The horrors of displacement

Novel details the challenges faced by those forced to flee from their homeland

02 December 2019 - 11:06 By Sonja van der Westhuizen
'The Beekeeper of Aleppo' by Christy Lefteri details the lives of Syrian refugees.
'The Beekeeper of Aleppo' by Christy Lefteri details the lives of Syrian refugees.
Image: Jonathan Ball

Over the past year, the subject of the worldwide refugee crisis has earned a valid and important place in writing. And with good reason - there’s no sign of an end to it or its devastating effects abating any time soon.

The Syrian civil war is but one source of the disruption of people from their homeland. Since it began in 2011, many have suffered, thousands have been killed and the country more or less destroyed. Nearly 12-million people need humanitarian help in Syria. These are figures we’ve heard before. We’ve seen the horrific images of immigrants crossing oceans, fleeing to safety, drowning children, but it remains just that - a news flash removed from our own reality.

The Beekeeper of Aleppo isn’t the first and won’t be the last novel written on the topic, but it stands head and shoulders above many others. It speaks softly, but with a firm and strong voice which, unlike a random news flash, is impossible to ignore.

It tells the story of Nuri, a beekeeper, and his wife Afra, an artist, living a simple life in Aleppo, Syria. Nuri tends to his hives in the countryside with his cousin Mustafa, and Afra sells her colourful landscape paintings at the market at weekends. They live a happy life with their son, friends and family.

When the civil war breaks out, the inhabitants of Aleppo have no choice but to flee and leave behind the country they love. Others, like Nuri and Afra, try to survive in a country ravaged by war because they see no other way out. When Afra is blinded by the explosion caused by a bomb attack and the couple loses the one thing they hold most dear, they realise they have no choice.

What follows is their journey to a new, safer future, leading them from Syria to Turkey, Greece and eventually Britain, where Mustafa is waiting for them. Throughout this perilous journey, with seemingly insurmountable obstacles and challenges, the hope and promise of Mustafa and the bees is the only thing that keeps them alive.

Christy Lefteri volunteered in a refugee centre in Athens and is the child of Cypriot refugees. Her background, experience and first-hand involvement in the refugee crisis is palpably evident and might be the reason The Beekeeper of Aleppo feels so true. She personifies the harsh reality refugees face every day in Nuri and Afra, and the range of characters she unfolds as essential components of their journey.

This isn’t only a story about the logistics of leaving your country and fleeing elsewhere - although, in spite of common perception, it is practically made impossible by bureaucracy. This is also a story of the emotional and psychological impact of war. With the refugee crisis as a backdrop, she portrays the ability of the human spirit to overcome inhumane obstacles and brings it closer to home. No longer is the refugee crisis something we can distance ourselves from because it happens far away. It’s a reality.

The Beekeeper of Aleppo tells a story of quiet beauty set against the backdrop of the complete opposite – the ravaging effects of war and displacement.  It’s both a heart-breakingly beautiful read and a wake-up call.