Cover image of "The Beekeeper of Aleppo," a novel about Syrian refugees

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

With Vladimir Putin’s troops raging across eastern Ukraine, we are losing sight of another armed conflict in the past decade that was even more destructive. Beginning in 2011 in the Arab Spring, protests in Syria against the brutal and corrupt regime of Bashar al-Asaad soon morphed into violence across the country. In the Syrian Civil War, more than half a million died and 6.8 million fled to other countries, about half the total number displaced from their homes by the fighting. And the carnage is continuing as I write. British novelist Christy Lefteri commemorates the suffering—and hope—of Syrian refugees in her deeply moving novel, The Beekeeper of Aleppo.

A long, terrifying journey from Syria to the UK

Nuri Ibrahim, the eponymous beekeeper, has fled the violence in Aleppo with his wife Afra. A bomb exploded in their garden, blinding her and killing their beloved young son Sami. As the novel opens, the couple are living in a “run-down B and B by the sea” in England, waiting to hear whether they will be granted asylum. Lefteri chronicles their years-long odyssey across the Syrian desert, through Turkey, into Greece, and eventually across the breadth of Europe to what they hope will be their new home in the United Kingdom. She tells the tale in a jumbled series of Nuri’s flashbacks, nightmares, and hallucinations along the way.

The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri (2019) 378 pages ★★★★★

Photo of refugees arriving by sea in Greece, many among them perhaps Syrian refugees
More than one million refugees have landed in Greece from the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Africa. Image: UNHCR

A focus on refugees in Greece

As Lefteri reveals in an author’s note at the conclusion of her novel, she worked as a volunteer in Greece for an NGO assisting the vast number of refugees who arrived there from Africa and the Middle East in the 2010s. Much of the action in the novel takes place on a Greek island and in Athens. Her story illuminates the desperation of the millions who had fled violence, hunger, and destitution in hopes of a better life in Europe. Her portrayal of the Ibrahim family’s experience is wrenching—but ultimately hopeful. As the Guardian notes in its review of the novel, it’s “a story of loss, love, resilience and hope. . . [and] it’s impossible not to be moved by Lefteri’s plea for humanity, and perhaps inspired, too.” The Beekeeper of Aleppo is a reminder of just how fortunate we are if we live comfortable lives in the United States.

About the author

Photo of Christy Lefteri, author of this novel about Syrian refugees
Christy Lefteri. Image: Kieran Coatman – The Independent

Christy Lefteri‘s bio in Google Books reads, “Brought up in London, Christy Lefteri is the child of Cypriot refugees. She is a lecturer in creative writing at Brunel University. Her novel, The Beekeeper of Aleppo, is an international bestseller, selling well over a million copies worldwide and published in over 40 countries. The Beekeeper of Aleppo won The Aspen Literary Prize (for an influential work of fiction that illuminates a vital contemporary issue and demonstrates the transformative power of literature on thought and culture). It was the runner up for The Dayton Literary Prize and won the Prix de l’Union Interalliée for Best Foreign novel in France. Her new novel Songbirds” was published in 2022.

For another superb novel about Syrian refugees, see What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad (The refugee experience through children’s eyes).

I’ve also reviewed a novel about Middle Eastern refugees that most critics loved but I hated: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (A novel about Middle Eastern refugees that ignores the challenges refugees face).

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