Monday, January 1, 2018

Escape from Aleppo by N. H. Senzai

It’s October 2013 and explosions from barmeela, bombs packed with shrapnel, are being dropped from helicopters by the Syrian army on Aleppo’s Salaheddine neighborhood where Nadia Jandali, 14, lives with her family, including aunts, uncles, and cousins. It’s time carry out their plan to leave the civil-war torn city and head for the Turkish border. But before they even get out of the parking lot, their apartment building is hit. Nadia, caught on the stairs, is knocked unconscious and buried under debris, so when her cousin Malik looks for her, he doesn’t find her.

Waking up later, Nadia realizes her family has left and decides to go to the dental clinic where they had agreed to head to. But it’s a long way, and the streets are unsafe. After walking for hours and getting lost, Nadia takes shelter in a destroyed pharmacy where she meets Ammo Mazan, a frail old man traveling with a cart and a donkey named Jamila. He offers to take her to the dental clinic, though Nadia isn’t sure if she should trust him. 

Taking detours around the bombed out city, Nadia and Ammo Mazen finally reach the clinic, only to find it deserted. A note left for her there says her father will wait for Nadia at the Oncupinar border crossing between Syria and Turkey, and Ammo Mazen agrees to take Nadia to the border. Looking for shelter that will accommodate the cart and Jamila, the two make their way to an orphanage, where they find two young boys. After resting, they leave and the youngest boy, Basel, 8, goes with them, though Tarek, 15, decides to remain behind, waiting for the mother who gave him up.

As they travel north towards the Turkish border, Ammo Mazen makes various stops which reveal the kind of covert activities he has been up to even as his health continually begins to fail him. Eventually, Tarek rejoins the group. As their journey becomes more and more difficult due to the physical destruction of the country from constant bombing and shelling and the different warring factions found everywhere, Ammo Mazen’s health gets worse and worse, finally leaving him unconscious most of the time, and leaving the children to their own devices. Eventually, he must be left in the care of a healer, while the children, along with Jamila and the cart, make their way to the Oncupinar border crossing. And though Nadia does see her father on the other side, I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen to Basel, Tarek, and Jamila now.

Escape from Aleppo is a book I wanted to read from the moment I first read about it and it is a fascinating story. Told in the third person from Nadia’s point of view, readers learn about what is happening in Syria from her, as she eavesdrops on the conversations of the adults around her, and begins to pay more attention to current events on television. She must also deal with some serious PTDS issues, afraid to leave her home after an earlier bombing incident that left her with a painful scar on one of her legs.

I paid close attention to what was happening in the Middle East once the Arab Spring began, and I think Senzai does an incredible job of folding in the history of those days, the later Syrian Civil War with the life of a young Syrian girl that time. Using strategically placed flashbacks, Nadia is at first shown to be a typical tween, more interested in watching Arab Idol on TV than she is in school, a girl who fixes her nail polish at the first sign of a chip. Yet, as she recalls her life and family, she begins to develop a new appreciation for them. And as Nadia travels through the now destroyed Aleppo and surrounding areas, she continually calls up memories of places she visited with family in happier times - the Palmyra Boulangerie, dress shops, mosques, the extensive world-famous 1,300 year old souq, the massive Citadel where her family picnicked - now all damaged, completely destroyed, and/or occupied, making Nadia aware that she not only has (hopefully just temporarily) lost her family, but has also lost the cultural and intellectual artifact's of her beloved country’s long history. 

Escape from Aleppo is so much more than a coming of age story. At first, impatient with Ammo Mazen’s slowness and the necessary stops he must make, Nadia develops into a more compassionate, more take charge young lady able to comfort Basel with tales from an ancient copy of Alef Layla (One Thousand and One Nights), and to put Ammo Mazen’s needs over her own desires to get to Turkey, all over the course of just a few days, but a lifetime of experience.  Thus, Escape from Aleppo is a story about empathy, hope, kindness and survival in the midst of war, as well as a harsh reminder of how quickly lives and history can be changed by those in power with an agenda.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an ARC sent to me by the author 


  1. Oh, I want to read this book! It is so timely and an important book for youth! Adults need to read it to. Thanks for the recommendation!

  2. It sounds awfully intense for 9-year-olds. But I'm now planning to read it myself. Thank you for the thoughtful review!


Imagination Designs