'While the Earth Sleeps We Travel': a sharp, wistful and humorous collection that unpacks the refugee experience

Ahmed Badr, whose family fled Iraq for the US, tells The National about his anthology of migrants’ work

Badr is the founder and executive director of 'Narratio'. Edward Grattan
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To call While the Earth Sleeps We Travel simply a collection of stories, poetry and artwork would do it a disservice. The project is a lot more intimate and necessary than an anthology of disparate artworks and writing might suggest.

Compiled and in parts written by poet and social entrepreneur Ahmed Badr, 22, the book brings together works by 27 young refugees from 11 countries. It was officially launched on Monday, and Badr will be discussing the book in an online event with US journalist Ari Shapiro on Saturday, October 24, at 11pm, UAE time.

While the Earth Sleeps We Travel individualises the refugee experience and offers a deeper glimpse into the lives of its young authors, it also helps to extricate the word "refugee" from notions of bloodshed, war, violence and helplessness.

'While the Earth Sleeps We Travel' by Ahmed Badr
'While the Earth Sleeps We Travel' by Ahmed Badr

"That's part of the story. But that's not the whole story," Badr, an Iraqi-American, says. "The book is not so much about displacement, but about people who are displaced, who are sharing their stories in creative ways."

Some of the works in the book confront the tumultuous and sorrowful experiences that have led to their authors’ displacement. And those works almost immediately meddle with the way your heart beats.

A poem entitled The Day I Left by Syrian Nidaa Aljabbarin, 19, is a good example of this. "Oh grandfather, our house key is lost, and the doors cry for those who have left," she begins before unravelling the confusion and fears of leaving home by magnifying her grandfather's face – specifically, a tear that "refuses to leave his face".

The poem is honest, pictorial and sharp. And there are a few such works in the book that will leave the reader with that nostalgic sense of a home left behind.

But more often than not, you’ll be smiling.

The book is replete with humour, and because the works in it are created by authors and artists across age groups, there is no knowing where you'll be caught off guard. From the innocent scrawled sketches of Mara, 8, who insists on being called Dr Mara, to the warm and earnest photographs by Iranian refugee Erwin Zareie, 28, which show children playing and studying in refugee settlements across Europe.

There are also works of stunning craftsmanship. A few photographs depict the artistic process of Iranian artist Meteorite Yasan as he weaves, with a dark blue thread, a dreamlike artwork of a wounded angel and the profile of a woman. There are the digital artworks by American-Palestinian artist Lina Habazi, 21, including one of a woman in traditional Palestinian attire and Adidas Superstars shoes under the title "A Woman's Voice is a Revolution". There are the absurdist drawings of Sudanese artist Jafal Osman, 30, one of which shows a man about to be hanged, who is helping the executioner fit a bird's house on top of the gallows.

The works are as moving and inspiring as the lives and personalities of their authors, which are briefly elucidated by some short prefaces written by Badr. The introductory writings are based on interviews and workshops Badr conducted in refugee camps and settlements in Greece, Trinidad and Tobago and the US in 2018.

The works within the book come from interviews and workshops Badr did in refugee camps and settlements in Greece, Trinidad, Tobago and the US in 2018. Edward Grattan
The works within the book come from interviews and workshops Badr did in refugee camps and settlements in Greece, Trinidad, Tobago and the US in 2018. Edward Grattan

Badr’s writings give a necessary extra dimension to the book, helping readers know the people behind the works.

By including his own writing, Badr overcomes the pitfalls of having a multifarious collection such as this one. Anthologies that include more than one art form or writing style usually run the risk of becoming unfocused and overwhelming. It is easy to get lost in the multitude of subject matter and media but Badr’s works – as an editor, interviewer and a poet – keep the collection grounded.

Besides the introductory passages to the authors, artists and their works, Badr also includes his own poetry, which is informed by his experiences with displacement. Printed on flaxen yellow pages, they help segment the works within the book and give it a lilting episodic flow.

