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Escape from Aleppo


About The Book

“Filled with kindness and hope…Heartbreaking…Necessary.” —Booklist (starred review)

Nadia’s family is forced to flee their home in Aleppo, Syria, when the Arab Spring sparks a civil war in this timely, “harrowing” (Publishers Weekly) coming-of-age novel from award-winning author N.H. Senzai.

Silver and gold balloons. A birthday cake covered in pink roses. A new dress.

Nadia stands at the center of attention in her parents’ elegant dining room. This is the best day of my life, she thinks. Everyone is about to sing “Happy Birthday,” when her uncle calls from the living room, “Baba, brothers, you need to see this.” Reluctantly, she follows her family into the other room. On TV, a reporter stands near an overturned vegetable cart on a dusty street. Beside it is a mound of smoldering ashes. The reporter explains that a vegetable vendor in the city of Tunis burned himself alive, protesting corrupt government officials who have been harassing his business. Nadia frowns.

It is December 17, 2010: Nadia’s twelfth birthday and the beginning of the Arab Spring. Soon anti-government protests erupt across the Middle East and, one by one, countries are thrown into turmoil. As civil war flares in Syria and bombs fall across Nadia’s home city of Aleppo, her family decides to flee to safety. Inspired by current events, this novel sheds light on the complicated situation in Syria that has led to an international refugee crisis, and tells the story of one girl’s journey to safety.


Escape from Aleppo Chapter One
October 9, 2013 4:37 a.m.

It was neither the explosions, the clatter of running feet, nor the shouting that woke her. Because, as on most nights, Nadia was oblivious to the world, huddled beneath her bed, barricaded under a mound of blankets. Curled up beside her lay Mishmish, his purr in her ear, along with a cold, wet nose. It was her cousin Razan who finally roused her, by dragging her out from under the bed by her stockinged foot.

“Nadia, you oaf, wake up,” she hissed, voice tight with fear. In her other hand, she held a sputtering candle. The warm light bobbed in the cold, dark room, illuminating Razan’s pale, delicate features, making her appear younger than her twenty-four years.

“What?” mumbled Nadia, gazing bleary-eyed at the window, boarded up with wooden planks. Around the edges she could see nothing but inky darkness. They were supposed to wake as the call for fajr prayers rang out in melodious Arabic, before the first light of dawn.

“Get your things, we have to go,” ordered Razan, placing the candle on the desk.

“But we don’t leave till the morning,” grumbled Nadia. Then she heard it. A deep boom in the distance. She froze. That was no familiar call to prayer. “No, no, no! Make it go away,” she breathed, eyes squeezed shut.

Fear curled through her belly. Her ears homed in on the echoes, imagining them as waves that rippled from a stone thrown into a pond. With lightning speed, her mind calculated the vibrations back to the point of the bomb’s impact, a skill she’d perfected since the war began. She imagined a narrow, thin-lipped face peering at her with a raised eyebrow. Ms. Darwish. How her algebra teacher would smirk if she found out that Nadia could now solve complex math problems in her head. Less than two years ago, her teacher had written in her report card that although Nadia was a bright student, she didn’t apply herself.

The report card had horrified Nadia’s mother, who, it turned out, had been a childhood friend of Ms. Darwish’s. They’d attended the same school growing up, but had lost track of one another after graduation. Nadia had flippantly replied that she wasn’t interested in algebra nor most of her other subjects—which were boring—except music, drama, and sometimes history: not the tedious dates, of course, but the fascinating, swashbuckling stories of kings and pirates. Her mother had ended up making an appointment with Ms. Darwish to address Nadia’s surly attitude and lackluster performance.

Nadia pulled the blanket over her head, wanting to burrow back in time and magically emerge at school, even if it was algebra class. Huddled in the back row with her best friends, they could joke about the rumors of how Ms. Darwish had spurned marriage in order to dedicate her life to teaching her beloved algebra. The passion for her subject, they firmly believed, extended to the man who’d invented it, Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, whose soulful portrait hung in the classroom.

“Don’t lie there, you harebrained hamster,” Razan yelled, giving her a well-placed kick in the backside.

Nadia grunted, the pain bringing her back to reality. The explosion was from a barmeela, a merciless barrel bomb packed with shrapnel, dumped from helicopters onto the rebel-held areas. It was a favorite of the Syrian army. This one had detonated nearly a mile away, Nadia had calculated, likely reducing its target to rubble. Her mouth ran dry as the memory of a similar bomb rose within her, the one that had left the deep scar from her knee to her hip. I can’t go out there, she thought. She crawled back toward the security under her bed.

“Oh no you don’t,” growled Razan, grabbing her leg. “This is not the time for you to play ostrich.”

“But . . . ,” cried Nadia, heart-racing panic building in her chest.

