Clacton author Vanessa Altin hopes her new book will help change the world in some small way
The Clacton author of The Pomegranate Tree, a book shedding light on the plight of youngsters affected by the Syria conflict, speaks to reporter Will Lodge.
News coverage has been dominated off and on over the past few years by the situation in Syria, with first the civil war against President Assad and then the incursion of ISIS sweeping into the country from Iraq.
But for one journalist-turned-author, it was not enough to simply write articles and be a neutral observer of what was happening to those caught in the crossfire.
Vanessa Altin and her family divide their time between Clacton, where she has lived for 50 years, and Turkey where her Kurdish husband Adnan, 44, is from.
It was while in Turkey, near the Kurdish border, that Vanessa met the children who would change her perspective.
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A seasoned hack, who worked at the News of the World and The Sun among other national titles, the freelance reporter was shocked when she came across the youngsters who had fled the violence and were left with nothing – including any knowledge of whether the rest of their family was dead or alive.
Vanessa, 52, did what she could to help – raising more £2,500 in just a night after a heartfelt plea on Facebook and spending the money on food, sweets and toys for the children.
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But the former Clacton County High School pupil knew it was not enough, either for them or to satisfy her need to act on what she had witnessed.
Not convinced traditional reporting would get the message across, she decided to turn her hand to writing and pen a book aimed at teenagers to make them aware of what was happening to their peers 3,000 miles away.
“I was shaken by what I had seen, more so than I had realised,” Vanessa admitted.
“After 15 years on News of the World I thought I was unshakeable but that did fair take my breath away.
“We did what we could. We did the interviews, but it stayed with me.
“It was good to give out the food and the footballs, it made a difference, but it only scratched the surface. It still bothered me when I got back.
“I realised I wanted to do more and try to bridge the gap.
“It dawned on me that maybe I could write about it and bring attention to it. I realised I can’t change the world, but I hope to do something.
“I’m not an idealist, but I though young adults still have that purity and might be prepared to look at the situation with fresh eyes and not just see people grasping for benefits.”
The Pomegranate Tree, written in a half-diary half-first person book form, pulls no punches. It is hard-hitting from the get-go, and Vanessa makes no apologies for that.
In the opening chapter the reader hears how the central character Dilvan has seen one sister and her assaulted mother put in a truck and driven away, while her baby sister was on the verge of being beheaded before a missile strike plunged the area into chaos. Her father and brothers are away fighting ISIS with Kurdish fighters elsewhere in the country.
While the book is fictionalised, it is all based on stories told to Vanessa while in Turkey, prompting her to describe the book as “faction”.
She has the pictures to prove it – some too gruesome to print taken from the phones of killed ISIS soldiers.
Others are simply heart-wrenching: The little girl who puts her hands up when a camera is pointed at her, because she thinks it is a gun, or the children picking up dropped grains of rice and eating them raw because they are starving.
“There are thousands of uncared for kids. They are just like my kids [Rozerin, 12, and Amelie, nine], it is just fate that is different for them.
“Seeing the attitudes on social media about ‘swarms of immigrants’ and some of the comments coming out – I don’t have all the answers, but whoever you want to blame, you cannot blame the children. It is not their fault, they are having a hell of a time.
“Yes some are jumping on the bandwagon but there are people in genuine need of help. I wanted to combat some of the hate.
“But they are not sorry for themselves, and don’t want hand-outs. They just want the war to stop so they can go home, rebuild Syria and have a future.
“They don’t want to be swimming in the Mediterranean or staying in refugee camps. Through no fault of their own they find themselves homeless, living under a tarpaulin and sleeping on a concrete floor.
“This is happening and it is not going to go away.”
Vanessa has been touring schools to introduce the book, and has met with mixed reactions.
While children have been touched by the story, even bringing a tear to their eye from the first chapter, some headteachers have cancelled her appearances saying the book is too gritty for youngsters to handle.
“I’m not apologising for it being shocking because it is shocking, and they are still there in that situation,” said Vanessa.
“People can decide for themselves whether it is shocking, or uplifting. You don’t have to like it or agree with it, but give it a fair opinion.
“I had no experience of writing books before, but with the style I chose journalism was a big help. Sensationalism is pointless and has always disappointed me, very often fact is stranger than fiction – sometimes you cannot make it up and you can’t believe it.
“Often children ask if there is anything they can do. I think just reading and understanding it is a good first step.”
Some proceeds from the book are being donated by both Vanessa and the publisher to Heyva Sor, the Kurdish Red Crescent (Red Cross equivalent).
A sequel is also in the pipeline.
“I have been asked to write a sequel, and there are a few ends to tie up as I didn’t want to leave this book too neatly, because that would not be real,” Vanessa said.
The book has already proved so popular the publishers had to do a rushed second print run.
• The Pomegranate Tree (Blanket Press, £6.99), is available to buy now from bookshops, including a number of local independent stores, or online.