Graphic novel review: Still Alive

Shortlisted for the 2022 CBCA Eve Pownall Award for Information Books. 

Still Alive, by Safdar Ahmed

Twelve Panels Press, 2021

Suitable for: Senior secondary and above. Please note that this book contains graphic images and descriptions of suicide, self-harm, drug use, torture, sexual assault and murder. It is not suitable for young readers.

Themes: Refugees, trauma, detention, mental health, immigration, human stories, abuse, justice, humanity, community, art, healing

Review by Karen Rogers

It was a few pages in to my first reading of Still Alive when the tears first began to well.

David Manne, the Executive Director of Refugee Legal, describes the book as “raw, gripping, heart-wrenching and harrowing”, but even these words fail to do it justice.

Safdar Ahmed first visited Villawood Detention Centre in 2011 and when he arrived, he was troubled by the stories he heard from the detainees. With a lived experience of depression, Safdar drew on his experience of art and storytelling as therapy to begin art workshops with the residents of Villawood.

The everyday question ‘How are you?’ is complex to answer for people living with the uncertainty of life in Australia’s detention system. The response ‘Still alive’ began to be the norm when Safdar asked this question of the participants of his Refugee Art Program and thus inspired the title of the book.

Still Alive is a compendium of detained refugee stories told through art. Much of the art was created by Safdar as a record of his interactions with the detainees, but some of the most confronting illustrations are from the detainees themselves. Depictions of their experiences in their home country, as well as their time in detention, can be disturbing - but they are deeply important for understanding the injustice experienced. Beheadings, sexual assault, religious persecution, suicide and torture are represented, along with the frustrations of Australian bureaucracy for their detainment.

Many detainees are uncertain if freedom will ever be possible.

While this book is not suitable for sharing with primary school-aged children, it is a useful resource for educators to support them to understand the experience of refugees who have suffered under Australia’s detention policies. It provides real life accounts of journeys to Australia which can help educators to build their background understanding when teaching about immigration.

More importantly, it provides an insight into possible lived experiences of refugee families within a school community, supporting understanding, advocacy and the building of respect.

This is a must-read for all Australian adults.

Additional resources:

ABC Compass produced a documentary about Safdar Ahmed and his work. View it here.
The Little Bookroom has compiled a list of books suitable for teaching children and young people about the issues faced by refugees, as well as a list of books to teach children about war in Afghanistan. 


Related units:

Below, teaching units of work that explore books with similar themes and are suitable for the primary classroom:

  • Mediterranean by Armin Greder asks readers to question the treatment of people forced to travel by boat in order to seek asylum.
  • Waves by Donna Rawlins, Mark Jackson and Heather Potter is a narrative non-fiction book about the waves of migration to the shores of Australia.
  • Out by Owen Swan and Angela May George tells the story of a young girl’s journey by boat to seek asylum in Australia.
  • Flight by Nadia Wheatley and Armin Greder is set in biblical times and portrays the journey of a young family fleeing persecution in their own country.
  • My Two Blankets by Irina Kobald and Freya Blackwood is a picture fiction that tells the story of a young girl’s sense of loss and then belonging as she arrives in a new country.  
  • The Little Refugee by Anh Do, Suzanne Do and Bruce Whatley is a picture book that portrays Anh’s journey from Vietnam to Australia as a child refugee.