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.

Just Posted

Oak Bay firefighters help fund new Monterey playground

Sausage Fest cash handed over to Monterey PAC

Police seek potential victims of bad ‘nanny’

Saanich Police seek potential victims of Johnathon Lee Robichaud from Central Saanich

Pendray Dairy farmer gives $25,000 to Mary Winspear Centre

Sidney performance venue fundraises for renovations

Needles found at Goldstream campground in Langford

West Shore RCMP respond to several calls for service associated with homeless campers

Alcohol and drugs ruled out in serious crash that closed Sooke Rd last week

All three drivers taken to hospital have since been released

Neighbours fear impact of tent city residents on Goldstream Provincial Park

Langford residents opposed to campers voice concerns at campground gate

5 things to do this weekend in and around Greater Victoria

Sooke Apple Fest returns, Saanich lights up with lantern festival and anarchists unite for downtown book fair

B.C. premier apologizes for removal of 1950s totem pole at Canada-U.S. border

First Nations say pole was raised at Peace Arch but removed to make way for tourism centre

An unexpected sight: Bear spotted eating another bear in central B.C.

Cheslatta Carrier Nation Chief finds bear eating another bear’s carcass

RCMP confirm death of missing BC teen Jessica Patrick

No details on cause were given. Case is under criminal investigation and police are asking for tips.

CUTENESS OVERLOAD: 2 sea otters hold hands at the Vancouver Aquarium

Holding hands is a common – and adorable – way for otters to stay safe in the water

B.C. teen with autism a talented guitarist

Farley Mifsud is gaining fans with every performance

Yukon man facing new attempted murder charge in B.C. exploding mail case

Leon Nepper, 73, is now facing one charge each of aggravated assault and attempted murder

B.C. man who left hospice to run in upcoming election dies

A week after leaving hospice to go to city hall to declare his candidacy, David Hesketh has died.

Most Read