Winner —Coup de Coeur Médecins Sans Frontières Prize2018
Jury Prize —European Design Awards2018
Show morefewer awards
Olivier Kugler’s compelling series of evocative drawings documents the experiences of Syrian refugees he met in Iraqi Kurdistan, Greece, France, Germany, Switzerland and England, mostly on assignment for Médecins Sans Frontières.
Based on many interviews, and hundreds of reference photos, these drawings by Olivier Kugler beautifully observed drawings of his interviewees bring to life their location – a room, a camp, on the road. His reporting of their stories is peppered with snatches of conversation and images of the objects that have become such a significant part of their lives.
Kugler’s intense graphic reportage drawings have been commissioned by Médecins Sans Frontières and published in The Guardian, Port, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other publications. A portfolio, ‘Waiting State’, published in Harpers, portraying Syrians Kugler met in Iraqi Kurdistan, was the overall winner of the Association of Illustrators World Illustration Awards in 2015. Drawings from Escaping Wars and Waves have been exhibited at Somerset House in London and the Fumetto International Comix Festival in Lucerne, Switzerland, the Helsinki Comics Festival, Rich Mix Gallery in London and at House of Illustration, London. In November 2018, Escaping Wars and Waves won both the Prix du Carnet de Voyage International and the Coup de Coeur Médecins Sans Frontières at the Rendez-vous du Carnet de Voyage.
Like the better-known Joe Sacco, Kugler practices a form of graphic journalism, although in a very different style. What Kugler does so well here is to step back, still his own voice and instead do his best to give that voice to the refugees themselves. It puts a very human, individual face on people all too often vilified in the press and by certain politicians for their own ends, and reminds us how we are all of us vulnerable and may at some point rely on the kindness of strangers.
Olivier Kugler is part of our century’s movement of journalists, like Joe Sacco, who use the 20th-century language of comics to document the world. Sacco takes us into Goražde by including himself in the drawings. Kugler does it through enmeshing our imagination in the timelapse of lines and visible voices.
It doesn’t surprise me that Olivier Kugler’s Escaping Wars and Waves: Encounters with Syrian Refugees won this year’s European Design Awards Jury Prize. This recreated sketchbook is artistically masterful. While he worked after the fact from photos he’d taken, each page has all the energy of an image drawn on the spot. Kugler’s line is astute, sinuous... Sketchbooks like Kugler’s make readers feel as if they are sitting beside the artist—watching the refugees climb onto the beach of the Greek island of Kos after crossing the Aegean from Turkey, or smelling the tea sold by a vendor in an Iraqi refugee camp.
While the work…is far more venturesome than what is being produced at mainstream comics publishers, Escaping Wars and Waves owes as much to the tradition of comics and sequential art as it does to journalism. The story retains a sketchbook-like sensibility rather than that of formal, finalized storytelling. It’s fitting: Everyone is on the move. Their stories are far from over, and some are still waiting to be told.
Olivier Kugler’s latest book Escaping Wars and Waves is an immersive exploration of the immigrant experience. It’s further proof of just how potent graphic journalism can be. Kugler’s style is visually dense yet carries an emotional punch. It allows him to get inside people’s stories in a fresh and compelling way.
That’s what Kugler does so well, he enables us to see these people not as a news story, not as statistics, not as demonised figures, but to show us people, people we can see ourselves in, we can empathise with. And from empathy comes compassion and more understanding. A very important read.
That’s what Kugler does so well here, he enables us to see these people not as a news story, not as statistics, not as demonised figures, but to show us people, people we can see ourselves in, we can empathise with. And from empathy comes compassion and more understanding, and god knows our world desperately needs those right now. This is not an easy read, it’s emotionally hard-going, but very worth making that effort; it’s a much-needed riposte to the demonising and hatred we see poured at some refugees... No, this is not an easy read, but it is, I would say, a very important read.
The Syrian refugee crisis—effectively a diaspora now—has proven to be one of the defining humanitarian issues of the modern era. We are blessed to have creators like Kugler making sure that these people’s lives are not forgotten.
Kugler is the contemporary face of reportage illustration, the art of going to a place where there’s a news story, looking hard, asking questions and coming back with the drawings.
John Walters, Eye Magazine
Woolmaloo Best of the Year 2018
7 January 2019
Like the better-known Joe Sacco, Kugler practices a form of graphic journalism, although in a very different style. The refugee crisis has dominated headlines across Europe and further afield, and for every piece of proper reporting there seems to be ten baseless scare stories motivated purely by bigotry and xenophobia. What Kugler does so well here is to step back, still his own voice and instead do his best to give that voice to the refugees themselves.
What becomes clear in this book is the basic shared humanity of these people in a desperate plight. This isn’t the “horde” of “foreigners” that the likes of the hate-filled Mail shouts about, these are people, many of them had highly respected roles in their society – doctors, lawyers, architects, midwifes – and good homes for their families. All of which were ripped away just like that, home, loved ones, sometimes even most of their town just gone. It shows how horribly easy it is for even what seems like a stable society to be broken and produce refugees who rely on the help of their fellow humans. It puts a very human, individual face on people all too often vilified in the press and by certain politicians for their own ends, and reminds us how we are all of us vulnerable and may at some point rely on the kindness of strangers.
Why make reportage drawings? Graphic artist Olivier Kugler was commissioned by Médecins Sans Frontières (‘Doctors Without Borders’) to travel to Iraq, Kos and Calais to interview Syrian refugees. He took photographs and used translators to record stories. So why not stop at that?
