Jake Halpern was boarding a plane with his family when the call came.
It was from an editor at The New York Times with whom Halpern, a New Haven journalist, worked. The editor told him that, along with collaborator Michael Sloan, he had won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning in 2018 for Welcome to the New World, an innovative nonfiction comic about a Syrian refugee family in the U.S.
Hearing the news about the Pulitzer, Halpern’s eyes started to tear. At first his wife thought there had been a death in the family.
“My wife hugged me and my two little boys hugged me,” he recalls of his family’s reaction upon learning the good news. “People were trying to get past us to get on the plane.”
Back in New Haven, Sloan got a similar call while at his son’s soccer practice. “I didn’t believe it. I thought it was a mistake,” he says.
The award was announced in April of this year. In 2016, Halpern had pitched a different story about a Syrian refugee to The Times that was declined, but the editor he pitched it to put him in touch with Bruce Headlam, another editor who wanted to do a nonfiction comic on a refugee family.
It was an outside-the-box project and a first for The Times, but Halpern loved the concept. A frequent contributor to The New York Times and The New Yorker, Halpern has also produced radio segments for This American Life and Snap Judgment. The author of several nonfiction books including Bad Paper, about debt collectors, as well as young adult fantasy novels, Halpern thought a comic about a refugee family would be a new way to get readers’ attention.
“People just have fatigue with refugee stories,” he says. “We all have this thing, and I know I’m guilty of it too, where you go to The Times’ website or wherever you get your news, and you read the first paragraph and you’re like, ‘I just can’t deal. I cannot right now deal with yet another story about you name it: global warming, refugees, mass incarceration, turmoil in the White House.’ You turn off.”
But a comic would be so different. He thought it would cut through the noise and resonate with people. Also, it could be consumed quickly. “It only takes about 45 seconds to read eight panels,” Halpern says.
He started looking for an illustrator and was recommended to check out Sloan, who had an impressive résumé and had contributed more than 100 pieces to The Times in the past.
Though they lived just blocks away from one another in New Haven, Sloan and Halpern had never met, but immediately got along and had a shared vision for the comic. Sloan was equally as passionate about the subject matter as Halpern.
“To be able to learn more about the experience of refugees, and to do it in a way that expressed compassion and understanding and tolerance, which I think our comic does, sounded very important to me,” Sloan says.
With Sloan on board, Halpern contacted Chris George, the executive director of New Haven-based IRIS (Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services), who suggested following a family from the day they arrived in the U.S.
Halpern and Sloan met with two brothers and their families — names have been concealed to protect their privacy — as they arrived in New Haven on Election Day 2016 fresh from a flight from Jordan. On the day the families arrived, Hillary Clinton was the overwhelming favorite to win the election, and presidential politics didn’t seem a major factor in the story. A day later, with Trump’s upset victory beginning to sink in, Halpern says he realized, “This story has become something much bigger than it was yesterday.” As he writes in the introduction to the comic, “In effect, the brothers and their families landed in one country and woke up the next morning in another.”
Halpern and Sloan worked with the two families through translators. (One of the translators was Syrian-born Mohamad Hafez, a New Haven architect and artist who was profiled in this magazine in 2016.) They obtained permission to tell the story of the two brothers and their wives and children, who had fled Syria in 2012 to Jordan, and four years later obtained visas to come to the U.S. as refugees.
Over 20 short installments published beginning in 2017, the comic tells the poignant story of a family’s uncertain first steps in a new and strange country. The story is rife with drama. One brother had back pain from being tortured by the Assad regime, and one branch of the family had to move after receiving a death threat. But there are also many moments of both warmth and hope. Sloan’s blue-and-white panels provide intimate snapshots of emotion, heightening the dialogue and story.
“My main aims were to express the humanity of the families and to do so in a way that did justice to them and their story,” Sloan says.
Today, Halpern and Sloan are working on expanding the project into a book that will be released next year. For the book, the families will reveal their identities.
Reflecting on the work while at an East Rock coffeehouse, both said they were proudest of the final installment of the comic.
“The theme of it is that there’s this key that the mom carries with her everywhere,” Halpern says. “It’s the key to their house in Syria. The key is almost this talisman, it’s the promise that she’ll one day return. She holds to it. At the very end of the comic, they get a video from their neighbors that the house is gone. They see the video image of the destroyed home and the last image is of the mom clasping her hand around the key and the key kind of vanishes in the palm of her hand. You don’t know whether it means the key is vanished and it’s gone, or she is clutching the key so close because the key is now all that she has.”
Halpern says he knew it was effective after he saw his 10-year-old son reading a copy of it his wife had left on the counter. “He looked up and there were tears in his eyes and he said, ‘Dad, they had a home just like us, didn’t they?’ That was really a meaningful moment to me,” Halpern says.