Razan grabbed her face and held it close to hers. “I know you’re scared, but you have to focus,” she said fiercely. “We’ve practiced this and all you need to do is exit the front door. I’ll drag you the rest of the way!”

Reluctantly, Nadia nodded, teeth clenched. Razan hurried toward the heavy wooden armoire. “Get your things—we don’t have time to waste.”

Nadia crawled toward the corner of her room where she’d put her backpack, filled days before, and double-checked to make sure her little pink case was inside. She pulled on her threadbare winter coat, running her finger across the silver pin, shaped like a fallen-over 8, fixed near the collar, then slipped on thick woolen mittens. She grabbed the special burlap case she’d spent weeks sewing, with the help of Nana, who was always there to find a solution to her problems.

“Amani!” Khala Fatima bellowed out Nadia’s mother’s name. “Get the kids—we have to go!”

Nadia could imagine Khala Fatima standing at the front door of her apartment, down the hall from theirs, her face red with exertion, her stocky figure enveloped in a flowing gray dress. She’d given up her favorite oranges, pinks, and yellows when snipers had taken roost atop deserted buildings, looking for targets, which more often than not ended up being defenseless women and children. Now it was best to blend in with the drab concrete wasteland that the city had become. But what her aunt said next made her blood run cold.

“Malik thinks the helicopters are coming this way.”

Malik was her cousin and Khala Fatima’s eldest, and he and Nadia frequently butted heads, especially when he was being a bossy know-it-all. But if he’d actually seen helicopters . . . She flew into action, despite the fear dragging down her limbs. She reached beneath the bed, pulled out Mishmish, and held the comforting mass of white-and-orange fur for a moment. Found as a newborn, the kitten had been kept alive by Razan, who’d applied her veterinary skills. In a way, Mishmish had given life back to Razan, who’d been lost in a well of grief after her husband was killed in a bombing at the university where they’d both been studying. The kitten had grown fat and sleek, and to Nadia’s consternation, because she didn’t like animals, little kids, dirt, or disruptions, the cat decided Nadia was his. He followed her around, slept on her bed, ate off her plate when she wasn’t looking, and brought her special treats of dead mice.

The cat allowed himself to be secreted away inside a burlap bag and lay curled along Nadia’s side when she slung the bag over her shoulder. She grabbed her pack and followed Razan, candle in hand, from the room. “Let’s go,” said her cousin.

You can do this . . . you can do this . . . , repeated the voice inside Nadia’s head. According to the emergency plan, her grandmother, mother, and three aunts and their children were to assemble downstairs within two minutes of an alert.

They hurried down the dark hall of the spacious apartment that had been Nadia’s home her entire life. It was identical to the other three apartments in the building, built by her grandparents thirty-five years ago. Each son had been given the key to his own flat, while they occupied the top floor. Mostly, they’d all lived happily together in the rambling space as part of a large extended family. Overwhelmed by the thought that she was leaving the only home she’d known, she tripped on her shoelaces. Instantly a sharp pain shot up her leg and she gritted her teeth. She paused to rub her leg where the pain had flared, near her knee, a few inches from where a sliver of shrapnel still lay buried.

“Tie your shoelaces,” grumbled Razan, adjusting her bag.

“Are you girls ready?” came a breathless voice from the master bedroom. It was Nadia’s mother.

“Yes,” said Razan.

“Go on downstairs,” urged Nadia’s mother, now in the hall. “Razan, help Nadia,” she added. “And, Nadia, stay with Razan and listen to what she says—no arguments!”

Nadia grimaced. Razan’s job was to make sure she didn’t get stuck.

“Don’t worry,” said Razan, latching onto Nadia’s arm. “Aren’t you coming?”

“Just another minute,” responded Nadia’s mother. “Yusuf can’t find his shoes.”

Nadia frowned. Her younger brother was always a pain. “We’ll wait for you,” she grumbled, lips twisting downward.

“No,” said her mother, eyes stern. “You go, I’m right behind you.”

Reluctantly, Nadia let her cousin propel her toward the front door.

Her brother’s wail echoed behind them. “I don’t want the red ones,” he fussed. “They’re too tight. Where are the blue ones?”

“We can’t find them now,” came her mother’s patient voice as they exited the apartment and stepped out onto the third-floor landing.

“The helicopters are circling back!” came Malik’s bellow from above.

Nadia imagined him somewhere on the balcony, looking out over the night sky with his binoculars. Her throat tightened at the thought of leaving. She had barely stepped outside their building in over a year . . . not since the day she’d been hit by a barmeela. I can’t do this, she thought. I can’t go back out there. . . .