On first viewing, I didn’t like the drawings in this book. I shrank back from lines that didn’t please me, from flat Photoshop washes. But I was curious because something interesting happens in these illustrations. They are complex; they operate as a vehicle to record many dimensions: the speech of the Syrians is hand-lettered across the pages, we are led from one thought to another by linking arrows that bind the visual pictures to the aural experiences of listening.
The sections of the book follow the route of refugees into Europe ending pertinently and powerfully with Syrian families finding hospitality in the German village of the artist’s birth.
The drawings of people and places are fragmented and layered; the movements of hands, feet and posture overlap as the narrators move through their stories, shifting and stuttering in tandem with their journeys across borders. Often the pages are interviews with groups, such as Wisam and Hadya’s family in Birmingham. Or young men in a shack in Calais.
A page from the Kos section of Escaping wars and waves by Olivier Kugler.
The scripts are finely edited with interjections that create conversations backwards and forwards across the image. Sometimes we follow one person’s story such as Djwan who runs a business in Domiz camp just inside Iraqi Kurdistan, providing a music sound system and plastic chairs for weddings. There are details in the pictures – the tea bag, the tobacco pouch – that are annotated, specifically named and noted.
“Here is a 21st-century form that is working for us: it catches, it hooks and we look.”
So again, why create drawn reportage? The more I looked, the more I realised that something was happening similar to Swiss modernist artist Paul Klee’s ‘taking a line for a walk’. The eye slows down and is enticed along the lines of faces and feet. It is encouraged to make a journey through the pictures. The presence of hand-written words slows us down and roots us in the page, the picture, the story. This is the functional importance of the drawing as a transmitter of bad news. Where the eye may glide over a photograph, may groan at a block of text, here is a 21st-century form that is working for us: it catches, it hooks and we look.
The nineteenth century had its artist-journalists who travelled to war zones of the world to draw the news: a scene, a picture, an emotion, posted back to the Illustrated London News or the New York Times. Olivier Kugler is part of our century’s movement of journalists, like Joe Sacco, who use the 20th-century language of comics to document the world. Sacco takes us into Goražde by including himself in the drawings. Kugler does it through enmeshing our imagination in the timelapse of lines and visible voices.
In 2016, the year Macedonia completely closed its borders to Syrian refugees, I met a young Palestinian man named Walid in a squalid army-run camp on the Greek island of Samos. I was writing a magazine story on the conditions in such camps following the deal that March between the EU and Turkey, which was intended to reduce the flow of
migrants into Europe. Since media permits were not forthcoming, I ended up sneaking in through a hole in the fence. As I interviewed refugees, Walid approached me.
He had been at the camp for nine months, he said, sleeping in a tent inside a shipping container while the authorities figured out what to do with a Palestinian who had been
born in northwest Syria. In that time, he’d seen a lot of reporters, but little change. “Do you think these articles will do anything?” he asked. I paused to think about it. “No,” I answered. “But it’s important to keep a record.”
In the years that followed, I thought often about Walid’s question. Like Olivier Kugler, Don Brown, and Kate Evans, who have each published new books of comics journalism on the subject, I spent years covering the mass movement of human beings that is referred to in Europe as the “refugee crisis.” I was a Western journalist traveling freely on my powerful passport, paid to document the misery of people whose passports trapped them in poverty and war. I shared cigarettes with refugees in tents in Iraq, Lebanon, and Greece. I listened to little boys talk about the car bombs that killed their fathers. Mothers told me that drowning in the Mediterranean would be better than one more day rotting in this goddamn camp.
Like Kugler, Brown, and Evans, I sketched. We were some of the many artists who created encyclopedic oral histories, carefully illustrated, of the Syrians, Palestinians, Iraqis, and Afghans we had met. In our sketchbooks, we wrote down their memories, homes, ambitions, sufferings, former careers, and traumas. What did these documents add up to? I wondered. Our articles changed nothing. Why should we be the ones keeping the records?
In 2018, more nations than ever are shutting their borders and retreating into hostile nationalism. This applies not just to Brexit Britain or Trump America, but to the likes of India, which stripped the citizenship of four million Muslims; Myanmar, which has driven out over 700,000 Rohingya since August 2017; and Turkey, where border police just tortured a Syrian I know for attempting to seek refuge. Everywhere, immigrants are demonized. Activists are arrested. Demagogues promise walls. In times like this, chauvinists try to paint refugees as a plague, as terrorists. Stories are one way to fight
back. I don’t know if these books will do anything. But records need to be kept.
It doesn’t surprise me that Olivier Kugler’s Escaping Wars and Waves: Encounters with Syrian Refugees won this year’s European Design Awards Jury Prize. This recreated sketchbook is artistically masterful. Kugler, a German reportage artist, made illustrated interviews with refugees in Iraq, Greece, France, England, and Germany from 2013 to 2017. While he worked after the fact from photos he’d taken, each page has all the energy of an image drawn on the spot. Kugler’s line is astute, sinuous. He pulls the main characters out with color, but lets the background details overlap and congeal. He records the half-drunk Arabic coffee, the portable heater, the eloquent detritus of camp life. At their best, sketchbooks like Kugler’s make readers feel as if they are sitting beside the artist—watching the refugees climb onto the beach of the Greek island of Kos after crossing the Aegean from Turkey, or smelling the tea sold by a vendor in an Iraqi refugee camp.
