Escape from Aleppo
Written by N.H. Senzai
Published by Paula Wiseman Books, Simon and Schuster, 2018
In the midst of the Syrian Civil War in fall of 2013, protagonist Nadia must find her way back to her family, from whom she was separated when a bomb hit their apartment building in Aleppo just as they were leaving for the Turkish border. Aleppo is one of the oldest continually-occupied cities in the world, but since the start of the Syrian Civil War, ancient buildings have been destroyed, and historical relics and cultural artifacts lost, perhaps forever. Before the war, Nadia was more concerned about knowing the latest plot lines of Syrian soap operas, watching Arab Idol, acting in commercials, and keeping her fingernails perfectly polished. But now, her very survival is at stake. While hiding out in an abandoned pharmacy, Nadia is discovered by a mysterious elderly gentlemen, Ammo Mazen. So begins her odyssey to the Turkish border, in the company of Ammo Mazen and two orphaned boys. Senzai provides middle grade readers with just enough back story to make sense of Nadia’s journey through Aleppo without drowning the reader in details. Some of the best and worst of the Syrian Civil War is revealed, as Nadia and friends encounter citizens saving ancient artifacts and one another, and snipers who shoot from the rooftops. Ultimately, this is a coming of age story, a story of agency and determination. Readers will be cheering for Nadia, but also lamenting all that has been lost – from art to artifact to human lives – during this long and drawn-out war. Ideal for interdisciplinary explorations of this ongoing current event as well as important ancient, medieval, and 20th century history, Escape from Aleppo gives readers much to ponder, and much to act upon.
Teaching Ideas and Invitations
Solar System Model: Exploring the Syrian Refugee Crisis. Engage your students in a book club reading of several middle novels that focus on the Syrian Refugee Crisis: Escape from Aleppo, the graphic novel Escape from Syria written by Samya Kullab and illustrated by Jackie Roche, Refugee, a braided narrative of four different refugee experiences in the 20th and 21st centuries, written by Alan Gratz, and the recently published Without Refuge, by Jane Mitchell. As students read, have them compare and contrast the experiences of the protagonists in their novels. Play this short video of Syrian refugees from the Oxfam website. Have students listen to this April 2018 NPR story, “The U.S. has Accepted Only 14 Syrian Refugees This Year.” Use the educator resources below to help contextualize the Syrian Civil War for students. Have students conduct their own research on the Syrian Civil War, using the additional digital resources. In response to their research, students may choose to raise funds to support Syrian refugees around the world. Or, they may choose to write letters to Congress or to the President regarding the plight of the Syrian people, advocating for change in U.S. policy. If there are local refugee relocation centers near your school community, or if you know of Syrian refugees living in your community, invite them in to share their experiences with students.
Getting to Know Syrian Culture. Your school community may or may not have a local Syrian population. If possible, invite a local Syrian immigrant or someone of Syrian descent into your classroom to share their lived experience of Syrian culture with your students. If you are unable to locate someone of Syrian descent in proximity to your school community, see if you can Skype with someone in another part of the country or world. Or, have an expert on Syrian and/or Middle East culture and politics from your local university come in to speak to your students about Syrian culture.
Mapping Locations in Aleppo. Provide your students with hard copies of a map of Aleppo that they can mark up while reading, or have them use Google Maps or Google Earth to learn more about the different locations in Aleppo that Nadia and her friends travel past. A BBC-curated collection of pictures of the Souk market shows what this 14th century marketplace looked like before the civil war began. Students can explore the Ancient City of Aleppo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, including a short video of the Ancient City. Students can watch a video about The Barron Hotel and see the real life Armen Mazloumian and his dog Sasha at The Barron Hotel. When students have completed the book, you can play them the NY Times video, “Remembering Aleppo.” Please know that it may be too graphic for some middle grade students, and you need to make the choice that is right for your students. You may also want to play the video “Remembering Aleppo Before Syria’s Civil War Tore Through the City” from the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail. If possible, if there is someone in your local school community who visited or lived in Syria before the Civil War, and can share personal photos and experiences, this would contribute greatly to the students’ understanding.
Taking Sides? Students may be used to books that present more clear-cut villains as antagonists. Who are the “enemies” in Escape from Aleppo? Certainly Bashar al-Assad’s government is condemned throughout the book for hurting and killing Syrian citizens using bombs and chemical weapons. Throughout the book, Nadia and her companions are scared of who they might meet. Indeed, Ammo Mazen seems to be both suspicious of and connected to all whom he encounters. As readers, we never quite know what will happen next or which political faction will be at the next checkpoint. While all are feared, no one actually hurts them. It is also no clear “whose side” different factions are on. We even learn that Nadia’s family’s business cooperated with the authoritarian government before the civil war. Ask your students to discuss why Senzai does not present characters who are clear-cut villains. What might she be trying to achieve by always keeping the readers guessing alongside Nadia with each and every new character?
