By Maureen Tai, 5 September 2018
“It feels like a door has opened. And that I need to step through before it closes” – Ebo
Illegal charts the harrowing journey that two orphaned brothers make from a poor village in Ghana to promise-laden Italy. The boys cross lands that offer no sanctuary and encounter exploitative grown-ups who offer no mercy.
Illegal is, by far, one of the hardest graphic novels I’ve read with my children, but in an increasingly fractured and unkind world, it tells a powerful story too urgent to ignore, too important to be forgotten. It demands to be read. It has to be read.
Despite the bleak tale that unfolds, the naturalistic and beautifully coloured illustrations are stunning. The opening scene is breathtaking: it is night and the skies are dotted with stars. A group of 14 teenage boys are adrift in a vast, never-ending ocean. They have run out of fuel, and they have only arms for paddles. Among them is 12-year old Ebo, our narrator.
Less than two years ago, he had been living in a village in Ghana. It is a poor place, with dusty dirt roads, crumbling stonework buildings, and trees with mostly bare branches. His mother is dead, his older sister, Sisi, is presumed to be in Europe, and his other older sibling, Kwame, has disappeared. Ebo’s drunken uncle is incapable of looking after himself, let alone a young orphaned boy. Without Kwame, there is nothing left for Ebo in his birthplace. So he decides to leave, before despair overcomes him. He will find Kwame. Together, they will find Sisi and a new life in a place called Europe where rich people who will help them. This is the only hope left for Ebo.
This is the first hard truth that we learn. For some, their only reason for living is a hope. They cling to a dream of a better existence somewhere else, because anywhere else is better than where they are now. Where they are now is completely hopeless.
We follow Ebo on a bumpy bus-top ride from his village to the sprawling city of Agadez, Niger. The Agadez Mosque is the most prominent building in the skyline, surrounded on all sides by mud brick houses and dusty roads. The city has a permanent sepia tinge to it, coloured by the Sahara Desert within which it lies. Agadez, where Ebo is thankfully reunited with his brother, is a main staging post for migrants headed towards the Mediterranean Sea. Across those turbulent waters lie the promised lands of Europe. But even before that perilous ocean crossing, the siblings must first face a hazardous desert crossing on a ludicrously overloaded truck and a nerve-racking stint in Libya, doing odd jobs while avoiding detection in order to raise enough money for the final sea passage.
This is the second hard truth. This journey to hope is unimaginably punishing, made more so by the power-hungry, the unscrupulous and the cruel. Death lurks in every corner. It is etched on the face of the skeletal figure, slumped over in the broken-down jeep in the desert sands. Its cloak is wrapped around the hundreds of migrants who are packed together on a groaning, decrepit ship. You can almost smell it in the storm drains where the brothers hide.
Thousands of men and women, girls and boys, like Ebo and Kwame, like their sister Sisi before them, like Razak the Chelsea football club fan, all of these desperate human beings make this trek for a single chance at a semblance of a life. To be safe, to be healthy, to be happy, to be human. Who are we to deny this to our fellow human beings?
Which brings us to the third, and the hardest truth of all. We do it all the time. We deny when we shut our homes, our countries and our hearts. We deny when we look away. We deny when we ignore. Are we all not one people?
Illegal is a heartbreaking, honest and powerful addition to the growing ranks of children’s books about the migrant and refugee experience. Others include Home of the Brave, written in hauntingly beautiful free verse, and A Long Walk to Water, a semi-non fiction book about a Lost Boy of Sudan.
For ages 10 and up.