Escaping Wars and Waves begins at the Domiz refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan, where in 2013 Kugler stayed with Médicins Sans Frontières to document their work. Two years later, MSF commissioned me to do the same. Like Kugler, I visited the camp’s cinderblock shacks. We each sat with refugees in a circle on the floor, and we each drew them while they spoke. In Kugler’s book, their voices stand alone. He gives neither analysis nor context. He is an artist, not a Middle Eastern specialist. But as in Joe Sacco’s Palestine (1993), Kugler’s sprawl of testimony shows how these individual histories accumulate, blur, and shuffle.
Kugler especially shines when he draws Domiz’s small businesses. At Domiz, as at most Middle Eastern camps, people know they will be staying there a while. While they stay, they want to live. The UNHCR may provide the bread, but refugee entrepreneurs hawk life’s roses in a dazzling and desperate profusion. Domiz has wedding dress rentals and beauty parlors. Cafés and satellite dish repair shops. Stores selling soccer trophies and iPhone cases and nightingales. Djwan owns one such business, renting sound systems. Lean and jaunty, he is a bit of an idol to the camp’s boys, whom he teaches to breakdance and to rap in Kurdish. He makes Kugler tea in his shop, and over six lavishly detailed pages, Kugler unfolds Djwan’s past. Djwan the hipster DJ was once a sniper for the Syrian Arab Army. He was conscripted for his mandatory military service, but things went bad when his tentmate committed suicide. Djwan was jailed and tortured for his friend’s supposed murder. After his family bought his freedom, the army sent him to the front lines. When a rebel rocket-propelled grenade hit a regime tank, his “friends…became ashes.” He deserted just before a major rebel attack. “No one can say: ‘I am a man and therefore I am not afraid,’” he says. “We were all scared.”
From Kurdistan, Kugler moves to Kos. While Greece was always a center for irregular migration, refugees started arriving on the islands en masse in 2015. Thousands came each day, crowding into life rafts with outboard motors for the five-mile voyage from Turkey to Kos, then coating the beaches with the now familiar iconography of deflated boats and abandoned, often useless life jackets. Tourists fled, and aid workers replaced them. Locals reacted occasionally with xenophobic violence, but most often with astounding generosity and grace. Kugler speaks to a Swiss woman who for seven years had run a souvenir stall on Kos’s port. Now she has to move. Business is way down. “I am not angry with the refugees,” she says. “I can understand their circumstances very well. They are my friends.”
The Syrians who make it to Europe are more educated than those stuck in Iraqi Kurdistan. After all, they had two thousand dollars to pay a smuggler. In another world, a world in which one’s destiny was less defined by one’s passport, they would be sipping frappés at the very hotels whose proprietors now ban them from renting rooms. In Europe, Kugler speaks with refugees who were once lawyers, doctors, medical students, to a fashion designer whose artwork was destroyed by ISIS and a teenage girl in a tank top who mourns her lost cat. The worst loss for all these people is the loss of identity. Back home they were respected professionals. Now cops call them monkeys while they beat them. “For us Europe is not a dream land. It is not paradise, it is not heaven,” says a young Syrian man who has spent the last seven months in a leaky tent in the Calais Jungle, a refugee camp in France. But where else can he go?
The story ends in Kugler’s hometown, Simmozheim, Germany, where his parents are helping a Syrian family from Deir ez-Zor adjust to their new lives. While the Syrian mother and father share stories from the war they fled, their kids crowd around. When their son Ahmed tells Kugler he no longer has nightmares, he does so in “decent” German. Their thirteenyear-old daughter, Nour, wants to be a nurse—and now goes by Nora.
This reminds me of another story of migration. Like the Syrians Kugler covered, my great-grandfather fled the twin threats of military conscription and political oppression—in his case, the anti-Semitic oppression of tsarist Russia, where police sent his Bundist comrades to Siberia, and where Jewish boys faced the draft starting at the age of twelve. In 1904, Shmuel Chudozhnik’s boat landed on Ellis Island, where a bureaucrat assigned him a new name, Samuel Rothbort, and he was reborn as an American.
In The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees, Don Brown bolsters Kugler’s layers of testimony with linear explanatory journalism. He starts with the origins of the Syrian revolution, in the graffiti written by fifteen teenagers in the dusty southwestern city of Dara’a, then follows dutifully from their arrests, the resulting protests, and the government
crackdown to the well-known tableaus of bombed-out buildings, refugee boats, and ISIS soldiers. It is a straightforward story filled with maps and statistics, generous with the sorts of definitions American audiences still need after decades of meddling in the Middle East. He sketches a brief history of the Assad family’s rise to power, compares Islam’s division
into Sunnis and Shias to Christianity’s division into Episcopalians, Methodists, and Baptists, and provides a map of Syria for easy reference.
“Early on, I decided The Unwanted would focus on the refugee experience and disregard information beyond that constraint except when necessary for context,” Brown writes in the book’s epilogue. But his discussion of the war’s origins are pages well spent. “Assad uses arrests and violence to hang on to power,” Brown tells us at one point. “The lucky ones who are eventually freed return with electric shock marks, cigarette burns, and broken bones.” Later: “Assad drops barrelbombs and destroys buildings and people while anti-Assad jihadists take time out of fighting to murder any who disagree with them.” To those familiar with the Syrian war, this may seem simplistic, but without knowing this background, how can a reader understand why Syrians continue to flee?
