The graphic novels and cartoons that capture the complexities of life as a refugee

We talk to the curator and some of the artists behind 350 works on life under ISIS rule about the powerful message in depicting atrocities as cartoons

US journalist and artist Molly Crabapple. Courtesy Lina Ghaibeh
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A group of men, women and children huddle in the shadows under a tree, turned inwards to face each other. One woman stares at her phone and a small child sucks on his fingers, his cheeks puffed out. In the background, a makeshift tank – a 4x4 with a gun mounted on its roof – churns out a roiling cloud of dust, and two silhouetted men are recognisable only by their helmets and guns.

Illustrated by journalist and artist Molly Crabapple, Brothers of the Gun, a memoir by Syrian journalist Marwan Hisham exposes the brutal realities of life in Raqqa under ISIS rule.

In Zenobia, written by Danish author Morten Durr and illustrated by Lars Horneman, a young girl named Amina escapes Syria by boat and is pitched overboard in rough seas. She uses the legend of ­Zenobia, the great Syrian warrior queen, to remind herself to be brave.

Gaphic novels conveying the refugee experience 

Moving drawings from both works are on show at Beit Beirut this month as part of In Transit: Displacement and Seeking ­Refuge as Seen Through Comics, an exhibition exploring the power of graphic novels to record and convey the refugee experience.

Featuring more than 350 artworks, the exhibition highlights the growing corpus of graphic novels based on biographical, autobiographical or fictional narratives exploring what it means to be forcibly displaced.

‘Zenobia’ by Marten Durr and Lars Horneman is part of the In Transit: Displacement and Seeking Refuge as Seen Through Comics exhibition at Beit Beirut. Courtesy Arabic Comics Initiative

In a speech launching the exhibition, Crabapple, who has reported from refugee camps around the world, drew attention to the unprecedented numbers of refugees globally, and the increasing hardships they face.

"In Transit is so crucial because we are at a time where there are 68.5 million refugees in the world … These are people who have been forced out [of their home countries] by war, by poverty or by climate change, but increasingly, they're greeted not by open doors, but by demagogues who demonise them. They're greeted by a world that builds walls and inscribes borders in blood and then demands increasing paperwork, increasing waits and increasing obstacles just so they can restart their lives," she says.

The exhibition, which is organised by the American University of Beirut and the Mu'taz and Rada Sawwaf Arabic Comics Initiative, showcases extracts from comics and graphic novels by 37 artists from 12 different counties. Reproductions of panels from these works provide a glimpse into diverse stories and highlight the vast range of artistic styles used to convey the experiences of refugees. The exhibition is divided into three sections, beginning with the reasons that force people to flee their homes, capturing the dangers and terror of the journey and exploring the obstacles that make it so difficult to settle in a host country.

In Eternal Refuge, Egyptian artist Migo captures the dangers of crossing the Mediterranean in a wordless series of panels dominated by the bright orange of life jackets, showing refugees crowded onto a small boat in the dark, before the boat sinks and they are scattered among the waves, later washing up lifeless on a sandy beach. In Footnotes in Gaza, Joe Sacco's neat black-and-white illustrations capture the privations of life for Palestinians who were forcibly displaced during the Naqba of 1948.

Lebanese artist Zeina Abi Rashed uses simple, stylised black-and-white panels to share memories of how her childhood in Lebanon was interrupted by the civil war in I Remember Beirut, and Egyptian twin brothers Haitham and Mohamed El-Seht explore the building of the Aswan Dam and the displacement of the Nubian community in The Hoopoe.

Marwan Hisham’s ‘Brothers of the Gun’, illustrated by Molly Crabapple. Courtesy of Lina Ghaibeh

Many of the books are the result of collaborations between artists and writers, like that of Hashem and Crabapple for Brothers of the Gun. "We started working together in 2014, when he [Hashem] sent me photos he had taken surreptitiously in Raqqa – something that he would have been killed for doing. I would draw from these pictures and he would write captions and we would publish them in Vanity Fair," Crabapple explains. "After we had done several collaborations like this, we decided to do a book together and he moved to Turkey so that we could work together."

The final book contains 82 of Crabapple's black-and-white illustrations, which are filled with raw energy and often splattered with ink that pools on the paper like blood. "I'd interview him and then I'd do sketches and he would look at these and tell me what I got wrong," she says. "Sometimes he'd even pose himself, just to show how people stood. He'd find references for me and then we'd go back and forth until I got something that was true in his eyes and that was as close to his memories as possible … I feel like there isn't a line drawn or a word written in that book that isn't a fusion of both of us."

Telling their story

Many of the graphic novels on display focus on the story of a single character to convey the complexities and hardships of life as a refugee. South Korean artist Kyungeun Park collaborated with French journalist Nicolas Henin, a former war reporter who was held hostage by ISIS for 10 months, to tell the story of Haytham, a Syrian boy who was forced to leave his home and journey across Europe, eventually seeking refuge in France.

I'm moving every few months. I'm still in the process of finding home. It's so exhausting when you have your whole life in a suitcase.

"I wanted to understand why the events in Syria started and how the people came to fight against dictatorship," says Park, who lives in Paris. "When I listened to their experiences, it reminded me a bit of my own story, because when I was growing up in the 1980s, we had a lot of protests against the president, who was not ruling our country democratically. There is an episode in the graphic novel where Haytham discovers the true face of his president, [Bashar] Al Assad. I think that as youths, we have been through more or less the same things."

Syrian artist Diala Brisly has first-hand experience of life as a refugee, having been forced to leave Syria in 2013. "I'm moving every few months. I'm still in the process of finding home," she says. "It's so exhausting when you have your whole life in a suitcase … I want to print photos and take them with me, I want to build things, but I don't know what is more exhausting: carrying all these things or having empty walls."

Brisly has produced several comics. For one project, Bokra, Inshallah, she interviewed dozens of refugees in Lebanon and then distilled their experiences into a single narrative about a Syrian family. She also collaborated with Italian journalist Francesca Mannocchi to tell the true stories of four refugee children. Brisly says although her work isn't autobiographical, she sometimes embeds scenes from her own life into her drawings.

"In the book I did with Francesca there is one kid, who has two dogs, with her sister. Actually, I drew mine and my sister's dogs," she explains. "There is a star falling in one of the illustrations, so I put my brother's name on the star because I lost my bother during the war. I like to put secrets in there that you can't always understand but I know they're there."

An overview of In Transit: Displacement and Seeking Refuge as Seen Through Comics. Courtesy of Lina Ghaibeh.

Lina Ghaibeh, a graphic designer and comic book artist, and the exhibition's curator, believes that the format is particularly well-suited to conveying personal stories because the artwork adds an extra emotional dimension. "Look at Molly ­Crabapple's work. It's rough lines that dig into the paper. There are splatters and scratches everywhere," she says. "Migo uses the orange of the life vests as something that saves people, so everything is blue and orange in the day to day and then for the past and the reasons people left he turns it into black and white, to give this cinematic shift into different parts of the story. I think there are so many ways you can tell a story with the art that can affect the way you receive it."

For Crabapple, illustration is a way to create a record of something that might otherwise be suppressed. "I think it's one of the real powers of art," she says. "There are things that people don't want you to see. Prison guards don't want you to see certain things. ISIS didn't want people to see certain things and so there's no photos that exist, but with art we can take people's memories and we can make visuals from those. We can steal things from being forgotten."

In Transit: Displacement and Seeking Refuge as Seen Through Comics is at Beit Beirut until March 24