ON DECEMBER 19, 2018, the president of the United States declared on Twitter, “We have defeated ISIS,” signaling a move to end American involvement in Syria. The Syrian Civil War began in 2011 with an uprising against President Bashar Hafez al-Assad’s regime. Since then, the UN Refugee Agency claims over 5.6 million people have fled, a number so large it is hard to conceptualize.
Olivier Kugler’s Escaping Wars and Waves tells the stories of some of these refugees. Kugler, a German reportage illustrator, was commissioned by Doctors Without Borders to give life to this extraordinary number. To do so, he traveled to Greece, France, England, Germany, and Iraqi Kurdistan, where this book begins.
Kugler’s illustrations, based on his photographs and notes, refuse to sit still. Lines crisscross the page, and he sometimes draws his subjects in multiple positions outlined atop each other, producing an effect like a slow-motion film or a modernist painting. Overlapping word bubbles protrude from figures, with arrows guiding the reader across the page. Kugler also takes care to present the terrain and physical landscape of the spaces his subjects occupy. In his work, the inside of rooms and tents frequently fade into outstretched mountains and deserts that fill the edges of the pages.
Kugler’s opening account of the Domiz refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan demonstrates his characteristic graphic style, blending block coloring with sketchy outlines to create chaotic yet evocative scenes. Kugler shows people discussing the difficulty of getting refugees to make use of the mental health services available in the camps: “Syrians in general were not used to visiting a psychologist for therapy sessions,” explains Hala, the team leader who has worked with displaced people since 2008. “We had women who were using their babies as a cover to come here in order to get mental health support,” another psychologist adds. Kugler’s drawings place us in the room with these professionals and create a space for their multiplicity of voices.
Kugler frequently places people at the center of busy pages, their faces caught mid-conversation, arms descriptively raised in dialogue. These depictions open up to us, welcoming us into the densely packed and complex lives that the refugees relate in their stories.
Kugler recounts a range of stories from Iraq, including one about Djwan, a 24-year-old “sound system operator, break dance teacher & ex-Syrian army sniper” who runs a sound system rental out of the camp. Kugler devotes several pages to Djwan, including a spread full of detailed, color drawings of his electronic shop and one with collaged photographs from Djwan’s time in the military. “I rent out the system about twice a week, when there is a wedding, a birthday party or when a baby is born,” Djwan tells us, his words becoming a jumping-off point for Kugler to illustrate some of the Syrian wedding customs the residents of the camps have tried to maintain.
Kugler dedicates the longest section of the book to the Domiz refugee camp, but the remaining sections on Europe are equally detailed. Kugler’s focus on children is especially heartbreaking in the section set on the island of Kos in Greece. In the center of a page filled with outlined figures fading into the background, Meran sits in full color holding her eight-month-old son, Meray. “My boy has asthma. The nights are cold. It’s dusty and dirty … This is very bad for him,” she explains in bursts of yellow word bubbles. “No child should live like that.” Across the fold on the neighboring page another parent holds a child. These are Rezan and his eight-year-old niece Rocca, who describe their journey by boat from Kobani to the Turkish border. “She says the boat journey to Kos was dark. She was very scared and got seasick. Her uncle was holding her like he is holding her right now,” Kugler writes of Rocca. Along the edge of the page, almost lost in the sketchy lines, a yellow bubble comes from the side of Rezan: “I can’t swim.” Kugler then recalls, in an aside, how “at one point” his translator told him, “IT IS VERY HARD FOR ME NOT TO CRY.”
The past year has seen the publication of a number of visual accounts of the Syrian refugee experience. Artist and writer Molly Crabapple highlights some of these books in her New York Review of Books article, “Where Else Can They Go?” Crabapple discusses Kugler’s book alongside Don Brown’s The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees and Kate Evans’s Threads: From the Refugee Crisis. Of Kugler’s book, Crabapple writes, “At their best, sketchbooks like Kugler’s make readers feel as if they are sitting beside the artist” and seeing the events themselves. This ability to put the reader in the midst of events is an essential quality of effective graphic journalism, which often makes visible otherwise invisible personal narratives.
Crabapple herself is a graphic journalist, most recently illustrating Brothers of the Gun: A Memoir of the Syrian War, the story of Marwan Hisham, a young Syrian, and his brother during the Syrian revolution. Ali Fitzgerald’s Drawn to Berlin also engages with the stories of Syrian refugees, recounting Fitzgerald’s experience as an American expatriate who works as a volunteer art teacher in a resettlement camp in Berlin.
What all these stories share is an attention to the mundane, the details of daily life that Kugler draws out — visually and verbally — via a sketchy graphic style whose seeming casualness belies its underlying complexity. Kugler’s style brings us back to the personal lived experiences of the families, young people, and elders whose lives have forever been displaced by revolution and relocation. As Crabapple notes in her article, “Stories are one way to fight back. I don’t know if these books will do anything. But records need to be kept.”
At a time when we are inundated by news updates and clickbait images, the need for graphic journalism is more urgent than ever. In its capacity to make the reader slow down and focus on details, it provides a chance to escape the onslaught of soundbites and spend time with people who — forced from their countries and often with no official advocates — make up an ever larger portion of the globe’s population.