Reading Group Guide

A Reading Group Guide to

Escape from Aleppo

By N. H. Senzai

About the Book

Twelve-year-old Nadia is much like any other preteen girl: she loves doing her nails and following the lives of television and pop music stars. Unlike most girls her age, Nadia is coming of age while a civil war rages inside her country of Syria. When the conflict arrives in her home city of Aleppo, her family makes a desperate attempt to flee and reunite with her father and uncles in a safer place. When a bomb explodes and separates Nadia from her family, she wakes up alone and unsure how to find the planned rendezvous location. Setting out alone, she happens upon a mysterious old man and his donkey. Although Nadia can’t completely trust her newfound companion, she needs him to help her find her family and escape Aleppo to a new life in Turkey. Escape from Aleppo is a powerful story based on current events that reveals the complicated and dangerous situation in Syria, and the effects of the war on its citizens.

Discussion Questions

1. From the first page of Escape from Aleppo, the author uses sensory language to describe the atmosphere of violence and destruction in the Syrian city. As you read, place sticky notes on sections that create sensory imagery via descriptive language. Spend time discussing how the language brings the story to life.

2. Throughout the story, Nadia is gripped by anxiety. Discuss the meaning of the word and how Nadia copes with her feelings of fear and dread as she makes her way to the border between Syria and Turkey.

3. After Nadia realizes that her family has left her behind, she feels a deep sense of anger and betrayal, followed by a voice inside her head that says: “Get a hold of yourself. This is no time to fall apart. You must find the others.” How does this internal dialogue propel the story forward? What does it tell you about Nadia’s character? As other examples of Nadia’s internal dialogue appear in the text, stop and think about these two questions. Come back to these questions in a class discussion after students have finished the book.

4. Nadia witnesses a “sprawling park where a dozen rowdy kids roamed with joyful abandon.” Nadia is “perplexed” and wonders how “they could be playing, in the middle of a war zone.” Why do you think these kids are able to play so freely? How does this scene remind you of other times you’ve seen kids playing in a park? How is it different?

5. Memory is an important theme in Escape from Aleppo. How do Nadia’s memories of life before the war help her persevere in her quest to find her family?

6. Discuss the role of social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, in the various Middle Eastern uprisings mentioned in the story. How can social media help to reveal the truth about authoritarian regimes? How can this openness also be used against those people who seek to overthrow such governments?

7. Nadia discovers Ammo Mazan in an abandoned pharmacy. After he agrees to help Nadia find the dentist’s office, they enter into an uneasy partnership in which Nadia must weigh her need to find her family versus her feelings of mistrust for Ammo Mazan. As you read, stop and discuss instances where Nadia must decide whether or not to trust the old man.

8. Throughout the story, Ammo Mazan demonstrates his compassion and commitment to reuniting Nadia with her family, and teaches Nadia about what is truly important in life. Discuss the meaning of Ammo’s statements: “‘I found that it is only by being a little lost that you find your way to the path that is meant for you,’” and “‘I’ve realized that every person’s destiny leads them on a tumultuous journey. And if given bountiful blessings, how they choose to use them determines their humanity.’”

9. Ammo Mazan sings a song about the beauty in a donkey: heroic heart, stubbornness, and intellect behind long-lashed eyes. How can these qualities be considered beautiful? How does Nadia’s definition of beauty change over the course of the story? How are her fingernails a metaphor for the change she undergoes over the course of the text? When she notices her chipped polish, she realizes she no longer cares about the appearance of her nails. Why?

10. Nadia is anxious to get to her family, but Ammo Mazan keeps delaying her quest to take care of his own business. She realizes that she “had to be patient, a virtue she was unfamiliar with.” What is a virtue, and why is patience considered one? Give examples of how you demonstrate patience in your daily life.

11. Ammo Mazan laments, “‘Thugs, our country has been overrun by ruthless thugs. From every side.’” Discuss the meanings of the words ruthless and thug. Cite examples from the book that illustrate Ammo Mazan’s statement. Brainstorm synonyms for these two words, and offer examples of thuggery. How are bullies and thugs similar?

12. Nadia realizes that Ammo Mazan has been working to save and preserve Syria’s precious books. Discuss Professor Laila Safi’s statement: “‘My young soldiers, this is a place where we are fighting a great battle.’” How is preserving cultural artifacts a battle? Why is it important to save such artifacts and landmarks? Other than the physical objects, what else is lost when cultural artifacts and landmarks are destroyed?

13. Discuss the meaning of the term ethnic cleansing. In the mind of an authoritarian leader, what is to be gained by committing such crimes against humanity? The author describes the Tunisian people as throwing off the shackles of fear” and rising up “with demands for aysh, hurriya, karama, adala ijtima′ia — bread, freedom, dignity, and social justice — and [beginning] a revolution.” What is meant by “shackles of fear”? What is social justice? Discuss examples of social justice at work in the United States and other countries around the world.

