Nurturing compassion

Karin Lock reviews The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri

With the hotter weather enabling calmer crossings, the debate over illegal Channel boat traffic is dominating the newspaper headlines once again.

As border control becomes more militarised, with Royal Air Force planes and Royal Marines boats now policing the strait, critics and activists are calling for a safe, legal route for asylum seekers to enter the UK.

Despite the presumption that these are ‘economic migrants’ to be ‘pushed back’ to France, the overwhelming majority are desperate people fleeing decades of civil war and daily bomb attacks in Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq. Arriving in the UK, they await their claims for refugee status; their lives prescribed by restrictive policies and a bewildering immigration process.

It is hard to imagine a life of such constant stress and uncertainty yet The Beekeeper of Aleppo is one novel that attempts to describe the realities of migration under these tortuous circumstances. Having volunteered for two summers in a UNICEF-supported refugee centre for women and children in Athens, the author Christy Lefteri used her life-changing experience to give those survivors a voice.

Written with empathy and authenticity, The Beekeeper of Aleppo is an amalgamation of true accounts heard by the writer. Having lost their Aleppo home, livelihoods and son, the book’s narrator Nuri, and his wife Afra, have travelled through Syria, Turkey and Greece to reach an unnamed seaside town in Britain.

Interviewed initially by a social worker in their bed and breakfast accommodation, the couple are advised to “get their story straight” before they meet the immigration officer who will decide their fate. As the reader pieces together that story from the fragments of Nuri’s memories, it is evident that both he and his wife are experiencing severe trauma. What keeps the couple going is the hope they will find Nuri’s cousin Mustafa who is now living somewhere in England.

In spite of its chilling descriptions and disarming storyline, The Beekeeper of Aleppo is a vital read because it humanises the experience of displacement in a way that a news report can never do. Although the couple struggle to communicate with each other as much as with the outside world, it is Nuri’s recollections of his former life as a beekeeper that enable him to keep his sense of self.

Throughout the novel, the bee motif cleverly illustrates the importance of community and culture. Like humans, bees need each other to survive; without their hive or colony, they will die. The underlying message of The Beekeeper of Aleppo is that, in such a broken world, we need to look for hope where we can.

This tale is a lesson about the importance of compassion in the face of a dominant mainstream narrative that strives to dehumanise refugees and desensitise us to the unspeakable horrors of war.

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