A Little Cat in a Big War
In “The Little War Cat,” concepts of war and trauma are introduced to young children in a way that is age-appropriate and invites them to feel empathy.
Two years into the Syrian war, I was at the Turkish border distributing humanitarian aid to refugees. It was chilly February, and I recall sitting between stacks of food and hygiene boxes in the back of a pickup truck as night drew in. We rumbled along dirt tracks, deeper into the Kilis countryside, away from camps and settlements.
I was confused when we stopped at a derelict building, until people began to emerge from the darkness. More harrowing than the sight of refugee camps sprawling into the horizon was that of families huddled together, shivering in the cold, dark corners of ruins.
Intense bombing of Aleppo drove thousands of Syrians north, and many of them struggled to survive. Some were refused from overflowing camps, while others chose to struggle outside to retain the freedom and dignity of whatever work they could find. As we distributed boxes of essentials by flashlight, we heard snippets of stories. Tearful mothers told us of having nothing but leaves to feed their starving children. A man recounted the day his disabled daughter was killed by shrapnel outside their home. The youngest were bundled up in their elders’ garments, a futile attempt to ward off the biting cold. More piercing than the temperature was the prevailing sense of destitution and pain.
In a camp, I met traumatized young children who would cry and hide when they heard any loud noise. Trauma had trekked for miles alongside them, deepened as they slept in the rain and mud, and established itself as a nightmarish companion in the canvas tent that was now home.
Life’s other struggles don’t depart when war arrives, and my thoughts often return to those with compounded vulnerabilities. The mother suffering from post-natal depression whose baby hadn’t survived the journey. The autistic child whose difficulty processing the world was exacerbated by bombs and loss.
I believe in the formative power of children’s books to transform a generation and help them to develop empathy and understanding.
Born and raised in the U.K. as a child of the Pakistani diaspora, I read widely, taking a keen interest in international politics and human rights from a young age. I have early memories of attending peaceful antiwar protests before the Iraq invasion, and my school art projects often featured child refugees. My awareness of the suffering caused by war eventually led me to work as a Refugee Advocate in the U.K. I worked with people from Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other conflict-ridden countries, and witnessed the difficulties they faced on finally arriving at physical safety. From bullying to harassment, discrimination to lack of social mobility, I realized how much more there is to safety than the absence of immediate physical danger. Relentless media and political scapegoating of refugees fueled societal vitriol, and our national empathy deficit was capitalized on for the Brexit campaign.
Our guide at the Syrian border was incredible, with a serene smile and profound sense of purpose. After being tortured in prison and losing many loved ones to the war, he turned wholly to humanitarian work. His days and nights were spent distributing aid from his truck, so he was able to lead us to people who were almost invisible to many charities. He held fiercely on to hope in the darkest time, and became a beacon of light for others.
Back in the U.K., I saw refugees framed in the media and elsewhere as parasites. It’s a tragic contrast to the real desire of refugees—to work, love, and give back to their new country. Desperate to counter the hostility fed by that narrative, I turned to the books and stories I have always loved. I believe in the formative power of children’s books to transform a generation and help them to develop empathy and understanding. The innate tenderness of children is a vital resource for humanity.
I was reminded of the Syrian guide we’d met on our humanitarian mission when I heard about Alaa Al-Jaleel, “the cat man of Aleppo,” who risked his life by staying behind rather than fleeing the war in Syria. He set up a sanctuary for injured cats and other animals, showing exquisite compassion for the most overlooked, seemingly insignificant creatures during a war. His story resonated with some of my favourite Islamic traditions about true kindness, and I was utterly awed.
Inspired by the kindness of Alaa Al-Jaleel, I wrote The Little War Cat, a story of hope in a seemingly hopeless place. Through the adventure of a cat in Aleppo, concepts of war and trauma are introduced to young children in a way that is age-appropriate and invites them to feel empathy. My dream in writing the book was that I was planting a seed to educate, nourish, and transform future generations. It’s a dream that is being fulfilled as I hear of families embarking on “kindness challenges,” meaningful dialogues sparked around the subject of refugees, and grown adults moved to tears by reading my book about a little cat caught up in a big war.