“Temple of Refuge” a graphic novel illustrates Iraqi-Kurdish migrant’s journey to Berlin

Monitoring Desk

Sartep Namiq’s story begins in his Iraqi-Kurdish homeland. When the living conditions there became unbearable due to drought which made trees die and lakes dry up, his exodus began. Sartep joined the stream of refugees and new arrivals who ended up in Berlin after a dangerous and adventurous journey.

Namiq’s story is told through the illustrated graphic novel, Temple of Refuge. It’s named after his first home in Berlin: Tempelhof Airport — a former airport built by the Nazi regime, which was transformed into a temporary refugee shelter. Yet in the book, instead of looking bleak, it is a comfortable place to live, a valuable shelter where dreams of a better future come true for its residents. “Of course, this is a modern fairy tale,” Sartep Namiq told DW. “But why not dream of a place where everyone has the same opportunities, whether they are rich or poor?”

Sartep’s vision emerges

The book’s main character, migrant Sartep, stands in front of the concrete wall of Fortress Europe. In front of this inaccessible world is the Tempelhof Airport refugee camp, which can be seen in the foreground of the cover (pictured). In the story, the young northern Iraqi finds an imaginative way to reconcile both worlds.

Illustrations of people crossing fences and seas and in Rome from Temple of Refuge

Depicting the journey

In striking images, the comic-style book “Temple of Refuge” depicts Sartep’s perilous journey from Kurdish northern Iraq. It takes him across the Mediterranean, where he and fellow refugees wander through the streets of Rome. They then make the long trek through wintry southeastern Europe.

A white bus drives through a shantytown in front of a high wall with a modern futuristic world behind it

A world without hope

A white bus speeds through a shantytown on Tempelhofer Feld toward the wall that separates two worlds. On one side, a refugee camp; on the other, the desired destination of many: Europe. The camp is spread out like a labyrinth at the foot of this fortress, whose walls seem impenetrable.

Panels of the book depicting the difficult life at the refugee shelter

United by fate

People from many parts of the world live in the camp — they are united by a sense of hopelessness. Graphic artist Felix Mertikat has drawn powerful images to tell the story of Sartep Namiq who in reality was a resident of the temporary refugee shelter at Tempelhof Airport. He commissioned this work and also became its protagonist.

Images depicting Sartep using this special magic wand to build a shelter

The Berlin miracle

Only a miracle can break through the hopelessness of the people in the refugee camp on Tempelhofer Feld. Thanks to a special kind of magic wand, Sartep succeeds in fulfilling the wishes and dreams of the refugees. His vision of peaceful coexistence with all Berliners finally becomes reality.

A futuristic Tempelhof Airport with plants and unique, futuristic buildings

Creating a utopia

By the end of the story, Tempelhof Airport becomes the center of the world; a place where dreams can come true, thanks to a strong community. “Temple of Refuge” was commissioned by the German chapter of the New Patrons society and will be published by Berlin’s Egmont publishing company in March 2021.

Illustrator Felix Mertikat created the book’s images. With angular, minimal strokes, its panels set the scene for the Sartep’s journey, illustrating the departure of the overcrowded rubber dinghy from a Mediterranean beach in North Africa, and refugees wandering through the streets of Rome, before continuing on a long journey in winter through southeastern Europe. Finally, the traveler come face-to-face with the concrete walls of “Fortress Europe,” which are guarded by hooded, heavily armed police officers. Soon, they escort Sartep and his companions in white buses to the refugee camp on Tempelhofer Feld.

No words needed

The story’s images are powerful, as they must be, because the graphic novel does not include words. It was the speechlessness of the refugee camp’s residents that gave Sartep and his friends the idea of doing a graphic novel four years ago. They were helped in their goal by the German chapter of the New Patrons organization.

The comic will be released in early March in a hardcover edition of 5,000 copies by Egmont comic publishing company in Berlin. Alongside famous cartoon characters like Donald Duck, Lucky Luke and Asterix, Sartep, the hero of the Temple of Refuge is in good company.

Additional heroes of this endeavor are the New Patrons (Neue Auftraggeber in German), a network of people who want to make a difference by helping to commission works of art. “Why is it still the case in democratic societies that only one percent of the population has the opportunity to be patrons of new cultural commodities?” asks Alexander Koch, director of the German chapter of the New Patrons. The movement, which Koch calls a “democratization initiative,” began in France.

The story is based on the experiences of Namiq (right) who traveled from northern Iraq to Berlin, but then takes a unique turn

Art highlights societal issues

The New Patrons connect citizens and artists and commission artistic projects that provide answers to pressing societal questions in a specific city or village. A variety of art forms are considered, including photography, film, painting, theater, sculpture, performance, literature, design, installation, urban planning activities or even music. 

But are artists better equipped to solve problems? “Art can create awareness about problems,” says Koch, who is himself involved in the art scene, ″by doing something that couldn’t have been imagined before.”

That’s exactly what happens in the Temple of Refuge. In the story, an implanted chip gives the hero Sartep magical powers. With it, he can make the wishes and dreams of the inhabitants of Tempelhof come true. The walls of Fortress Europe begin to crack, plants grow. A new, ecological city emerges, in which newcomers and established Berliners live together peacefully. The comic creates a utopian life and society.

The cover of the book Temple of Refuge

Like Sartep, anyone can apply to have their project funded. Mediators of the New Patrons group help bring a project to life — most initiatives revolve around communication and strengthening communities. For example, the New Patrons of Mönchengladbach, in northern Germany, are commissioning an urban garden for an unemployment center that reflects on the city’s social roots.

The organization’s values are reflected in the commissioning of Temple of Refuge, which is funded by the Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations (IfA), the German Foreign Office and the Fondation de France.

The hardcover edition will be published by Egmont publishing company in March and cost €10 ($12). The proceeds will be donated to the Sea-Watch association, which rescues refugees in distress in the Mediterranean Sea.

The New Patrons plan to give away another 10,000 copies of a softcover version to German schools, refugee centers and refugee initiatives in the Arab world. “If just one person reads this story, it will have been worth it,” says Sartep.

Courtesy: DW