A finalist for the 2020 National Book Award for Young People's Literature, When Stars are Scattered is the story of Omar Mohamed and his younger brother Hassan, two refugees from Somalia. Uprooted by war and separated from their parents, they walked a long, treacherous way to be eventually resettled in the Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya. They are placed in the care of a foster mother, Fatuma, an older Somalian woman whose four sons were killed.
While in the camp, they are safe from imminent danger, but they have to deal with a number of other obstacles, like a scarcity of food, meager housing, opportunistic older kids, and a lot of waiting. They are also on a constant search for their mother, who told them to run for safety as she would follow them. In many ways they feel like they are in a prison, even though they are supposed to be free. They spend a lot of time wishing for their names to be placed on a list for interviews so they can be relocated to places like the US, Canada, or Australia, but their situation seems hopeless. Add to the mix that Hassan suffers from seizures and can only say one word ("Hooyo"), and Omar has much on his plate taking care of himself and his brother.
Omar finds refuge from many of his worries in education, and going to school is a welcome escape from his daily troubles and boredom. Encouraged by a couple of UN caseworkers, he begins to focus on his learning as a possible escape from his circumstances. Still, all of this takes a very long time, and over the years, Omar becomes frustrated and occasionally angry at his plight.
Even from the above description, I have left out so much from this book. For instance, it also touches on many political realities like the need to educate female students and the stretched resources of the UN. It is a very well detailed account of this refugee experience, replete with lots of heartache, longing, and frustration. The characters here are fully realized, complicated people who display a range of emotions and beliefs. I can see why this book has been as honored as it has, because it is profoundly moving. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Omar Mohamed shared his story with multi-award winning graphic novelist Victoria Jamieson, who adapted it here. He is the founder of the humanitarian organization Refugee Strong. Jamieson is a picture book creator and YA graphic novel rock star known for her books Roller Girl and All's Faire in Middle School. Both creators speak about When Stars are Scattered in this interview.
All of the reviews I have read about this book has been glowing. Kirkus Reviews concluded their starred review, "This engaging, heartwarming story does everything one can ask of a book, and then some." Esther Keller called it "a window to a world far away" that "will allow readers to view their own lives in a very different light and hopefully allow them to understand the sorrow and heartache that are experienced all over the world." In another starred review, Publishers Weekly wrote that it is "a personal and poignant entry point for young readers trying to understand an unfair world."