Sunday, March 27, 2016

Graphic Novel Illustrates Tragic Somali Olympian's Untimely Demise Adrift In Mediterranean Sea

During recent Los Angeles travels, I stumbled in to Meltdown Comics on Sunset Boulevard in search of a new five-ringed graphic novel, "An Olympic Dream: The Story of Samia Yusuf Omar" by Reinhard Kleist.

The store did not yet have this title in stock, but thanks to a review copy from the publishing house, Self Made Hero, and its domestic distributor, Abrams, I did get to read this recent release on the heels of reviewing "Trashed" by John Backderf.

In about 150 pages, Kleist illustrates the too-short and true life of a Beijing 2008 Olympian who competed in athletics, specifically the 200m sprint. "An Olympic Dream" opens on an upbeat note as Yusuf Omar appears on the small screen in her family's Mogadishu living room with relatives and friends gathered to cheer for Samia.

While the Beijing experience inspires the stadium crowd and Yusuf Omar's new dream to return to the Olympic stage at London 2012, her Somali homecoming quickly evolves into a years-long marathon of increasingly awful challenges including gender and faith bias in her war-torn home town. 

Forced to flee Somalia to find safety with family in Europe, and still clinging to her London Olympic dream, Yusuf Omar embarks on an international journey through Ethiopia, Sudan and Libya in search of sea passage to Italy. One can only imagine how much worse her final weeks must have been before boarding an overloaded watercraft akin to those in use today by Syrian refugees fleeing to Greece. 

Kleist's illustrations in black pen and/or India ink bring to the page a life that is both hopeful and heartbroken. Yusuf Omar's POV is sometimes portrayed through Facebook posts or texts to family anxiously awaiting updates. Readers may almost smell the burning trash or taste the gritty dust kicked up by African winds and warlords clouding Omar's chances for a happier conclusion.

According to the book's Preface by Kleist, the author learned about Omar's fate as much of the world did following London's Games. 

"Thanks to the help of journalist Teresa Krug, who had befriended [Yusuf Omar], I was able to speak personally with [Samia's] sister Hodan Yusuf Omar, who in 2006 had fled to Helsinki," wrote Kleist.

Kleist also mentioned the Olympian's actual Facebook posts provided content and context, though most of the posts in the book are fictionalized except for Yusuf Omar's plea for help while stranded in Tripoli. Krug provides a detailed Afterword for the text as well.

Though "An Olympic Dream" provides the antithesis of a happy ending for five-ringed-hopefuls, the book does provide inspiration and a look at the struggles tens of thousands still face today in Africa and Asia. Kudos to Kleist for shedding more light on this contemporary Olympic story. "An Olympic Dream" will hit Meltdown Comics and bookstores everywhere starting April 12 (pre-sales available here).

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