When I was growing up, my parents often told stories about their young years. My mother lived in a mission to the Assyrian people in Persia until she was nine years old. In my childhood, when she was cooking she would tell us how bread was baked in Persia or how delicious the fruit was.
Her stories and my father’s gave me much that I have used in my writing and in my other main activity, storytelling. But it wasn’t until my mother was quite old that she told us about what happened to her family and friends during the First World War, which, of course, was fought not only in Europe but throughout the Middle East.
I think that by then the sharpness of the memories of 1915 — the desperate refugees, the death of her mother and others as disease spread, the necessity of leaving home to go to strange relatives in America — had faded, so that she could think about that time. She found herself in possession of hundreds of family letters and other papers that she read in order to learn more than she could remember. She pieced together many interesting stories.
One of the most interesting was about her oldest sister, Susan, who went back to Persia four years after the war to be the director of an orphanage for Assyrian children whose parents had died during the war. These children were both orphans and refugees, still far from the places they were born and from extended families who would welcome them.
When I started to write Home is Beyond the Mountains, I was focusing on Susan and the remarkable journey she took with three hundred children, walking three hundred miles across barren land so that they could get home.
But as I thought about Susan and the orphanage, I became more and more interested in the children themselves. Where had they been during the four years between the end of the war and the opening of the orphanage? How had they escaped when their villages were attacked? Those were only the first questions than led me on a long research journey that answered many, but not all, of my questions.
We are now very aware of the plight of refugees and the effect of conflict on all the people who are there when a conflict takes place. But our stories of the First World War tend to focus on people directly involved in military action; the stories of ordinary people whose lives were ended or changed may be forgotten. Perhaps this is especially true of the stories of the million or so people displaced from their homes in the countries we now call Iran, Turkey, Iraq and Syria.
One of the stories my mother told was about looking down from the flat roof of her family’s house and seeing hundreds of people crowded into the mission courtyard, unwrapping small bundles of food and spreading a cloth on the ground so their children would have a place to sleep. She knew there was danger in their villages and they couldn’t return. Where would they go? she wondered.
Family stories give us pictures and may make us ask questions. In my case, writing a novel helped me find some answers.
Celia Barker Lottridge
Celia Barker Lottridge is a writer and storyteller who has written several highly acclaimed children’s books, including Ticket to Curlew (winner of the Canadian Library Association Book of the Year for Children Award and the Geoffrey Bilson Historical Fiction Award), Wings To Fly, and Home is Beyond the Mountains.