Award-winning Syrian Canadian author and activist Danny Ramadan makes his English-language children’s book debut with Salma the Syrian Chef (Annick Press, March 10). In the book, Salma and her mama have recently arrived in Vancouver from a refugee camp in Damascus. Their new apartment is within a Welcome Center where they live with other immigrants from around the world. Salma’s mama is always busy or sad as she works to establish their new life. With the help of center staff and fellow residents, Salma cheers Mama up with a home-cooked Syrian meal and, in the process, shares her culture with her new friends. Ramadan recently spoke with Kirkus about the book.
You work with the refugee community, so was there a particular family or situation that inspired this story?
I arrived in Canada as a refugee myself in 2014, so that experience was a very important part of how I brought this book to life. What stayed with me during the first couple of years of arriving is the difference between how I viewed this immigration experience and how people around me saw it. I was struggling to adapt, to find belonging, to find a home for myself, and to bring elements of my own culture into a place that is completely different than everything I experienced before. Meanwhile, everybody around me expects there to be a miracle that happens at the airport. You arrive, and, suddenly, you have a home. I don’t think home is a concept that just happens. It’s something that you actively seek and build.
Also, my sister and I were estranged for the majority of her life. I left home when she was 10, and we never talked because of family dynamics. My father was quite rejecting of my identity as a queer man. But over the last couple years, my sister and I started to get to know each other. She has a little daughter, and I'm sponsoring them to come to Canada. My sister’s is the first family with children that I’ve worked with; I usually sponsor specifically queer refugees from Syria. So this also inspired me to look at the experiences of children arriving from Syria and how their lives are going to be literally uprooted and everything about it will be changed.
Were there challenges you had to overcome in the process of writing this book?
There was the challenge of writing a book aimed for children that would also leave a mark with adults. The adult, the parent or guardian, is the person who's going to pick up the book and read it first. They have to accept it and allow it onto their children's bookshelves. And the same goes for teachers.
Also, I had the tendency as I was writing to get the adults in the story to help Salma, to fix things for her. And Claire Caldwell, my editor, came to me one day and told me to focus on Salma’s self-determination. And that really stayed with me, because I agree, in the big picture, that when we’re working with refugees, we have to focus on their self-determination. We shouldn’t treat them like children.
So I focused on finding a way for Salma to be the star of her own book, to be the person who’s moving the action forward, to be an active character. That was a fantastic challenge, and I enjoyed writing through that. I'm so thankful for Annick Press and Claire for pushing me to do it.
And I’d also like to thank Anna Bron, my illustrator, for doing fantastic work. She really leaned in and did a lot of hard work, a lot of research. I also sent her mosaic pieces from mosques and churches in Damascus that she incorporated beautifully into the book.
What do you hope young readers will take away from Salma’s story?
I wanted to write this book in a way that would create empathy. The general narrative around newcomers and refugees is that we sympathize with them. But I am really looking forward to young readers seeing a strong, independent character who has challenges that she overcomes. And I want this to echo back toward other newcomers in their lives, in their schools, and in their congregations. To build empathy and engagement, where they don’t see refugees as lesser than. I want them to have an understanding of the immigration experience as difficult and challenging but also magnificent.
Deesha Philyaw is the co-author of Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce. Salma the Syrian Chef received a starred review in the Dec. 15, 2019, issue.