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Afghani flight to freedom

May 28th, 2024

Zia’s Story by Shahnaz Qayumi (Tradewind $14.95)

Writing for young readers about the impact of a battle-scarred country on families and communities is a delicate undertaking. The destructive nature of such a backdrop must be detailed in a serious way without falling into the use of overly violent descriptions that could traumatize an underage reader.

Shahnaz Qayumi (at right) accomplishes this difficult balancing act in her debut novel Zia’s Story (Tradewind Books $14.95), with illustrations by Nahid Kazemi. The story is set in the aftermath of the Russian withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 as the country descends into civil war. Rule by the oppressive Taliban puts restrictions on women working outside the home and girls attending school. Many men disappear, never to be heard from again if they fall out of favour with the Taliban, or for no known reason at all.

We meet young Zia as he flies kites with his best friends. Kites are special playthings for Afghani children, but it will be the last carefree evening for Zia for a long time. Back home, just before he falls asleep, gun-toting soldiers appear at the door to take away Zia’s father.

“You are now the man of our family, Zia,” his father whispers before he is forced out of the house. “Until I return home. Take care of your mother.” Zia and his mother will never see him again.

For a short period, Zia and his mother continue living in their Kabul home. Before long, she cannot work when the Taliban decree that women are not allowed outside alone. To make a living for their household, Zia drops out of school to sell food in the streets that his mother cooks.

Qayumi’s words are simple but powerful as she tells of the increasing oppression: “Soon there was no more public music or dancing. Instead, there was a curfew. Police stood at every corner. Men had to grow their beards. Women had to cover themselves from head to toe.”

Eventually Zia and his mother flee under cover of night. It’s a harrowing and dangerous journey out of Afghanistan but they make it to Pakistan. Even here, as vulnerable refugees, it is dangerous. Zia and his mother begin saving to get a visa to Canada. Eventually they make it though not without setbacks. At one point their savings are stolen and Zia’s mother falls into a depression. But Zia is persistent and eventually they arrive in Canada. After a brief one-night stay in Ottawa, they travel to Toronto and then Calgary, where they settle.

On the first day at his new school, Zia sees pictures of Afghanistan hanging on the walls. “I stood in front of the first frame, with the full blue sky of Kabul. Scattered across the sky were the most beautiful, colourful dazzling kites. I imagined I could see my friends Hussain, Timur and Rustam flying three of them,” he says.

For his first homework assignment, Zia must write about his homeland. His confusion and loneliness are clear as Zia struggles to come to terms with what he has lost. “I don’t know how long I have been at my desk. My thoughts are thousands of miles away, and my notebook is still empty. What can I write about my life in Afghanistan?” Qayumi provides no easy answers in her revealing look into the life of a refugee family.

Shahnaz Qayumi was born and raised in Kabul. Zia’s Story is her first book for young people and is closely based on other Afghans and her as a refugee from war-torn Afghanistan. After fleeing Afghanistan, she found refuge in Canada. She now lives in Vancouver and teaches at Langara University. 9781990598142

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