Brown draws simply, laying digital washes over his sketchy charcoal line. At his best, he verges on the stark simplicity that comics can do so well. In one double-page spread, he shows a Syrian family in silhouette, sneaking across a Turkish border. With barely any detail, he conveys it all: the trees that resemble smoke billows, the slumped shoulders of the mom, the young child pulling on her father’s hand. Over those three long panels you can feel the painful exhaustion of their march.
Whether they are Turkish border police or tortured activists, Brown’s characters have mask-like, interchangeable faces. Their mouths are ironic slits. Their eyes bulge cartoonishly or else are smudged holes, burning with rancor. They are not individuals, but a mass. Brown tells Syrian stories without names or identifying details. Sometimes this works. After a refugee boat capsizes, a man floats alone in the glittering Mediterranean. “I tried to catch my wife and children in my arms. But one by one, they drowned,” he says. He could be any human on earth.
Other times, this anonymity is less successful. A man tries to cross a checkpoint with a piano strapped to his pickup truck. A masked Islamist asks him: “Don’t you know that music is forbidden by Islam?” “They burn the piano. It could have easily been the piano’s owner,” Brown writes. But the same story was told by Ayham Ahmed, the famous piano man from the refugee camp of Yarmouk in Damascus. During the war, this young Palestinian musician became a YouTube star for posting videos of himself playing amid the rubble of the district, surrounded by his singing neighbors. He has been profiled by The New York Times and the BBC. It makes little sense for Brown to leave out his name.
Since 2015, most Western journalists have focused on refugees in Europe, but Brown spends time on the 90 percent of refugees who remain in the Middle East. The fourth-largest city in Jordan is now Zaatari, a Syrian refugee camp. In Lebanon, where Syrians make up over a quarter of the population, they face widespread racism—one newspaper columnist accused them of turning fashionable Hamra Street “black”—and work like animals in the agricultural and construction industries, kids alongside adults. “Kids pick potatoes, labor in textile factories, or wash dishes,” Brown writes, across four harsh panels of toiling children. (In 2013, I visited Syrians’ makeshift camps in the Bekaa Valley. Refugees lived in tents made of billboard vinyl and burned plastic bags for heat.
Over three million Syrians live in somewhat better conditions in Turkey, but Syrian kids still beg on Istanbul’s Istiklal Avenue and Syrian college graduates still toil in sweatshops. As for the Gulf, “the wealthy Arab states of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates offer the refugees no chance for resettlement,” Brown notes.
To research The Unwanted, Brown visited three Greek camps in May 2017. By then, the viral cry of “Refugees Welcome” had long since vanished. “Europe’s—and the world’s—‘love’ buckles under the huge exodus,” he writes, and the camps are a testament to this collapse. “The last visit to a camp heightened the discomfort I’d experienced on my first visit—that I
was a voyeur to tragedy.” Nine months earlier, I had met Walid in a camp much like these. They were then, and are now, overcrowded hellholes. A river of sewage runs through the center of Moria Camp in Lesbos, where 8,300 people crowd into a space meant for 3,100. In the fall of 2016, refugees from the Samos camp showed me photos of food the army had
served that was laced with maggots, and that winter, a refugee froze to death in Lesbos. At least four other refugees in Greece have ended up hospitalized after they tried to light themselves on fire out of despair.
Brown is at his most damning when he describes how the world turned against Syrian refugees. The friendly Germans offering water bottles become a line of pinched white faces in a generic European capital, shouting in unison: “Refugees not welcome.” Years pass. The razor wire goes up in Orbán’s Hungary; ISIS murders Parisians in the Bataclan attacks,
further turning public opinion against the Syrians; Russian bombs fall in Syria. Trump ascends to the American presidency.
America has bombed Syria since 2014. It has killed thousands of civilians and leveled the city of Raqqa, where US troops are still stationed. Yet many Americans remain ignorant of the country whose war has, more than any other, shaped our decade. The last lines of Brown’s postscript read: “There are about 5.7 million registered Syrian refugees. In the first three months of 2018, the United States has accepted eleven for resettlement.”
Unlike the books by Kugler and Brown, Threads: From the Refugee Crisis, by the comics artist and activist Kate Evans, is not a Syrian story. It is set in the Calais Jungle, a tent city in France where thousands of refugees and migrants lived from January 2015 until October 2016, in what Evans calls “a microcosmic Disunited Nations.” It is the story of people from the poor world—Syrians, yes, but also Eritreans, Afghans, Iraqis, Sudanese—pressed up against the boundaries of a country made rich by exploiting the poor world. It is also the story of the volunteers who came to Calais, including Evans herself.
A page from Kate Evans’s Threads, showing the destruction of the Calais Jungle camp
“What are we doing, swanning about…, congratulating ourselves on our fabulous relief effort?” she demands. This merciless self-examination is one of the book’s finest qualities.
Threads starts off with lace—the Calais lace-making industry, to be exact. In these first few pages, Evans draws dour girls who weave beauty onto their bobbins, until the lace spins elsewhere, to form bomb blasts, fences, walls. Lace borders nearly every page. Evans writes this memoir in the cut-up style of a punk zine. She splices quiet moments spent drawing children in the camp with vitriolic comments left on her blog, where she posted the first chapter of what later became Threads. “This cartoon could not be better propaganda for battlefield veteran Islamic militant males invading Northern Europe if Lenin himself produced it”; “these cute refugee babies grow into vile adults who want to destroy our country.”
