89 pages 2 hours read

Omar Mohamed, Victoria Jamieson

When Stars Are Scattered

Nonfiction | Graphic Novel/Book | Middle Grade | Published in 2020

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Summary and Study Guide


When Stars Are Scattered is a graphic memoir coauthored by Omar Mohamed and Victoria Jamieson. Mohamed, a Somali refugee, and Jamieson created the book based on Mohamed’s actual experiences as a small child fleeing civil war in Somalia and as a young man growing up in Dadaab, one of the world’s largest refugee camps. Published in 2020, the story is a winner of the Walter Dean Myers Award for Younger Readers and was a finalist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. It was also included among the YALSA Great Graphic Novels for Teens and the YALSA Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers. When Stars Are Scattered explores themes of maintaining empathy; appreciating one’s gifts; and balancing dreams, hard work, and faith. This guide references the 2020 edition published by Dial Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Content warnings: Violence, war, and death are mentioned and implied through words and images.


The narrative is told in the format of a graphic novel, with comic-book-style panels of colorized illustrations, dialogue and thought bubbles, and narration. Young protagonist Omar Mohamed narrates the story in the first-person present tense. At approximately 11 years old, Omar cannot remember much about his earliest years. He lives now in Dadaab, a camp opened in 1992 in Kenya that houses hundreds of thousands of refugees who fled homes where conditions or war made it too dangerous to stay. Like many refugees in Dadaab, Omar and his younger brother Hassan are from Somalia; they arrived seven years before as small children. As Part 1 opens, the two brothers search a crowd of refugees in a neighboring block of the camp, A3, for their mother. They cannot find her and return to their block, A2, where Fatuma, their guardian, keeps an eye on them. Omar details his days in the camp: He waits in lines for water and food, completes chores, and plays with Hassan, who communicates only through vocalizations and one word, Hooyo. Omar understands his brother, though, and he is just glad Hassan does not have seizures like he used to. They build low walls of mud bricks for a pretend “house” and make-believe they own cows and a mattress. When Omar’s friend Jeri finishes his school day, they play soccer with a “ball” of plastic bags. Jeri teaches Omar to write his name and count to three in English.

When Salan, a community leader who tries to improve conditions for refugees, arranges for Omar to start school, Omar is unsure. He worries something terrible will occur to separate him from Hassan if he goes to school, the way they were separated from their mother before coming to Dadaab. Salan convinces Omar that his intelligence is a gift from God and that an education can help improve both his and Hassan’s lives. Omar enjoys and appreciates school. He witnesses how hard Nimo and Maryam, girls in his class, work to be first and second in the rankings. They hope to earn a scholarship to Canada so they can resettle there. Like many refugees, Jeri hopes for resettlement in America, but the only way to achieve that dream seems to be through selection by the United Nations. Omar studies late and takes extra lessons to improve his English. Hassan misses their time together and sometimes runs away from Fatuma during the school day. Right before exams at the end of the school term, Hassan runs off and is roughed up by bullies when Omar is at school. Despite his hard work and upcoming exams, Omar quits school to care for Hassan. Maryam, who must quit school because her father arranged for her to marry, convinces Omar not to squander his gift of education. Omar realizes she is correct, takes his exams, and passes into middle school.

In Part 2, two years later, Omar and Jeri begin to wonder what the future holds. Omar would like to be a social worker for the United Nations (UN), and Jeri would like to be a teacher, but as residents of Dadaab, their future prospects are bleak; they cannot return to Somalia due to ongoing civil war but cannot leave the camp (as they do not have the same rights as Kenyans). Omar feels that the camp is more like a prison than a home. When a friend, Abdikarim, shares the news that the UN selected his family for resettlement in America, Omar becomes frustrated by the unfairness of his circumstances. Time wears on with school and chores; then suddenly, without warning, Omar learns that he and Hassan have an initial interview with the UN to be considered for resettlement.

Omar practices what he will tell the interviewers and prepares clean clothes for Hassan and himself. Fatuma and the brothers walk to the UN office the night before and sleep outside the doors. During the interview, Omar describes how, when he was four years old in Somalia, armed men killed his father as he worked in the fields. Omar’s mother told him to run with Hassan to a neighbor’s house; they have not seen her since. Omar becomes emotional when he cannot say if his mother is still alive. He tells how he and Hassan walked with their fleeing neighbors all the way to Dadaab. The interviewer tells Omar he will not learn if he gets a second interview for at least two months. Omar learns nothing, even after Nimo finds out that she and her family are resettling in Canada. Omar grows increasingly bitter at the cruelty of his circumstances until he realizes that Maryam is having a baby. The sight of her swollen belly makes Omar realize he is not the only one with broken dreams.

In Part 3, four years later, Omar and Jeri attend high school. Omar is 17 now, and graduation is coming up; he worries he will not find fulfilling work as a refugee and sometimes loses hope and positivity. Jeri helps to bolster his spirits. One day, one of Fatuma’s baby goats dies of hunger, and Fatuma’s grief sends Hassan running away. Omar finds him with a kind family in a distant part of Dadaab. When they return to Fatuma, Omar learns that the UN finally wants a second interview. Now a mature young man, Omar interviews and completes his applications for resettlement with a calmer and more realistic demeanor than when he was 13. Eventually, he learns that he and Hassan can resettle in America. After so many years in Dadaab, it is painful to leave behind those he loves, like Fatuma, Jeri, and Maryam, but Omar knows that he and Hassan cannot waste the opportunity. They leave Kenya on a plane; as Omar sees the stars of the nighttime sky out the window, he hopes to find fulfillment and a better future in America.

In an Afterword and Authors’ Notes, the reader learns that the brothers eventually settled in Lancaster, PA, where Mr. Mohamed worked as a resettlement case manager for Church World Service. He married Sarura, a member of the family who cared for Hassan when he ran away. As an advocate for refugees, Mr. Mohamed founded Refugee Strong, an organization that helps send necessary supplies to refugee families. Once resettled in Pennsylvania, Omar and Hassan discovered that their mother was indeed alive and looking for them in Dadaab. They were able to visit her in Kenya in 2017, and at the time of the publication of When Stars Are Scattered, Mr. Mohamed was working to bring her to the US.

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