Exploring Arabian Nights. Throughout Escape from Aleppo, Nadia is reading a centuries-old copy of Arabian Nights from Ammo Mazen’s cart. Your students may not be familiar with this collection. Read aloud some of the tales from the book using Donna Jo Napoli’s recent Tales from the Arabian Nights. Have students compare and contrast the similarities and differences across different stories. What questions do they have about the stories? Students can learn more about the history of the collection, dating back to the 8th-9th centuries, from the State Library of Victoria, and from this online collection of resources from the Annenberg Foundation. As a teacher, you may find this online article from the Library of Congress of interest.
Quest Stories. Engage your students in a book club reading of middle grade novels that focus on a quest. In Escape from Aleppo, Nadia, Basel, and Tarek are attempting to make it to the Turkish border. In Doll Bones by Holly Black, Zach, Poppy, and Alice are returning an antique doll, “The Queen” to a cemetery across state lines. In the historical fantasy The Inquisitor’s Tale, by Adam Gidwitz, Jeanne, William, and Jacob must all flee their homes for safety elsewhere. Have students begin to draft their own quest stories, drawing their inspiration from the novels as mentor texts.
Preserving Historical Monuments, Artifacts, and Art. In Escape from Aleppo, Nadia and her companions witness archeologists and ordinary citizens working together to preserve precious artifacts from Syrian history, some that are thousands of years old. Have your students explore some of the real-life heroes protecting Syrian history, art, and culture from within. You can read about the World Monument Fund’s efforts in Syria. Students can read an article about these effort from Smithsonian Magazine, and another from NewsDeeply that focuses on Syrian women’s efforts. Students can also listen to this NPR story and watch this CBS News video story. Students may also be interested in learning more about the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative, “a joint project of The University of California, Los Angeles, the University of Oxford, and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin.” Some ancient cuneiform tablets from museums in Syria are available digitally through this resource. Depending on where you live, you can take your students to a U.S. museum to see ancient and medieval Syrian art, or students can explore the art via museum websites, such as: Syrian Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Syrian Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Palmyra exhibit at the Getty Villa Museum, Los Angeles, and Syrian Art at The British Museum. You may also want students to explore this January 2018 New Yorker article, “Mapping the Journeys of Syria’s Artists,” so that students can understand that a contemporary art culture has also been disrupted by the civil war. Ask your students what safeguards should be in place to preserve art, both historic and contemporary, in American museums. If possible, bring in a museum curator or Skype with one so that students can better understand the act of preserving ancient treasures and what plans do exist to protect ancient art and artifacts from weather events, thieves, and war.
Climate Change and the Syrian Civil War. Throughout Escape from Aleppo, we hear characters talking about the rain coming “several years too late.” Ask your students why they think that statement recurs throughout the story and what it might mean. What is the author hinting at? Why doesn’t she just come out and say it? Next, have students explore recent studies that suggest that the impact of climate change is already being felt in Syria, and that it may have contributed to the tensions that fueled the ongoing civil war. This 2015 National Geographic article begins to make this connection. This 2018 Atlantic article continues the conversation. Additional resources are available on the intersection of violence and climate change in Syria at The Center for Climate and Security and in this PBS news story from 2016. Next, place students in pairs to cover other nations that are already feeling the effects of climate change, and the challenges that climate change may bring or are already bringing to their political infrastructure. Have students make presentations that discuss the climate challenges the nation faces, the political infrastructure, and the tensions between the two.
Black, H. (2013). Doll bones. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Kullab, S. (2017). Escape from Syria. Illus. By J. Roche. Ontario, Canada: Firefly Books.
Gidwitz, A. (2016). The Inquisitor’s Tale. Illus. by H. Aly. New York: Dutton Children’s Books.
Gratz, A. (2017). Refugee. New York: Scholastic.
Leatherdale, M. B. (2017). Stormy seas: Stories of young boat refugees. Illus. by E. Shakespeare. Toronto, Canada: Annick Press.
Mitchell, J. (2018). Without refuge. Minneapolis, MN: Carolrhoda.
Napoli, D.J. (2016). Tales from Arabian Nights: Stories of adventure, magic, love, and betrayal. Illus. by C. Balit. Washington, DC: National Geographic.
Book Lists on the Refugee Experience
“Remembering Aleppo Before Syria’s Civil War Tore Through the City” from the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail.
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About Mary Ann Cappiello
Mary Ann is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former public school language arts and humanities teacher, she is a passionate advocate for and commentator on children’s books. Mary Ann is the co-author of Teaching with Text Sets (2013) and Teaching to Complexity (2015) and Text Sets in Action: Pathways Through Content Area Literacy (Stenhouse, 2021). She has been a guest on public radio and a consultant to public television. From 2015-2018, Mary Ann was a member of the National Council of Teachers of English's Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction (K-8) Committee, serving two years as chair.
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