In a video interview posted online by her publisher, Evans notes that she did not set out
to be a journalist. “Journalists have a pretence to objectivity. I have a strong commitment to telling the truth,” she says. Threads is not an objective document, though it is a work of in-depth journalism. As if to stress her subjectivity, Evans, unlike Kugler and Brown, draws herself into her own work. She is on almost every page, an enthusiastic pink-haired woman with a round guileless face and mournful eyes. You see her giving out markers, buying food with friends to take back to Calais, or talking to her kids. You hear her frustrations and her fears. In a world where refugees are so often the objects of observation, Evans turns her gaze inward. “My white privilege grants me the job of guarding the tool tent,” she writes, during her first stint in Calais. She demands to know the reasons behind “that dubious metaphor, of refugees as a flood.” “What turned on the tap? The bombs and the guns: the ones that we drop and we sell and we profit from.” What is her responsibility? What is her complicity? What can and can’t she fix?
Evans volunteered in the Calais Jungle for ten days in all—a weekend in October 2015, and twice more in January and February 2016. She represents a particular type of volunteer that became ubiquitous during 2015’s mass migration to Europe. They were not the employees of international NGOs who collected large salaries to sit in air-conditioned offices (in the camp at Samos, refugees decided “NGO” stood for “never go out”). They did not wear branded T-shirts or talk about “beneficiaries.” Instead, you met them running DIY kitchens just outside of island detention centers, marching in protests, or playing chess with Afghan kids in squats. They were often young, often punk, and generally politically leftist, with anarchists heavily represented. They believed in solidarity rather than charity. They asked what people needed, worked spontaneously, and bought tents and oranges and kids’ books with their own money. A representative from Médicins Sans Frontières told me that their work in Greece was magnificent.
Still, Evans does not spare their failures. In one harrowing scene, an organization decides to distribute kids’ clothes from inside a transparent-walled arts center known as the Good Chance Dome. It’s supposed to be a photo op, but turns into a fiasco. As the destitute refugees shove, volunteers guard all-too-visible boxes of clothing. “The Good Chance Dome has been so many things…but always, always, it has been a place of welcome,” Evans writes. “Now we’re…trying to keep people out.” As tensions build, the plastic dome collapses. Evans jokes darkly that she could have drawn the scene as a cartoon for the Daily Mail.
Governments increasingly criminalise volunteers like Evans—not just in Europe, but also in the United States. In January 2018, the US indicted Scott Warren, a volunteer with No More Deaths—a faith-based humanitarian group in Arizona that provides aid to immigrants on the southwestern border—on federal charges including conspiracy and harbouring undocumented immigrants. According to the complaint, Warren gave them food, water, and shelter for three days. If convicted, he faces up to twenty years’ imprisonment. Evans documents police violence, but their panoply of restrictions are somehow even more galling. In Dunkirk, police ban volunteers from taking dry bedding into the camp. Later, they ban bread. Children huddle outside the fence, eating their bread in the rain. In Calais, police destroy the frail infrastructure of housing, youth centers, distribution spots, and restaurants that refugees and volunteers have built together, which Evans calls “a monument to human ingenuity and charity, however desolate and desperate it may be.”
Though Threads reads as a sort of diary, Evans focuses on the refugees she meets: a tiny girl, delighted to get an orange; the bored young guys who flirt and talk smack; the pregnant mother who has just been slapped by a riot cop. Evans’s best friend in camp is Hoshyar, an Iraqi Kurd with an intelligent graciousness. Hoshyar shares an eight-foot shack with his friend, uses a sliver of broken glass as a shaving mirror, and cherishes cooking for Evans in his makeshift kitchen. For the past four months, he’d been trying to catch a ride across the Channel on the bottom of a truck, so he could join his uncle in Croydon, in south London. When Evans meets him, even his little shack has been marked for destruction by the French authorities. He will have nowhere to go. Naively, Hoshyar puts his hope in British politicians. “Didn’t you know? Immigrants are always feared, always vilified. They hate you Hoshyar. They think you’re a terrorist”—Evans thinks this, but does not say it. As the date of destruction draws closer, and the prospect of paying an impossible sum to people smugglers becomes more tempting, Hoshyar begins to give in to despair.
Nor can Evans keep Calais’s violence from affecting her. A migrant dies on the train tracks while presumably trying to sneak into England. Police beat a young man while she watches, then force Evans to delete her photos of the incident. “Blood is thicker than all the water in the English Channel, and the Rhine, and the Mediterranean, and the Tigris river,” she writes, but perhaps the greatest pain she feels is the guilt for not being able to take her friends from the camp with her.
In the year Evans spent drawing Threads, she went back and forth to England. A piece of paper confined her friends to the Jungle. She flashed her passport, and the police let her cross. In her essay “We Refugees,” Hannah Arendt wrote, “Nobody wants to know that contemporary history has created a new kind of human beings—the kind that are put into concentration camps by their foes and internment camps by their friends.”
Nearly eighty years later, the world has come no closer to ensuring the rights of a human without a country. Mostly, governments propose quarantine. Internment camps grow in Tornillo, Texas, in Lesbos, in Zaatari, and in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. It won’t work. Each year, the world grows warmer. The oceans rise. Wars are fought for ever-scarcer
resources. If the wealthy West worries about one million Syrians, what will it do with millions of climate refugees? “While the bombs still fall, and the bullets still reign, there will be refugees at Calais,” Evans writes. “Hope springs eternal: people looking for that good chance, that one chance, however slim.”
