Recently The Pit got to “sit down” with A. David Lewis, Founder & President of the organization CYRIC to discuss their Haawiyat project and getting comics into the hands of refugee children.
What is CYRIC and what is its mission?
CYRIC stands for the Comics for Youth Refugees Incorporated Collective, and much of our goal has been built into that name: we want to give free comics to refugee children. It may seem like a small thing – and, certainly, considering what many of them have lost, it may well be. But many of us in CYRIC believe in the power of comics, whether it’s their ability to grant a small respite and escape from the reality around a reader or their capacity to stoke the imagination and emotional centers of its audiences. With so much having been taken from these kids, my team and I want to make something specifically for them and to signal that they matter. Their dreams matter, their traumas matter, and their lives matter. Let this humble comic be some glimmer of what still lays ahead for them.
How did CYRIC get started?
Ha, in frustration! That is, I was growing tired of seeing so much in U.S. media about Syria and so little being done for them – in Aleppo, in Idlib, all over the provinces. While informing the U.S. public is important, sure, I was feeling more and more like we remained the “consumers” of these refugee stories, just one more thing taken from these displaced people. As I was following the Twitter feed of 6 year-old Bana Alabed, I felt compelled to offer something back to her and all the children like her. So, I brainstormed a “Bana Comic” with some other interested creators, and that grew into Haawiyat, our first title.
What is the Haawiyat project? What is the story about?
Haawiyat in Arabic means “container,” and, like the relief goods that are being sent overseas in huge shipping containers, the comic aims to redeploy Syrian folk lore back to Syrian children. Rather than foist U.S. culture on them, I knew our content needed to be grounded in their home, in the culture that’s been scattered in this diaspora.
Admittedly, my team and I may have left our fingerprints, figuratively speaking, on the stories, but the goal was always to be as faithful a conduit as possible of these native narratives and tales, not their champion. My hope is that Haawiyat gives them a connection back to their home that feels valuable – a reminder of Syria as a place of great history and richness that transcends its current besieged state.
Why did you choose Haawiyat to be a comic book rather than a novel?
Well, there are two reasons, but the first one is quite simple: Comics are what I know how to do! I was quite hesitant at first, I confess, but my wife, in particular, encouraged me to see this through; if comics were what I had to offer, then so be it. Moreover, as a comics studies scholar in my professional life, I can testify to the uniqueness of the verbal-visual hybridity that make up comics. Without disparaging prose or music or sculpture or any other expressive medium, I do see comics as engaging both hemispheres of the brain – and for all levels of readers! The images and the words work in tandem with the sequentiality of the panels to light up the minds in a way that, I feel, is inimitable.
What was the process of creating Haawiyat like and the process of getting the comic into reader’s hands?
Initially, it was much like the standard process of putting together a comic. I mean, I tend to do a good bit of research for any comic that I’m interested in writing, so the deep dive into Syrian folklore was a familiar maneuver if also an exciting, new field. Add to that the guidance I was given by mental health professionals and on-site relief workers about what themes and story lines would be the most healing for this population. So, after scripting each story into a comics format, I teamed with various collaborators to produce the art, then I turned to lettering professionals and layout experts.
The trickiest part here was getting the translation and the Arabic right, a process we took pains to get right. Wonderfully enough, the folks at Ka-Blam Digital Printing were willing to produce 400 copies of our initial 8-page effort entirely for free, and our partners at NuDay Syria took it upon themselves to get those books to kids’ hands in camps along the Turkish border. In many ways, it was a reasonably straightforward comics-making process, though my eyes watered up in a way they never had before when I saw pictures of Haawiyat being enjoyed by these children.
Congratulations on Haawiyat reaching overseas! What are your future goals for this project?
Now with the initial process tested, it’s time to expand Haawiyat and create the comic book I originally had in mind: 64 pages of full-color art with folk lore from all across Syria and its existence. There are so many stories still pouring out of my research and the land’s rich history. We have many new artists joining us and have received some early funding to pay for their services on additional stories. It’s quite exciting to see this move ahead with such force!
What future goals does CYRIC have as whole?
In the long-term, I would like to see two things happen, ideally. First, I would like for CYRIC to aid, in addition to Syria, refugee populations from all around the world: Yemen, South Sudan, Myanmar’s Rohingya, and so on. Sadly, I don’t see a day coming where there won’t be refugees fleeing from some land, and no children anywhere deserve to be traumatized by such conflict. Therefore, as the need presents itself, I hope CYRIC can expand to include whatever populations of kids need the attention.
Along with that, CYRIC’s other goal would be to produce comics created by the children we’ve reached. It would be tremendous to help amplify their stories and let their imaginations reach readers not only all across the globe but, perhaps more importantly, also displaced from their shared home. If CYRIC eventually grows to provide children displaced from any country the opportunity to feel valued and empowered through comics storytelling, then it will have fulfilled its larger mission.
How can people become involved with/support the Haawiyat project?
The best way right now is to help make our goal of printing and distributing this expanded version of Haawiyat possible by making a tax-exempt donation to our Razoo page. Spread word, share CYRIC’s work, reach out to others. We continue to look for partner organizations and corporations who might share in our goals of supporting displaced kids wherever they are and from wherever they may have come. Every kid deserves a comic book.
To learn more about the Haawiyat project visit: http://syriacomic.com/