Ebrahim Esmail was just 15 when he was forced to flee Iran. To promote this year’s Refugee Week, the British Red Cross has teamed up with illustrator Karrie Fransman to launch a graphic novel depicting his journey to London.
Over, Under, Sideways, Down tells how Esmail was forced to leave his home after being seen delivering political flyers for his stepfather. He was smuggled across the Turkish border and eventually put on a lorry to the UK.
The comic depicts some harrowing scenes through a series of poignant illustrations, such as Esmail’s last moments with his mother, his journey across a mountain range with no food and water, and his confusion at arriving in London with no ID.
It also portrays happier moments, including Esmail’s appearance in a Bruce Goodison documentary about teenage asylum seekers in 2012 and the day he discovered he’d been granted asylum. Now aged 19, he lives in Shepherd’s Bush and has been offered a place at Brunel University.
The comic is available to download for free online, and physical copies are available at Gosh! Comics. Esmail says he hopes it will help people understand “what it means to be forced from your home and start all over again.”
Fransman worked on the project for around a month and interviewed Esmail for several hours before writing a script based on his story. Her illustrations are shocking but sensitively portrayed, using soft brushstrokes and shades of blue and grey throughout.
“I’ve done some comic reportage before, but nothing as personal as this,” she says. “I debated quite a bit about how best to go about it – I use a lot of different styles in my work and thought about doing something ultrarealistic – but in the end, I decided that the fact I was interpreting Esmail’s story allowed for a degree of ‘magical realism’. It’s less cartoony than some of my other work and at the same time, emotive and raw,” she adds.
Violent scenes are depicted using dark red splatters, and Fransman says she used symbolism to depict Esmail’s fear and sense of detachment after leaving Iran.
“Ebrahim talked a lot about his tasbih beads [religious beads worn by Ebrahim throughout the novel], which were the only thing he had left when he fled. I thought of them a bit like an umbilical cord – his one tie to his home country. In one scene, he’s floating and holding on to them at one end,” she explains.
On seeing the finished book, Fransman says Esmail was thrilled. “I was really nervous about his response – you feel a lot of responsibility portraying someone’s life story, but he said he was really happy with it. It was quite overwhelming, as I don’t think he realised he’d been through so quite so much,” she adds.
The British Red Cross is one of a series of charities launching campaigns to celebrate Refugee Week, which takes place from June 16 – 22. Last year, it teamed up with street artist Marcuc Crocker, who made a series of mini figures of iconic Brits who were also refugees and placed them around various streets in London.
Work in progress images provided by Fransman