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A House Without Walls

Authored by Elizabeth Laird
Illustrated by Maria Brzozowska & Lucy Eldridge
Published by Pan MacMillan

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A House Without Walls follows the difficulties of Safiya, whose life in war-torn Damascus, Syria, is turned on its head when her family have to escape.

Her father’s law firm is under threat from the secret police and the safest option is for them to flee. Safiya, her father, and her brother Tariq move to Jordan, which is where their now-deceased mother was from. They find in-laws, Uncle Yasser, and Aunt Zainab, who are like oil and water. Yasser is warm and welcoming, doing his best to ensure their relatives have what they need. Zainab is colder, unsure of the motives behind the sudden arrival of these people who she hasn’t seen for years. Safiya is put to work – and this is the right phrase – as Zainab makes her cook, clean and generally earn her keep.

It soon becomes apparent that there is not room for Safiya, Tariq and her father, but they are offered the chance to pitch a tent in the yard. This impacts the pride of all three, and without means to earn an income, they feel forced to take jobs to make ends meet, and Safiya even accepts the offer of help from a local shopkeeper, much to father’s chagrin. Alongside this story of suffering is the revelation that Safiya has a twin who she has never met, but feels the pull of her getting closer and closer.

Elizabeth Laird writes convincingly from the point of view of a refugee child, using her time spent in the Middle East to include some of the ways of life that might be present. There are sprinklings of Arabic, a variety of traditional foods mentioned, and the cultural norms of some Middle Eastern ways of life can be recognised.

Safiya is presented as headstrong, but this sometimes seems at odds with some of her decision-making, where she can fall into line with (for example) her brother without a second thought, but then can acts fairly recklessly on other occasions, losing her temper and telling lies at certain points. Perhaps this might reflect the confusion and uncertainty of living as a refugee, but as a character, Safiya sometimes is quite inconsistent.

I enjoyed this story, and thought that Safiya’s life reflected the experience of many refugees whose lives are changed from perfectly respectable to something they had not ever foreseen. Safiya, and her father particularly, struggle to find their place, and others look down on them because of the circumstances in which they find themselves. I always look out for books that generate empathy towards refugees, and Elizabeth Laird’s stories manage to do this while also balancing the stark reality of their experience.

This would be a good story to share with Year 4 or Year 5 classes, perhaps if they are familiar with Onjali Q. Rauf’s The Boy at the Back of the Class or A.M. Dassu’s Boy Everywhere.