There’s a lot going on in award-winning graphic journalist Olivier Kugler’s narrative drawings of Syrian refugees. His subjects appear multiple times on a given page — a portrait, front and center, anchors the layout, but he draws his figures elsewhere, too, working or walking in the backdrop. Handwritten annotations are scrawled along the margins, and numbered sections help guide the reader. The tone of these multipage profiles mirrors the frenzied, lesser covered refugee camps where Kugler interviews Syrians who have been fleeing their native country for seven years.Since 2011, hundreds of thousands of people in Syria have been killed in a civil war that began after the government deployed military force against pro-democracy activists. More than five million Syrians are on the run. In camps, nearly half of the population is comprised of children. Most of the Syrian refugees live in poverty in places like Lebanon, where the majority of those children aren’t in school. Commissioned by Doctors Without Borders, Olivier Kugler visits camps in Germany, Greece, and elsewhere to tell displaced Syrians’ stories. A book of full-color, comics-styled dispatches called Escaping Wars and Waves: Encounters with Syrian Refugees culls his contributions to Harper’s, Le Monde diplomatique, The New Yorker, and more.
In northern Iraq, Kugler interviews an ex-Syrian military sniper named Djwan who rents sound systems out for events. Flanked by monitor speakers and breakdancers, Djwan discusses having deserted his military post, but not before his friends were burned to death when a grenade hit their tank. Kugler integrates cellphone photos here. Djwan reclines in an armchair and recounts hiding out near Turkey and sneaking back home to see his mother. “I cried … and told her that I missed her,” he says.
In portraying these conversations, Kugler offers very detailed illustrations of his expressive interviewees. While backdrops get mere framing lines and partial coloring, Kugler captures Djwan’s long eyelashes and five o’clock shadow. Elsewhere, he’s meticulous about artful head scarf textures or graphic T-shirts. His thin inked line is sometimes doubled-up, so that shadow-like outlines appear around otherwise finished renderings of his subjects’ arms and legs. It suggests motion, but it’s an effect that also recalls double-exposed photos, which is where Kugler’s journalism begins.
Before making large-scale line drawings, Kugler worked off of high-definition photographs and sketchbook entries.
“When he carries out interviews,” wrote Eye’s John L. Walters last year, “Kugler knows that the camera will pick up details and perspectives that would take too long to capture if he sat down and drew the scene.”
Kugler’s process yields peripheral cartoon-like spot illustrations, like those supporting street vendor Claudia’s story on Greece’s Kos Island, where tourism declines and refugees sleep on trashed cardboard. For Vian, whose imprisoned activist husband hasn’t met his infant son yet and whose glassy doll-eyes are trained on the reader, Kugler utilizes captions, oversized header type, and word balloons, too. While the work isn’t always labeled as such and is far more venturesome than what is being produced at mainstream comics publishers, Escapingowes as much to the tradition of comics and sequential art as it does to journalism.
Kugler obsessed over Belgian cartoonist Hergé as a kid and found Joe Sacco’s comics journalism while attending School of Visual Arts. Kugler’s efforts aren’t straightforward reported comics like Andy Warner’s or Sarah Glidden’s in her powerful Rolling Blackouts, but they share aesthetic properties. The animated pages in Escaping read like composites of several images, where physical geography is represented fractionally and sitting subjects look to be in motion. The story retains a sketchbook-like sensibility rather than that of formal, finalized storytelling. It’s fitting: Everyone is on the move. Their stories are far from over, and some are still waiting to be told.
“At the beginning I thought that everything would be over soon,” says Djwan in Iraqi Kurdistan. “But day after day the situation would only become worse.”
A kaleidoscopic odyssey for the era of displaced persons and disintegrating nations, this collection of dispatches from the Syrian refugee community is a fine example of humanistic journalism.
The book’s structure ... serves as a fitting analogy for the uncertainty and disorder of the lives of its subjects. All of these stories are about displacement, and Kugler’s ability to make each feel painfully unique gives this chronicle its immense power.
German illustrator Olivier Kugler’s latest book Escaping Wars and Waves is an immersive exploration of the immigrant experience. It’s further proof of just how potent graphic journalism can be. Working with Medecins Sans Frontieres, Kugler spent more than three years gathering the stories of Syrian refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Greek island of Kos and the “Jungle” in Calais. He then transforms their stories into words and pictures.
Kugler’s style is visually dense yet carries an emotional punch. It allows him to get inside people’s stories in a fresh and compelling way.
Simon Chadwick, The Cartoonists’ Club of Great Britain
18 July 2018
Olivier Kugler is a German journalist and cartoonist who combines his talents to tell the stories of those he interviews. Escaping Wars And Waves is a collection of the individuals and families he met who were fleeing from the Syrian conflict. Travelling to Iraqi Kurdistan, the Greek island of Kos and the Calais camp known as the Jungle, as well as visiting refugees now living in the UK and Germany, he steadily builds a picture of tragedy, desperation and hope, of people just wanting to live a normal life and give their children a fighting chance.
Many of the stories show extreme hardship and detail difficult and deadly journeys across land and sea, as well as hostility, hunger and helplessness. But at the heart of every page is an individual’s testimony, a snapshot of their existence and experience that is extremely effective in showing the human anguish and resilience of those displaced.
The key to the effectiveness of Kugler’s reporting is that he gets permission from his interviewees to photograph them and their surroundings, then builds an illustration around those pictures that is peppered with the finer details of their often meagre lives, and overlaid with the subject’s words and Kugler’s notes. At first glance the pages can look jumbled and complicated, but there is always a narrative to follow as you read across the page, revealing a gifted eye for design and storytelling.
