Syrian artist and Salt Spring Island author work to help refugees

Syrian artist and Salt Spring Island author work to help refugees

Children’s book helped raise over $64,000 for refugee families

Author Margriet Ruurs has always been a traveler, having visited 50 countries so far. Her travels inspire her many children’s books; her latest, The Elephant Keeper, is about an elephant orphanage in Zambia and poaching. When she reads at Sidney’s SHOAL Centre with Bill Gaston later this month, she will be reading from a book inspired by photos on Facebook and the remarkable story behind them.

While browsing Facebook one day, Ruurs was “blown away” by the work of Syrian artist Nizar Ali Badr, who arranged beach pebbles into tableaus, and knew she wanted to collaborate. Ruurs thought the photos could tell a compelling story, if placed in the right order. The resulting book, Stepping Stones, has become one of Ruurs’ most successful books and it has raised money for refugee causes.

“I have never seen a children’s book illustrated with rocks and I knew kids would be fascinated by it as I was,” said Ruurs, who lives on Salt Spring Island.

It took three months for Ruurs to contact Ali Badr to ask his permission to use the work, as he does not speak English and has no email address. With the help of one of Ali Badr’s friends, who does speak English, they were able to get in touch. Now they communicate on a regular basis through email or Skype.

Ruurs explained that this process was unusual in more ways than one. Normally, a writer gets an idea, does the planning and writing and submits it to a publisher. If the publisher decides to go ahead, the choice of illustrator and the format is up to them, not the author. Ruurs does not know the illustrators of most of her 38 books.

RELATED: Secrets and self-sabotage are everywhere in Bill Gaston’s latest book

“I don’t know what the art will look like until I get a final copy,” she said.

This time, she wrote her text based on his pictures and submitted a full package to a publisher. Orca Books said yes.

In its first year, the book raised $65,000 for refugees through a portion of Ruurs’ royalties and a per-copy donation by Orca Books. The money has gone to a variety of refugee causes, mostly to the Inter-Cultural Association of Greater Victoria (ICA), but also to sponsor individual families to come or to start education funds for them (Ruurs has already given to one refugee family that landed initially on Salt Spring Island). The publisher also sells it to schools and refugee sponsors for a 50 per cent discount so they can use it as a fundraising tool themselves and send the extra money ($10 per book) to similar causes.

She has had her books translated into other languages because of their global outlook, “but I think this one has the most rights sold.” The initial version of the book was a bilingual English/Arabic version, but there are German, Dutch, Japanese, Spanish and Korean versions either completed or being created.

“It’s very exciting that more people in more countries are able to share this story.”

Ruurs said the region Ali Badr lives in, Latakia, is relatively safe by Syrian standards, “though it is debatable because there’s a war going on.”

It is still a struggle for him, because the value of the Syrian pound has dropped dramatically since the civil war, making it difficult for Ali Badr to buy food and basic necessities. He does, however, send photos to Ruurs often, including ones of him searching for rocks on beaches that are remarkably similar to beaches on Vancouver Island.

“You would swear that he lives in B.C. because it’s so gorgeous,” said Ruurs. “There’s a blue sea and a beautiful rocky beach and mountains — that’s Syria on the Mediterranean. It’s a beautiful place; not just the bombed-out buildings we see in Aleppo.”

Ruurs is proud of what the book has done and how it has affected people’s perception of the refugee crisis.

“Probably the best email [was] from a 13-year-old in Canada who said the book changed their mind about refugees coming here,” said Ruurs. “That to me is the most amazing reward I could have asked for.”

Margriet Ruurs and Bill Gaston will read at the SHOAL Centre Mar. 23 at 7 p.m. (doors at 6:30). Tickets are $10 at Tanner’s Books or online at sidneyliteraryfestival.ca. Proceeds support the 2019 Sidney and Peninsula Literary Festival.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Central Saanich installed a temporary portable along Lochside Trail near Michell’s Farm Market and remains in discussion with the Capital Regional District about finding what Mayor Ryan Windsor called a ‘permanent solution’ to ensuring washroom access at the popular location. (Wolf Depner/News Staff)
Central Saanich in talks with CRD about ‘permanent’ washroom facility near Lochside Trail

The municipality installed a temporary portable washroom near Michell’s Farm Market last week

There are many options for enjoying a meal out locally during Dine Around and Stay in Town, on now through Feb. 7. (10 Acres Commons)
Dine Around Stay in Town Victoria carries added importance during pandemic

Special menu items for eat in or takeout/delivery, staycation deals available through Feb. 7

(Black Press Media file photo)
Bylaw officers called to Saanich park for COVID-19 protocol violations on pickleball court

Raquet sport players reminded to avoid doubles play amid pandemic

Victoria police are asking for help locating Izabel Villeneuve, 14, who was last seen Jan. 19. (Courtesy of Victoria Police Department)
Victoria police seek help locating missing 14-year-old

Izabel Villeneuve was last seen in the morning of Jan. 19

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry updates B.C.’s COVID-19 situation at the legislature, Jan. 11, 2021. (B.C. government)
Vancouver Island smashes COVID-19 high: 47 new cases in a day

Blowing past previous records, Vancouver Island is not matching B.C.s downward trend

Businesses continue to struggle under COVID-19 restrictions as the pandemic reaches the one-year mark. (B.C. government)
Another 564 COVID-19 cases, mass vaccine plan coming Friday

15 more deaths, community cluster declared in Williams Lake

Anyone with information on any of these individuals is asked to call 1-800-222-TIPS (8477) or visit the website victoriacrimestoppers.ca for more information.
Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers wanted list for the week of Jan. 19

Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers is seeking the public’s help in locating the… Continue reading

A specialized RCMP team is investigating a suspicious trailer, which might have connections to the illicit drug trade, found abandoned outside a Cache Creek motel. (Photo credit: <em>Journal</em> files)
Police probe U-Haul trailer linked to illicit drugs left outside Cache Creek motel

Hazardous materials found inside believed to be consistent with the production of illicit drugs

Premier John Horgan leaves the podium following his first press conference of the year as he comments on various questions from the media in the Press Gallery at B.C. Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Monday, January 13, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Interprovincial travel restrictions a no-go, Horgan says after reviewing legal options

The B.C. NDP government sought legal advice as concerns of travel continue

Gem Lake Top, at Big White Ski Resort, seen at Jan. 8. (Big White Ski Resort)
Big White cancels $7.3M in lift tickets, accommodations due to COVID-19 orders

Since November, the ski resort has been forced to make several changes

Darlene Curylo scratched a $3M ticket, BCLC’s largest ever scratch and win prize. (BCLC)
Kelowna woman in shock after winning BCLC’s largest-ever instant-ticket prize

Darlene Curylo couldn’t believe her eyes when she saw the amount of money she’d won from a scratch ticket

While each person has different reasons for becoming homeless, a UBCO study shows they learn through their interactions with different services to perform ‘as homeless’ based on the expectations of service providers. (Contributed)
Kelowna homeless forced to ‘perform’ for resources, says UBCO study

One participant in the study said ‘It is about looking homeless, but not too homeless’

Aquaculture employee from Vancouver Island, Michelle, poses with a comment that she received on social media. Facebook group Women in Canadian Salmon Farming started an online campaign #enoughisenough to highlight the harassment they were facing online after debates about Discovery Islands fish farms intensified on social media. (Submitted photo)
Female aquaculture employees report online bullying, say divisive debate has turned sexist

Vancouver Island’s female aquaculture employees start #enoughisenough to address misogynistic comments aimed at them

Most Read