Nushin's Story: Turning Devastation into Inspiration
My entire upbringing has been an experiment in crossing cultural divides. I am the daughter of a refugee, and my parents immigrated three times in their lives, from India, to East Africa, to Canada, and finally America.
Though I was born and raised in California, I spent most of my adult life abroad in Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, India, Ghana, and more as a student, US diplomat in the Middle East, and a volunteer. In each place, I was welcomed by locals who not only helped me navigate their countries, but also showed me the unique beauty of each place.
I had many visitors while living abroad, and essentially became a global tour guide. While completing my MBA in 2011, I took groups of American and international students on a trip to visit Syria. I was amazed by their reactions – not only did they love the experience, but they repeatedly mentioned how Syria was so different than they had imagined based on news coverage of the Middle East.
During this trip, we visited the Christian hillside village of Maaloula. A historic location, Maaloula is one of the only places in the world where Aramaic is still spoken. As it turned out, the village was also a beacon of warm, friendly Middle Eastern hospitality.
We visited a restaurant in Maaloula where a wedding was taking place. The couple only had enough money to rent half of the restaurant, so the other half remained open to guests. We could see the entire wedding. When the dancing began, the couple went around thanking all their guests; they even came to our table, knowing we were uninvited foreigners, and graciously invited us to join in the dancing and celebrations. My group was in awe after this wonderful experience.
Memories overshadowed by conflict
Many of the countries in which I had made some of the best memories of my life became hot spots for conflict and war after I returned to the US. I was devastated as I watched the news about Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and so many other lovely places I had lived in or visited. I wished there was some way I could help.
From 2015 to 2016, after the outbreak of the Syrian war, I volunteered in the Syrian refugee camps in Jordan and Greece. There, I saw and heard firsthand the devastation impacting people who had once helped me so much as a foreigner in their land. We were all deeply saddened by how poorly many people were treating refugees due to negative media attention and biases. I wanted to do something to help others see what I did – to humanize people affected by conflict and to highlight the rich heritage of their countries and cultures.
On January 1, 2016, I woke abruptly in the middle of the night with an idea. I would write a children’s book that told the story of the Syria that I knew: one of culture, history, and humanity. In doing so, I could help people look beyond the rubble to change their perspectives on conflict-stricken countries and people displaced from them. This was the beginning of The Adventures of Laila and Ahmed in Syria
Bringing out the beauty
While living in the Middle East, I had become a street art collector and developed an admiration for the under-appreciated talent throughout the region. As I wrote the book, I realized only illustrations by a local Syrian artist could do it justice.
I reached out to at least forty Syrian artists and illustrators, and received mixed responses. One of the most famous illustrators from Damascus was now living in Saudi Arabia working as a publicist. He replied to my request, saying, “I don’t do that type of work anymore.” The pain in his response was palpable – he had been one of the most beloved illustrators in Syria, and had left his country in devastation.
Eventually I found the perfect illustrator: Shadia Kassem. I was instantly drawn to her oil paintings and illustrations, and we quickly connected over the mission and vision of what has become Beauty Beneath the Rubble. Shadia left her home country because of war, and she longed to return and show her children where they came from. Meeting in London, our personal bond and enthusiasm for the project grew. I met her two lovely children – who happened to be the same age as the characters Laila and Ahmed and served as the inspiration for her illustrations.
My plan was to hire Shadia. However, with time she was so passionate about the mission and the vision of the project that she offered to donate her time and artwork, and told me that through her art for the book she was able to share the beloved memories of her country with her children. I was overwhelmed by her words, and at this moment I knew that together we had already began to achieve our mission.
Each illustration is its own piece of art and took about one month to complete. Together, we have spent the last two years writing, illustrating, editing, re-editing, and becoming close friends. It seems like fate to have met someone with whom to share this project, and our collaboration shows that it is about more than a book: it is about the infinite potential of new friendships, and the powerful results of people uniting around a common goal.
This project has been a labor of love. I truly hope that readers will enjoy it as much as Shadia and I have, and, most importantly, that they will develop a new perspective on the beauty and heritage of Syria.