The apparent unfinished nature of Kugler’s illustrations, coupled with their snapshots of the surrounding minutiae, contrive to make the interviews feel more immediate and real – a snatched moment in time, which of course they are.
Our experiences of the Syrian conflict is so often through our television or phone screens, and in that way it’s too easy to dismiss the suffering of the populace as they are presented as distance faces huddled in camps, boats and beaches. This book helps show that they’re all individuals with the same hopes and needs as you and I, fleeing a war they didn’t create as they try to find that elusive replacement for what was their home. It then becomes all to easy to put yourself in their shoes and imagine what you would do, what lengths you would go to give your family a chance.
This is a brilliant example of the power and versatility of the medium – engaging, informative, shocking and even heart-warming. A book we should all take the time to read.
That’s what Kugler does so well, he enables us to see these people not as a news story, not as statistics, not as demonised figures, but to show us people, people we can see ourselves in, we can empathise with. And from empathy comes compassion and more understanding, and god knows our world desperately needs those right now. This is not an easy read, it’s emotionally hard-going, but very worth making that effort; it’s a much-needed riposte to the demonising and hatred we see poured at some refugees, and a reminder of that old saying, there but for the grace of God go I. How swiftly could everything we think is normal be destroyed just as it was for these people? Home, work, school, going to a restaurant, the movies, day out with the kids? Suddenly all gone. And how desperate would we be, how much would we rely on our fellow humans to show kindness if it were us in such a situation? No, this is not an easy read, but it is, I would say, a very important read.
The world is currently experiencing its one of its worst refugee problems since the Second World War, with masses of people being displaced through war, famine, economic poverty and more. You’d hope by this point, in the 21st century, humankind would have learned and moved on from this sort of wretchedness, but no. And apart from the physical and practical problems of countries coping with a mass influx of often desperate refugees, there are those who shamelessly use such an awful situation to whip up xenophobic hatred, turned to their own cynical purposes to garner political and popular support. German creator Kugler does something which is desperately needed, puts a very human, very personal face onto some of those refugees.
We see in the news regular statistics – this many drowned in a ricket boat crossing to Europea, this many in camps, this many asking for asyulm in countries that are worried about the impact of so many so quickly, even in nations who have traditionally been open and inviting. Kugler does not pretend to have answers to these enormous practical and ethical problems, what he does here is give us people, not statistics, not some politician’s ideologically driven rhetoric. People. Men, women, kids, families. People just like us, like our friends, our families, our neighbours, our communities.
The images we see from the news, even by the most well-intentioned journalists, often gives a distorted view. We see people grubbing in the mud of a camp like the infamous Jungle in Calais, or an overflowing city of tents in Kurdistan, and those images can give us the wrong impression, make us judgemental in the same we it is too easy to be when seeing someone begging or sleeping rough on our own city streets. We don’t know the stories behind those images, behind those people, what they have endured, are still enduring. Kugler gives us that, and does his level best to do so without interjecting himself – there is a very clear desire by the author to make sure that as much as possible he presents these people in their own words.
Many of these refugees are well-educated folk from a decent background, college-educated with degrees, a nice family, pretty home (one speaks movingly of missing their little vegetable garden by their home, where they grew oranges and lemons right by the house, home now gone, even the trees that grew for years ripped up by the uncaring war). There are teachers here, lawyers, computer specialists, nurse, doctors, even psychologists like Suzan who helps MSF (Medecins Sans Frontiers, the same charitable organisation many of you will remember Guy Delisle’s wife working for in his comics travelogues).
Kugler goes to various locations to talk first hand to people who have had to flee Syria, some because the war came literally to their doorstep (if they were lucky they all escaped with little more than the clothes on their backs, if they were unlucky they escaped after shells had killed some of their family in front of them), taking us from Kurdistan to the Greek island of Kos, to the “Jungle” camp in Calais, to Britain and Germany where some of the refugees have been allowed to settle, the most fortunate reunited with other family members already there, he takes us from those struggling in overflowing tented camps where charities and local authorities are overwhelmed by the sheer numbers, to those trying to make a new life for themselves in Europe.
It’s often heartbreaking, especially hearing from the children. Not for the first time I was reminded of the late, great Spike Milligan’s war memoirs, from the WWII Italian campaign when they came across a village where a child had become a casualty of the fighting; “the adult world should forver hang its head in shame at what is has done to children” commented Spike, and he wasn’t wrong. But while much of this is, as you might imagine, very upsetting, this is balanced with that quality we all need, especially these days: hope. We see the fortunate make new homes for themselves; they miss their old hometown, their country, but they are relieved to be in a place that is safe, where their children can go to school and thrive.
Several times the kids briefly forget the traumas their young eyes have seen and grow excited like any other child, telling Kugler what they want to be when they grow up and leave school (“a nurse!” “an engineer!!”). The fact they can overcome those traumas and think about a future again, to play and dream of being a doctor or an engineer when they are older, is a wonderful thing to see in those children. In an especially touching scene Kugler visits some in Germany – the kids of the family now go to his old school.
Rather than a series of sequential panels, Kugler opts more for (mostly) coloured sketches taking up an entire page, or sometimes running across two pages, with text telling the person’s own story, rather than speech bubbles. Thoughtfully these chunks of text running around the art are numbered to make it easier to follow around the art layout. The sketches themselves tend to focus on characters central in the image, they are depicted with the most detail, the colouring, and most importantly, the expressions, coming through clearly, while around the periphery details and people there are sketchier, not as detailed, perhaps not even coloured in.
