Sometimes, a writer looks for a plot or a theme for a story; other times, the plot or theme just shows up anyway, demanding to be written – that’s what happened with Sami’s Silver Lining. Even before the story of drowned refugee toddler Aylan Kurdy hit the headlines of the UK media, I was following the unfolding crisis in Syria with dismay. I wanted to help but didn’t know how – until the character of Sami nudged his way into my head, a sad-eyed boy with bird’s nest hair and a tatty overcoat lined with ragged grey satin, a coat he wouldn’t take off for anybody. Sami played the flute, a kind of refugee Pied Piper figure, leading other lone child refugees to safety. I had no choice but to listen to his story, to write it down and share it with my readers, so Sami became one of the characters in my new Lost & Found series, and the book Sami’s Silver Lining not only takes the series forward but reveals Sami’s emotional journey to reach safety in the UK.
It’s not easy to write about the refugee crisis, especially for young readers, and I’ve tried to be sensitive while sticking as closely to the facts as I could. The research was hard – it didn’t take me long to realise that Sami’s epic journey was only possible at all within a pretty tight timescale – if he attempted the trek today, it simply would not have been possible. Some countries have closed their borders, greet asylum seekers with armed soldiers and barbed wire and tear gas; others deport any new arrivals, sending them back to where they’ve come from. In the UK, the tide of public opinion has turned somewhat since those front-page photos of the little Syrian toddler. Many still want to help, but when the media peddles a message of hate and fear, there will always be plenty who buy into it.
Sami’s story strips away the negative propaganda and shows us how it feels to be a young teenager alone in the middle of one of the greatest crises of our time. Early reviews and feedback have been amazing – readers emailing and writing to tell me that the book has changed the way they see things, made them understand more, made them see. Already several schools have responded by raising money for refugee charities, and teachers have requested support materials so their students can explore the subject further.
What struck me most about the Syrian refugees I met when researching was their generosity, gratitude and spirit. Sami’s story too is ultimately uplifting and hopeful. I couldn’t help but give him a happy ending … against all the odds, he makes his own silver lining, if you like. The book has plenty of light, laugh-out-loud moments to temper the emotional ones, and as the story unfolds Sami learns to trust again, allows himself to imagine a future that is brighter than anything he’d imagined possible.
Of all the books I’ve written, Sami’s Silver Lining will always be, for me, the most important. It was a labour of love, my own small way of trying to help kids like Sami, both by changing perceptions and also in a practical way. Sami’s story is dramatic, yes, but at heart he’s just a lost boy looking for safety, not so very different from you or I. I hope that Sami’s Silver Lining is eye-opening, life-affirming, funny and heartbreaking and real. I hope it helps my readers to find their own silver linings too, no matter what life may throw at them.
Sami’s Silver Lining by Cathy Cassidy is published by Puffin, priced €14.99.