adults’ bodies, but the weight of loss is a burden the sculptor conveys in all the bodies, young and elderly.
This family created by author Ruurs survives the sea, but other refugees do not. On land once more, the family stops. “Mama and Papa planted seeds to grow flowers to remember those who did not reach freedom.” It’s a tender scene. Love, care, hope. All told in stones that have become real people to the reader.
Badr has not left his homeland. In the foreword, author Ruurs notes that sometimes the artist does not have money to buy the glue that would make his art permanent. It becomes one of those “meant to be” moments that made it possible for the artist and author to create this book for a publisher willing to consider challenging circumstances. Badr says his ancestors left “a signature in my genes to create and share my work with honesty and modesty.” Ruurs hopes she can raise awareness of the plight of those who must flee the horrors of war.
This is a beautiful book.