One of Badr's more famous poems, A Thank-You Letter from the Bomb that Visited My Home, is also included in the collection. The poem gives a voice to the bomb that pierced Badr's home in Baghdad in 2006, an incident that forced his family to move to Syria, where they lived as refugees for two years, before being approved to live in the US.

Badr read the poem during the World Refugee Day event at the UN headquarters in New York in 2016. It is there that he met Ben Stiller. The Hollywood actor and Goodwill Ambassador for the UN Refugee Agency describes Badr’s reading that day in the book’s preface.

By then, Badr had come to understand the power of storytelling. He credits the Washington Journalism and Media Conference, which he had attended a few years before, with helping him realise that he had a story to tell, and that storytelling could be an effective way of reclaiming the refugee narrative and individualising it.

The book is not so much about displacement, but about people who are displaced, who are sharing their stories in creative ways

"At first, it was a couple of years of just figuring out how to even tell my own story and how to kind of articulate it. And then it was connecting it to these different workshops and these different kinds of tools for carrying it forward," Badr tells The National.

However, once he had the chance of sharing his own story, Badr decided it was time to help others tell theirs. With this in mind, Badr founded Narratio, an online blog, which, while open to poetry, art and story submissions from young people across the world, focuses on highlighting voices of refugees and immigrants. "In the past five years, Narratio has published the work of nearly 200 young storytellers from more than 15 countries, conducted storytelling workshops across the US, Greece, Italy and Trinidad and Tobago, and launched a fellowship programme for resettled refugee youth in partnership with the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Syracuse University," Badr says in the book.

The book reflects the structure and mission of Narratio. But instead of accepting story submissions through an online platform, Badr wanted to go and "meet folks that are like me, that have been resettled. But also that haven't. People who are in camps and are trying to figure out what's next. And that's how the idea came: how do displaced young people want to represent themselves on the world stage. And what can I do to create personal spaces beyond my own personal story for their stories to rise to the surface."

The project began in Greece. Badr recounts how he barely knew anyone in the country prior to arriving there. No one, in fact, besides two people, “friends of friends who were embedded in the community”.

The works within the book come from interviews and workshops Badr did in refugee camps and settlements in Greece, Trinidad, Tobago and the US in 2018. Edward Grattan
The works within the book come from interviews and workshops Badr did in refugee camps and settlements in Greece, Trinidad, Tobago and the US in 2018. Edward Grattan

"In the beginning, I wanted to go to many more places. To Germany, to Sweden, meet with refugees who had settled there and conduct these creative writing workshops with them. But then I got to Greece and realised that depth was more important. I don't need to go to six, seven countries. In this one country, [Greece] there are people from all parts of the world. And I knew the project needed to be centred here."

However, Badr remembers his first workshop in Greece well. He was in a refugee camp in the north of Athens, meeting more than two dozen young displaced people in a room fashioned out of a shipping container. The workshop's participants, who varied in age and spoke different languages, huddled together within the room's corrugated steel walls, answering to the prompts given to them.

The prompts were, for the most part, simple. Badr asked participants how they would like to introduce themselves to the world, what medium they'd like to use, how the world saw them and how they saw the world.

“I was speaking in English and then translating myself to Arabic. Then my Arabic was translated to Kurmanji, which is a Kurdish dialect. My English was translated to French for the French-speaking man from Cameroon. And all of that happened in the span of an hour.”

Badr ended up staying more than three months in Greece, before he moved on to Trinidad and Tobago and the US. By the end of the initial stage of the project, Badr had hundreds of contributions for the book. Then came the hard part of putting it together.

Badr began scanning documents, translating, obtaining permissions from the authors of the works to include them in the collection.

“It was a year of going back and forth,” Badr says. “In the end, it was just like a puzzle we had to figure out how to piece together.”

To purchase or learn more about the book, visit earthsleepswetravel.com

Tickets for the online discussion between Ahmed Badr and journalist Ari Shapiro on Saturday,
October 24, 11pm UAE time, are available at