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Graphic novel depicts life as an aid worker in Iraq

WFP/Joshua Dysart

A new project by bestselling graphic novelist Joshua Dysart and the World Food Program centers around aid work in Iraq under the increasing pressure caused by the Islamic State. The series published in Huffington Post this month has garnered both praise and criticism for its portrayal of aid work.

Living Level-3: Iraq centers around the intersecting stories of aid worker Leila Helal and an Iraqi refugee named Khaled Bushar. They are on both sides of what the U.N. considers being a level-3 emergency, the highest rating for a large-scale humanitarian crisis. The graphic novel depicts the impacts of the rise of the Islamic State and the efforts by groups like WFP to try and provide support to people forced to flee from their homes.

“My hope is that people will get an idea of what life is like for these people who selflessly dedicate their lives to trying to improve the lives of those less fortunate,” said Jonathan Dumont, head of television communications for WFP, in an interview with Humanosphere.

The main characters are based on interviews Dysart conducted with aid workers and refugees in December 2014. He and colorist Pat Masioni, letterer Thomas Mauer, and artist Alberto Ponticelli worked over the past years, often in-between other work obligations, to complete the final product. The hope was to tell the story in an interesting way that could reach new readers, explained Dumont. A graphic novel can be more compelling that other forms and help reach new people. For Dysart, it was about eliciting the complex issues and forces that contribute to the humanitarian crisis in Iraq.569d25351f000050002161b2

“I wanted to talk about the people at the center of the European migrant crisis, I wanted to talk about the funding shortages across the global humanitarian aid community, about my country’s relationship with the Middle East, about war and extremism and education and empathy, and I wanted to do all of that in a way that didn’t seem boring or dry or professorial but also wasn’t overly reductive,” he told Humanosphere.

Following the publication of the project, aid workers voiced their praise and concerns about the project. Some said that Leila’s work was not a completely accurate depiction of what it is like to be in her position. Many of the mind-numbing tasks like administrative tasks and meetings did not make it into the story. Anonymous aid blogger J was more positive in a blog post about the graphic novel, arguing that the rise of fictional media about aid work helps move forward public understanding about the profession.

Dumont recognized that things were left out, but said that only so much can make it into a 35-page story. Both he and Dysart expressed hopes that the project can continue to expand, allowing more time and space for both the more mundane and complex aspects of aid work to be included. There is agreement with J that stories like this need to be told better than they have in the past.

“I haven’t seen any [stories about aid work]that really show the challenges, frustrations or the sense of fulfillment I think my colleagues experience,” said Dumont.o-LL211-900

In Living Level-3, the story of Leila the aid worker serves as a conduit for understanding the experiences of a Yazidi family fleeing the Islamic State. In a previous project, Unknown Soldier, Dysart says he played on pulp tropes to bring a story about the families affected by the brutal Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda to the “Xbox generation.”

“I tried to trick my audience, I gave them a dark, aggressive narrative, but couched it all in a real world conflict and secretly made it about civilians in war zones,” he explained.

Living Level-3 is more straightforward, but it too uses characters the readers can connect with to tell the story of somebody else. The details of the refugee story are crucial, said Dysart, because of the problems that can come with an outsider telling someone else’s story. In this case, it is the varying forces that make up a war zone – from the things that cause conflict, to the long-term impacts on families, and to the people who rush to respond – that he wants people to consider. That may change the way people understand the current humanitarian and refugee crisis in the region.

“I really hope that we can raise some empathy in our readers for the civilians that are fleeing these combat zones,” Dysart said.

“I hope that we can look at the stability and comfort in our lives and not become protective of it, but find a way to share it. I hope to help, in some small way, demolish the idea of “the other.” To do what stories have always done. Connect people and lives that at first seem drastically different, but end up showing how we all love the same, laugh the same and suffer the same.”

Correction: Artist Alberto Ponticelli and letterer Thomas Mauer were originally omitted from the team behind the graphic novel.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]