It felt as if the artist was using this approach to hint that for every couple of people he talked to, centre on the stage of the page, there were so many others around the edge; he can’t talk to them all but he can infer to the reader that they are there and the too matter. There are small details added in like a little arrow pointing to something small in the background and text explaining “chocoalt bar”, “plastic flowers”. It all serves to normalise these unusual scenes, the bric-a-brac of everyday life scattered around just like it would be anywhere.
There is also a remarkable amount of hospitality and welcome shown here by many refugees. As Kugler explains not everyone wants to be drawn or photographed, understandably given their circumstances (many still have family back in war-torn Syria and fear anything they say could cause trouble for family still there). But many, even those in the regugee camps with so little to their name, still do their best to offer warm hospitality when he visits. One man who had managed to make himself a wee business while stuck in the camps, running a small stall selling coffee, drinks and other snacks sees him standing in the cold and mud waiting on his interpreter to arrive, and offers him hot, sweet coffee, refusing payment. Others, in tents or in homes in Birmingham or Simmozheim, Kugler’s home village in Germany welcome him into their homes, be they tents in a camp or actual homes in the country managed to get asylum in.
Even for those settled in Europe the scars are horribly visible, both physical (one man shows his bullet wounds), others mental (children still scared when they hear a helicopter passing overhead, or the sudden roar of a train going over a bridge as they walk under it. Again I was reminded of Milligan, how his nerves shattered by the war, he would find himself in tears of sudden fear just from the sudden sound of a car exhaust backfiring). God knows what some of them have been through – despite many opening up to Kugler, it’s obvious this is barely scratching the tip of the iceberg. We all know how bad a place we can be in when dealing with emotional upsets – illness, losing a loved one – and how emotionally hard it is to cope, and that is us with our home, rest of our family and friends around us. Imagine having those kinds of traumas and losing your home, the town you lived in destroyed, having to flee your own land and throw yourself out hoping desperately for help.
That’s what Kugler does so well here, he enables us to see these people not as a news story, not as statistics, not as demonised figures, but to show us people, people we can see ourselves in, we can empathise with. And from empathy comes compassion and more understanding, and god knows our world desperately needs those right now. This is not an easy read, it’s emotionally hard-going, but very worth making that effort; it’s a much-needed riposte to the demonising and hatred we see poured at some refugees, and a reminder of that old saying, there but for the grace of God go I. How swiftly could everything we think is normal be destroyed just as it was for these people? Home, work, school, going to a restaurant, the movies, day out with the kids? Suddenly all gone. And how desperate would we be, how much would we rely on our fellow humans to show kindness if it were us in such a situation? No, this is not an easy read, but it is, I would say, a very important read.
Comics journalism and reportage continues to be one of the most evocative means of documenting the refugee crisis happening all across Europe. In Threads: From the Refugee Crisis, Kate Evans traveled to Calais to record the stories of the people who risked their lives to escape almost-certain death in Syria and other countries, only to be stranded in a port-town purgatory.
Other creators such as Brick (East of Aleppo), Reinhard Kleist (An Olympic Dream) and Hamid Sulaiman (Freedom Hospital) have blended fact and fiction to illuminate the plight of refugees, as well as make sense of the political turmoil in the countries from which they have fled.
From 2013-2016, comics journalist Olivier Kugler traveled to towns in Kurdistan and Greece, as well as Calais, Kos and his hometown of Simmozheim, Germany, to interview Syrian refugees. Accompanied by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) workers, Kugler spoke to families and people living alone, recording their stories and sketching them and their environment.
The project became Escaping Wars and Waves, which was exhibited at London’s Rich Mix in December 2016 and has now been collected into a graphic novel by Myriad Editions, adding yet another vital book to their canon. The Syrian refugee crisis—effectively a diaspora now—has proven to be one of the defining humanitarian issues of the modern era. We are blessed to have creators like Kugler making sure that these people’s lives are not forgotten.
“I miss my parents. I miss my friends,” says a young man in a Kurdish barbershop. There are moments of simple, aching grief dotted throughout Kugler’s interviews as his subjects describe the complexities of their situations. So many of them are torn between borders: staying in Iraqi Kurdistan means safety and financial security, but their loved ones are still in Syria.
“I think a lot about about my family and the woman I want to marry. I miss sharing meals with them… It made me feel very comfortable,” says another refugee. Their lives are in stasis; Kugler wants to show us the long-term effects of displacement and how that manifests in stress and anxiety. One of the things we as outsiders are able to take solace in is that MSF are providing people with access to mental healthcare. The care workers accompanying Kuger appear in many of the interviews offering support and guidance that is so desperately needed.
Kugler splashes each account over double-page spreads, embedding sketches within larger, full-colour portraits of his subjects, as if rendering their lives in real time. Speeches and captions are littered across the pages that require reading and re-reading to fully grasp the narrative of each person’s journey. His depictions of their struggles are a fraught and chaotic reflection of the harrowing experiences they’ve endured.
Escaping Wars and Waves is, quite literally, a challenging read. Kugler directs us through most of the interviews, but the pages are dense, his figures and words spread over and among each other. It can be overwhelming at times: with so much happening on each corner of the page, it’s hard to know exactly where to focus, which risks robbing each narrative of its rhythm. However, every interview is worth persevering through; it’s likely that Kugler had precious little time to record their stories before having to move on. They each deserve to be told.