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Review: When the Moon is Low by Nadia Hashimi

With a compelling narrative and realistic characters, Nadia Hashimi brings the harrowing experiences of refugees to life in the pages of When the Moon is Low. Fereiba, a young mother to three children, is forced to flee her home in Kabul, Afghanistan when members of the Taliban regime take her husband, Mahmoud, away and kill him. Her two youngest children do not quite grasp their perilous predicament, but her oldest son, Saleem, realizes that life will never again be the same. Told in alternating narratives, we follow along with Fereiba and Saleem as they journey, together and separately, across Iran, Turkey, Greece, and eventually, into Italy. Perhaps journey is the wrong word here. Indeed, they struggle every step of the way, thwarted by lack of money, lack of legal documents, lack of food, lack of shelter, and at times, a complete lack of compassion by those with whom they come in contact.

The life of a refugee is not just dangerous nighttime and sea-faring crossings, or encounters with shady characters looking to take advantage and make a buck. Worse, perhaps, is the constant fear of being discovered and hauled back to a war-ravaged home or killed. Worse-er, still, in situations like Fereiba's, are the feelings of helplessness and worthlessness a mother must experience when she is unable to provide her children with a peaceful, bountiful life.

"In the last year, as I've tried to give my children a safe life, I've felt more like a criminal than anything else. Even righteousness is an ambiguous thing."

When her children should be running joyfully through peaceful neighborhood streets with their friends, Fereiba's children are learning to be quiet and fearful amidst the sound of gunfire and bombs, instead. In hopes of earning money for his family while in Turkey, Saleem takes up work on a farm, performing back-breaking work in exchange for a meager wage. Aziz, her youngest son, has a broken heart - literally. Samira, her middle child, is a young girl without a father to protect her from the brutes of the world. When Sameer is eventually separated from the family and goes missing in Greece, Fereiba must make the difficult decision to wait for him, which could mean deportation or death -- or traveling without him, hoping he will find his own way. How can she ever protect her children in a world that seems bent on harming them?

Meanwhile, Saleem, who is now on his own, must carefully navigate the trenches of the undocumented and unwanted by stealing food, sleeping in crumbling tent cities, keeping out of the way of government officials, risking his life by sneaking passage on vehicles heading west, and surviving encounters with society's wretches who have nothing but hate and violence in their hearts. Forced to be a man long before his time, Saleem grapples with feelings of both love and hate toward the father he blames for setting this life in motion, and toward the mother who could not protect him from the evils of the world.

I felt such sorrow while reading this beautiful, terrible book. While it may be easy for some to see the Syrian refugee crisis unfold before us on live TV and feel next to nothing for the masses of people fleeing their war-torn countries, When the Moon is Low places the reader directly in the path of Fereiba and her children. They are characters who become as real as the noses on our face and as equally hard to ignore. Their story, while fictional, sheds light on the individual and very real plight of each and every refugee. This should be required reading for those who question whether or not we should open our countries and our homes to refugees. The answer, for me, is a resounding YES.

While much of Fereiba's and Saleem's stories are heavy with heartbreak, there are moments of bittersweet joy, when good Samaritans open their hearts and their homes to this lost and lonely family. These scenes remind me that there are people in this world with compassion in their hearts and an understanding of just how fortunate they are to be able to have something to give to someone who has nothing.

The last quarter of this book became so distressing, I held my breath through several passages, wondering if Fereiba and her children would be discovered, and if Saleem would ever find a way to reunite with his family - or die in a gutter. The ending is not so much an ending as it is an invitation to the reader to consider what comes next for the refugee, even if they've escaped their past of terror. Will they find refuge and acceptance? How do they rebuild their lives? Can they rebuild their lives? How does one go on living when all you've known in life is gone?

A relevant, intense portrayal of the refugee/immigrant crisis, When the Moon is Low is one of the best books I've read this year. It is well-written, emotionally compelling, and beautifully terrible. I look forward to reading more books by Nadia Hashimi, and would highly recommend this book to any reader who wishes to open their hearts and minds to the world outside their front door.

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