14. Strength is another theme that appears throughout Escape from Aleppo. How does Nadia exhibit physical and emotional strength? How does her empathy for Basel encourage her strength in the darkest of moments? What is resolve? How does Nadia’s strength and determination fuel her resolve?

15. Ammo Mazan gives Nadia the treasured copy of Alef Layla, One Thousand and One Nights, and says to her, “‘I believe you have need of this more than a dusty old library or museum shelf does.’” What does Ammo Mazan mean by this statement? How do the stories contained in the book, such as “The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor” and “Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp,” inspire Nadia to continue on? How is she like the story’s heroine, Scheherazade?

16. When Nadia, Ammo Mazan, and the others come upon a group of journalists, Ammo Mazan says to Ayman, “‘We need people like you, to tell the truth of what is happening here.’” How are journalists who work in dangerous, war-torn regions heroic? Why do Assad and other dictators like him seek to control the news and stop journalists from doing their work?

17. Tarek is a student of the Quran, Islam’s central holy book. In a conversation between Nadia, Ammo Mazan, Basel, and Tarek, Ammo Mazan points out that all people have “‘been given free will to make choices on how we live our lives, and how we use the blessings given to us.’” He also says, “‘It’s in our hands, my dear. Always in our hands . . . to choose mercy and compassion, or be lost in a sea of humanity.’” What is free will? How does Nadia show mercy and compassion? How does the Assad regime demonstrate the opposite of mercy and compassion for the Syrian people?

18. Early in the story, Nadia’s algebra teacher, Ms. Darwish, gives her a silver pin as a token of her belief in Nadia’s potential and to reflect the idea of unlimited possibilities. After Ammo Mazan is attacked and Jamila taken, Nadia grips her silver pin and expects panic to embrace her. Instead, she “felt a strange sense of calm settle over her.” How does the pin symbolize Nadia’s growth over the course of the story? What has she been able to accomplish in only a few short days that she never would have imagined being able to do before she set out to find her family?

19. Discuss the scene where Nadia confronts Ammo Mazan about his real identity. Why does Nadia feel a sense of betrayal, even after everything Ammo Mazan has done to help her and the boys? What does Ammo Mazan mean when he says to Nadia, “‘All the people who need to know, know who I am. They understand who I was and who I became—a product of the choices I’ve made in life.’” How do our choices affect the outcome of our lives, for better or for worse?

20. On the book’s final page, as Nadia and the boys approach the Turkish border crossing, she catches sight of a bald man “wearing a bulky olive-green coat that matched the cap on her head.” Predict what will happen next and over the course of the next week for Nadia, Tarek, and Basel.

Extension Activities

1. Much has changed for Nadia since the beginning of the civil war. Have students create a Venn diagram illustrating Nadia's life before and after the Arab Spring, and what has remained a constant (her love for her family, etc).

2. The Middle East is one of the most volatile areas in the world, yet most young people are not familiar with the many countries that make up its geography. Print a map of the Middle East and have students consult an atlas or online research tools to identify the countries mentioned in Escape from Aleppo. Once these have been identified, trace Nadia’s journey on the map.

3. Throughout the story, Nadia reads from Alef Layla, One Thousand and One Nights. Over the course of reading Escape from Aleppo, spend time each day reading aloud from this classic text.

4. The Syrian civil war has resulted in one of the worst refugee crises in history. Work with students to research the plight of Syrian refugees and how the world has responded to help these people.

5. Nadia and Basel come across an art installation of CDs “strung between the buildings and spelling out Art Is Peace.” Discuss the meaning of this phrase. Give students time to create an original work of art incorporating the same theme, Art Is Peace.

Guide written by Colleen Carroll, literacy specialist, education consultant, and author of the twelve-volume series, How Artists See and four-volume How Artists See, Jr. (Abbeville Press). Contact Colleen at

This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.

About The Author

Photograph © Sylvia Fife

N. H. Senzai is the author of the acclaimed Shooting Kabul, which was on numerous state award lists and an NPR Backseat Book Club Pick. Its companion, Saving Kabul Corner, was nominated for an Edgar Award. While her first two books are based in part on husband’s experience fleeing Soviet-controlled Afghanistan in the 1970s, her third, Ticket to India is based on her own family’s history. She is also the author of Escape from Aleppo. Ms. Senzai lives with her family in the San Francisco Bay Area. Visit her online at

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books (June 9, 2020)
  • Length: 352 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781481472180
  • Grades: 3 - 7
  • Ages: 8 - 12
  • Lexile ® 880L The Lexile reading levels have been certified by the Lexile developer, MetaMetrics®

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Awards and Honors

  • Middle East Book Award (Middle East Outreach Council)
  • California Book Award Finalist
  • Bank Street Best Children's Book of the Year Selection Title

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