Syrian artist and Salt Spring Island author work to help refugees

Children’s book helped raise over $64,000 for refugee families

Author Margriet Ruurs has always been a traveler, having visited 50 countries so far. Her travels inspire her many children’s books; her latest, The Elephant Keeper, is about an elephant orphanage in Zambia and poaching. When she reads at Sidney’s SHOAL Centre with Bill Gaston later this month, she will be reading from a book inspired by photos on Facebook and the remarkable story behind them.

While browsing Facebook one day, Ruurs was “blown away” by the work of Syrian artist Nizar Ali Badr, who arranged beach pebbles into tableaus, and knew she wanted to collaborate. Ruurs thought the photos could tell a compelling story, if placed in the right order. The resulting book, Stepping Stones, has become one of Ruurs’ most successful books and it has raised money for refugee causes.

“I have never seen a children’s book illustrated with rocks and I knew kids would be fascinated by it as I was,” said Ruurs, who lives on Salt Spring Island.

It took three months for Ruurs to contact Ali Badr to ask his permission to use the work, as he does not speak English and has no email address. With the help of one of Ali Badr’s friends, who does speak English, they were able to get in touch. Now they communicate on a regular basis through email or Skype.

Ruurs explained that this process was unusual in more ways than one. Normally, a writer gets an idea, does the planning and writing and submits it to a publisher. If the publisher decides to go ahead, the choice of illustrator and the format is up to them, not the author. Ruurs does not know the illustrators of most of her 38 books.

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“I don’t know what the art will look like until I get a final copy,” she said.

This time, she wrote her text based on his pictures and submitted a full package to a publisher. Orca Books said yes.

In its first year, the book raised $65,000 for refugees through a portion of Ruurs’ royalties and a per-copy donation by Orca Books. The money has gone to a variety of refugee causes, mostly to the Inter-Cultural Association of Greater Victoria (ICA), but also to sponsor individual families to come or to start education funds for them (Ruurs has already given to one refugee family that landed initially on Salt Spring Island). The publisher also sells it to schools and refugee sponsors for a 50 per cent discount so they can use it as a fundraising tool themselves and send the extra money ($10 per book) to similar causes.

She has had her books translated into other languages because of their global outlook, “but I think this one has the most rights sold.” The initial version of the book was a bilingual English/Arabic version, but there are German, Dutch, Japanese, Spanish and Korean versions either completed or being created.

“It’s very exciting that more people in more countries are able to share this story.”

Ruurs said the region Ali Badr lives in, Latakia, is relatively safe by Syrian standards, “though it is debatable because there’s a war going on.”

It is still a struggle for him, because the value of the Syrian pound has dropped dramatically since the civil war, making it difficult for Ali Badr to buy food and basic necessities. He does, however, send photos to Ruurs often, including ones of him searching for rocks on beaches that are remarkably similar to beaches on Vancouver Island.

“You would swear that he lives in B.C. because it’s so gorgeous,” said Ruurs. “There’s a blue sea and a beautiful rocky beach and mountains — that’s Syria on the Mediterranean. It’s a beautiful place; not just the bombed-out buildings we see in Aleppo.”

Ruurs is proud of what the book has done and how it has affected people’s perception of the refugee crisis.

“Probably the best email [was] from a 13-year-old in Canada who said the book changed their mind about refugees coming here,” said Ruurs. “That to me is the most amazing reward I could have asked for.”

Margriet Ruurs and Bill Gaston will read at the SHOAL Centre Mar. 23 at 7 p.m. (doors at 6:30). Tickets are $10 at Tanner’s Books or online at Proceeds support the 2019 Sidney and Peninsula Literary Festival.

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