This book began its life as a weekly comic strip in the New York Times in which the experiences of a group of refugees – the Aldabaan family from Homs, in Syria – were recounted, as if in real time. The strip, written by the novelist Jake Halpern with art by Michael Sloan, went on to win a Pulitzer prize for editorial cartooning. Now it’s here in graphic novel form, complete with a new “what happened next” section for all those on tenterhooks.
The story begins in 2016, with the Aldabaans – Issa and Aminah and their children, and Issa’s brother, Ibrahim and his wife, Adeebah –in a Jordanian refugee camp where they’ve been living for several years. They’ve just received good news: their entry permits to the US have been approved. But this long-awaited blessing is painfully compromised. Paperwork pertaining to their extended family is still pending, which means that Issa and Ibrahim will not be able to take their mother with them, and meanwhile, there are rumours that refugees are subject to extortion rackets when they try to leave Jordan. Is it possible that, having sold all their worldly possessions, they could find themselves trapped at the border, destitute all over again?
But to delay would be risky: if Trump wins the election, travel permits for refugees may be revoked. And so it is that they arrive in snowy Connecticut, where they are released into the care of the various organisations and individuals who will help them to resettle. At this point, you may feel, as I did, that Welcome to the New World is a somewhat earnest book, one that prioritises education over entertainment. But its granular, journalistic approach does take you to places rarely imagined in terms of the refugee experience – and in this sense, at least, their narrative is truly thought-provoking.
Naji, Issa’s son, has long dreamed of America, but when he opens his locker at his new high school, his sense of anti-climax is overwhelming (who knows what thrills he hoped to find inside it? Perhaps he thought it would invest him with superpowers). At other moments, he is as lost as his parents. Having cleared snow for a neighbour, he politely turns down the woman’s offer of payment. Back home in Syria this would be a cue for the neighbour to insist he take the money, but alas, here, she takes him at his word.
Combine such cultural confusions with the terror the family feels when faced with institutions such as the police – in Syria, Issa and Ibrahim were held and beaten in one of Assad’s prisons – and something powerful begins to happen: we stop taking the Albadaans’ timid politeness for granted; we feel no frustration at their occasional stubbornness. We know what they cannot hope to explain in their faltering English, and thus what the stranger on the street will never understand. Every moment of their lives is framed by all that they’ve lost; no white-painted stoop will ever replace the old key that Aminah still keeps close to her heart.
•Welcome to the New World: Waking Up in Trump’s America by Jake Halpern and Michael Sloan is published by Bloomsbury (£16.99)