Syrian American journalist Rhonda Roumani makes her children’s book debut with middle grade novel Tagging Freedom. Set just before the Syrian Revolution in 2010, the book follows Syrian American seventh grader Samira and her cousin Kareem as they adjust to Kareem’s recent move from Damascus to Massachusetts. While Sam has been struggling to fit in with the popular crowd at school, Kareem worries for his parents and friends back in Syria as peaceful protests turn violent. When xenophobic comments from classmates strain the cousins’ relationship, they’re forced to come together to combat racism in their small town. In a conversation with PW, Roumani spoke about art and its influence on society, as well as the role that hope plays in inciting change.

Why was it important to set Tagging Freedom during the revolution, as opposed to present-day or another integral era of Syrian history?

There are a number of reasons I did that. First of all, I’m Syrian, and the revolution—and the war that followed—was quite devastating for us. But for so many people, this is the only thing they know about Syria.

My husband is Egyptian, and we have kids. They ask, “Why haven’t we been to Syria?” because we go to Egypt frequently and I talk about Syria all the time. I used to be a journalist there and I grew up going to Syria every summer as a child. So, I’ve been trying to find ways to teach my kids about what happened there, and about why we haven’t been able to go back.

If you ask a kid, “What do you know about Syria?” I think they might say “war,” and they might say “refugees.” But Syria wasn’t always that way. I wanted to teach kids about what was happening there, and I found that it was hard to tell them about the beginning of the revolution, and about how there was a very small period—in Syria, but also around the Arab world—where there was a lot of hope, even though that hope was very short-lived. It was a revolution of resistance; it was a revolution for freedom. And revolutions in history often don’t succeed, especially not the first time around. Many people also called it a “civil war,” but even that term sort of implies that the revolution was meant to be contentious internally. But it was more complex than that.

Even as a kid, I knew Syria as a place where you could not speak freely. When I was there as a journalist in the early 2000s, for the first time, I saw activists going out to protest. They were very small groups at that point, but they had people saying, “Oh, maybe it’s time for a change.” People want freedom. And I believe that Arab nations are some of the most unfree parts of the world and that there are reasons for that. So, when people started protesting, there was this feeling of, “wow, could it happen?” And that’s what I wanted to bring out.

You explain in your author’s note that graffiti did not exist in Syria before the revolution. How do you think art and creativity influence advocacy work and vice versa, and why did you choose to make that the focus of Kareem and Samira’s arcs?

Art, I think, is integral to freedom. When you don’t have the opportunity to speak, it comes out in different ways. And in Syria, art was a huge way that people found to bring out their criticisms. In Tagging Freedom, I mention a Syrian cartoonist named Ali Ferzat. He would do these cartoons that got close to the red line. There was always art or theater; they were allowed to put on plays because, in the end, people do need to be able to let off a little bit of steam. They need to be able to speak a tiny bit. But when you don’t know where the red lines are, you’re more likely to stay quiet. You don’t want to mistakenly cross the line.

Kareem’s tag, “Spray Boy,” is based on a real graffiti artist named Nour Hatem Zahra, who was called Spray Man. And the revolution itself was sort of ignited by a few kids Kareem’s age. They had seen the resistance that was happening in Egypt, and they saw the graffiti and the protests and were inspired to graffiti their own walls. So, it was natural for me to use graffiti. It’s an anonymous form of protest: you write on the wall, and people don’t know who you are. It offers you protection and the walls become a canvas because you’re not allowed to go out and speak, necessarily, because if people know who you are, then you’re in trouble.

There ended up being a lot of graffiti artists around the country. Because Egypt had toppled its president, Hosni Mubarak, kids Kareem’s age wrote, “It’s your turn, Doctor,” meaning the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, who had trained as an ophthalmologist in the U.K. And when they arrested those kids, the whole country erupted. That’s power.

Did you encounter any challenges when developing Kareem and Samira’s alternating perspectives, or in balancing high-stakes global issues with interpersonal struggles?

It was not easy to balance our everyday problems with something like what Kareem was going through. I didn’t want to make Samira’s issues feel unimportant because they’re obviously important to her. I didn’t want to make it sound trivial compared to what Kareem was experiencing, even though, in a lot of ways, you can’t compare them. But fitting in was important to Samira. I think by having her come to terms with what was happening in Syria—to have her think about the revolution, and the war, and what it would feel like if her parents were there and something bad happened—in her own way, and not having her disengage from herself and her own world helped her empathize with Kareem and, in that way, helped balance everything.

Do you feel that your experience as a journalist and your time visiting and working in Syria have influenced the way you approach writing fiction?

Absolutely. Style wise, I felt like I had to completely change everything. But content wise, I definitely took a lot from my experience [as a journalist]. When I worked in Syria, I did a lot of coverage about the activists and the people who, at the time, were protesting in very small numbers. It was really dangerous. They would get chased by the Shabiha [mercenaries for the Syrian government], who would intimidate resistors, like they did in Tagging Freedom. Protesters got harassed—they were worried they’d get phone calls inviting them to secret visits with security forces. But as I said, I had grown up going to Syria every summer and I’d never seen anything like that.

One of the activists I became good friends with and who introduced me to the world of advocacy in Syria was really engaged with young people. So, it was mostly young people out there in these small protests. I even used what I was feeling while reporting on that, watching it, talking to activists, seeing young people really care. Seeing how those young people still had hope and wanted freedom, the excitement of seeing potential change happening—I definitely used that.

But, even so, I haven’t been back since the revolution happened. I wrote articles about it during that time—about how there’s this idea of, like, “Can you go back?” And I don’t know the answer to that.

Tagging Freedom by Rhonda Roumani. Union Square Kids, $16.99 Nov. 7 ISBN 978-1-4549-5071-4