Other Words for Home is an award winning novel by Jasmine Warga. It tells the story of 12-year-old Jude, who lives with her family in a seaside, tourist town in Syria. The increasingly violent Syrian Civil War forces her parents to make the difficult decision for Jude and her pregnant mother to flee to the United States to live with their uncle's family. The story is told in moving free verse that beautifully describes Jude's perspective on being separated from her homeland, family, and friends; the struggle to learn English and feel accepted at school; facing anti-Muslim bigotry; and on the confusing and conflicting feelings she has of dearly missing her home while finding peace and happiness in a new one.
Jude loves living by the sea in Syria. Her pretty coastal town is a popular tourist destination. She and her best friend Fatima love to act out songs and scenes from their favorite American movies and Jude dreams of becoming an actor one day. Jude's father owns a shop where she visits daily and sneaks chips knowing that he adores having her visit. Jude's older brother Issa has always been there for her as a playmate, singing pop songs together, and also as a role model with strong convictions. Jude's family is overjoyed to learn that their mother is pregnant! However, everything changes when the Syrian Civil War brings violence and unrest. Jude's brother Issa is staunchly on the side of the rebels dreaming of a democracy instead of the repressive regime under Assad. Because of fears for their safety, the family makes the difficult decision to have Jude and her mother flee to America to live with Jude's mother's brother, Uncle Mazin. Their father stays behind to maintain the store and Issa stays to help in the war.
Jude and her mother go to live in a historic section of Cincinnati called Clifton with their Uncle Mazin, his American wife Michelle, and their daughter Sarah. Aunt Michelle is very loving and welcoming. She does her best to make Jude and her mother feel at home. Jude's cousin Sarah, however, is aloof and unfriendly. While she watches TV with Jude at home, Sarah makes little effort elsewhere. Jude is devastated when she overhears Sarah asking her mother when Jude and her mother will leave. The house in Clifton is very different from what Jude is used to in Syria, but soon enough the creaks and smells begin to feel like a new home.
Jude attends school with Sarah but is saddened that Sarah mostly ignores her in favor of her other friends. Jude has to navigate a new home, school, and culture all while learning English, which is very challenging. She makes friends in her ESL class, where her kind teacher Mrs. Ravenswood helps everyone to feel welcome and accepted. Jude also finds true friendship with a boy named Miles who loves outer space and is interested in hearing Jude's thoughts on the world. Jude also befriends Laya, a girl a year older than her, when she meets her in her parents Lebanese restaurant Ali Baba one day. The foods, smells, and Muslim traditions that Layla and her parents enjoy are so comforting to Jude and feel like home.
To keep in touch with her family, Jude and her mother video chat with her father regularly but her big brother Issa has been harder to contact as he is in the midst of the war. Jude constantly worries for his safety. She has also been unable to contact her best friend Fatima, as they had to flee as well. Jude goes with her mother to her appointments for the baby growing and cries happy tears when they find out that it is a girl. They share the news with their father but are heartbroken that they have still been unable to contact Issa.
Jude begins proudly wearing her hijab after her first period. She is so happy, but not everyone understands this meaningful rite of passage. Her own mother and father comment that "she is a woman now" and they are so proud of her. Layla's mother kisses her and looks at her proudly. However, Aunt Michelle acts skeptical and keeps trying to assure Jude that she doesn't have to wear it if she doesn't want to. Jude tries to explain that wearing her hijab is something she is proud of and not something she feels forced into doing.
Jude is excited to try out for the school play, but both Sarah and Layla warn her that it will be too difficult for her to get a part. They say that because of prejudice against people from the Middle East and her accented English, she won't succeed. Despite their warnings, however, Jude nails the audition and is cast in a prominent role! Sarah also gets a part in the chorus while Layla prefers working on the sets. Unfortunately, anti-Muslim hate is prevalent and after news hits of a bombing by professed Muslims somewhere in the world, Layla's family's restaurant is targeted and vandalized in a hate crime. Jude is also terrified when she is accosted by a stranger while walking home who tells her to "Go back to where she came from".
Despite all the challenges of adjusting to life in America and missing her family and friends dearly back in Syria, Jude perseveres and is delighted when she finally hears from her friend Fatima via postcard. She and her family had fled to Lebanon and were only just allowed to write. The community including Jude, her mom, Aunt Michelle, and Sarah rally together to raise money to help fix Layla's family's restaurant after the hate crime. Uniting in this way and attending the Mosque, Sarah feels a connection to her Syrian heritage for the first time and begins opening up more to Jude.
On the day Jude's baby sister Amal is born, the family rejoices, showing their father and finally Issa their new baby over video chat. Seeing Issa for the first time in months safe and alive is a huge relief. Jude joyfully shares pictures of baby Amal with her friends in Mrs. Ravenswood's ESL class. She also confides to Miles what a great solace it was to see Issa alive and well. The story ends as Jude and Sarah are both getting ready to go on stage for the performance of the school play. Jude has been through so much this year and is ready to proudly step on stage and share her strength, courage, and light with others.
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