When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed

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Around the globe are families and children who have fled their home seeking for peace elsewhere. And these refugees have to live somewhere!

We get a glimpse of what such a life in a refugee camp is like in the memoir graphic novel When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed (Dial Books for Young Readers, 2020). Omar’s early childhood was full of the upheaval of fleeing a war-torn village and, while caring for his toddler brother, making his way to a refugee camp. His years at the refugee camp were likewise uncertain.

Although his ultimate dreams of being reunited with his family in Somalia were not realized, Omar’s ability to reshape his dreams and his persistence is an essential display of the reality of life for so children around the world.

Omar’s childhood goals were simple: wait in the refugee camp, caring for his disabled brother, Hassan, until they find his mother. To the reader, it quickly becomes evident that given the thousands and thousands and the multiple number of city-sized camps in Kenya, the chances of two young boys finding their mother become increasingly small. Eventually, Omar is willing to give other options a try, first as he enters school and excels, and then later, as he begins to desire to immigrate to the United States. Such goals only met with more frustration, however, since only a select few children can attend high school-level classes, and only a handful of those would have a chance to relocate outside of the refugee camp.

As I read, I went through a thought experiment: Can you imagine a life inside of a refugee camp? Can you imagine knowing that you will never leave, never have a chance anywhere else? There are no jobs, there is little food, and there is little in the way of entertainment, and entire generations are raised there. It is so clear why so many gave up hope, drank away their days, and otherwise ended up broken and discouraged.

Omar’s life, in some ways, was quite lucky. He did have a loving guardian in the elderly Fatuma, who helped secure his belongings and cook his food. He and his brother remained together. He was encouraged to get an education and supported by friends as he did so.

But his success in life wasn’t just luck. His initial hopes as a child were to find his mother, care for his brother, and return home to Somalia. He approached these goals with the determination to succeed. Over time, he transformed his hope into a determination to improve his education and escape his circumstances. As he matured, his aspirations for the future began to flourish as he recognized that, even though life wouldn’t unfold as he wanted it to, he could still make it a beautiful thing. There was hope.

The graphic novel format was essential for capturing the realities of living in a refugee camp: the chores, the living quarters, the crowded school, the food and water needs, and the vastness of the camp in general. The young people’s personalities and unique stories also were shown subtlety in the graphic novel format.

For example, Maryam was a (fictionalized) young women who was a talented student, but at age 14 her family forced her to leave school and marry a much older man.

As Omar and his friend Nimo (another young woman) grow and learn through the high school years, the graphic novel shows Maryam, pregnant, with a baby, with a 4-year-old.

The anguish, the disappointment, and the emotions from not just this young women but also the “bums” on the street, the children trying to study, the people sitting in the immigration office being interrogated — all of these situations were enhanced by the graphic novel format.

The title of this graphic novel refers to a poem that this (fictionalized) young women wrote.

A Poem of Stars by Maryam Farah

Those who are lost look to the stars to lead them home.

The flag of Somalia, our home, has one star, one background.

But we are not one star. We are millions. Not one background, millions.

To the untrained eye, the night sky is a scattering of stars, a chaos of light and dark across the universe.

And yet, the stars are not lost.

They form patterns. Constellations.

If you know how to look, there are stories woven into the very essence of stars.

Be like a star. Shine your life. Shine your story.

For stories will lead us home.

Oh, I felt all the feels as I read this book! So much hope, so much discouragement. So much sadness for the refugees of the world, those who are stuck in this in-between spot of land and life. I also felt all the feels when I learned that Hooyo, the only sound Hassan can say, is actually the Somali word for mother. In his infancy, Hassan had felt the love of a mother. Throughout his innocent life (an innocence that came probably from brain damage during his extreme malnourishment as a toddler fleeing war), every time he felt loved, he said this one, precious word: Mother.

This whole book is a gorgeous tribute to love and to the power of the human spirit to overcome discouragement. Omar’s life is inspiring to us all.

Reviewed on February 20, 2023

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

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