UC Davis Doctoral Student Designs Comic Book for Refugee Project

A woman with the Article 26 Backpack comic book
UC Davis doctoral student Maureen Burdock designed the comic book that will help explain Article 26 Backpack to Syrian refugees in Lebanon. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

With ink and watercolors, a doctoral student at the University of California, Davis, is helping Syrian refugees thousands of miles away to pursue their education too.

Maureen Burdock, who already has a career as an artist, designer and illustrator, designed the comic book for Article 26 Backpack, which launches in Lebanon June 15.

Led by UC Davis, the Backpack project is using trained guides and cloud-based technology to help refugees, whose education has been interrupted by war, create virtual “backpacks” for documenting and sharing their educational credentials with universities and potential employers. The comic book will help explain the project to refugees.

“It’s really cool to be a part of it,” said Burdock, who lives in Richmond, California. “To be able to make any little bit of difference is good.”

‘Relatable characters’

A comic book panel shows an orientation session for the Backpack
This panel from the comic book shows the character Sara, third from left, at a Backpack orientation session. 

The Backpack’s comic book follows Sara, a 20-year-old in a refugee camp, as she learns about the Backpack, attends an orientation session, and gets help photographing and uploading her documents.

“It’s a fun format and takes some of the fear out when you see relatable characters,” Burdock said.

The eight-page comic book uses 19 ink and watercolor panels with English thought and speech bubbles. The closing panel portrays Sara’s hope:

For the first time in years, she feels hopeful that she will one day finish her degree and find work rebuilding her country. She knows it will not be easy, but with the Backpack, she feels that she can be recognized for her potential and not simply as a refugee.

About 100 comic books were printed for the launch of the Backpack, aiming to enroll about 300 refugees June 15 to July 3. Burdock is planning to set text soon for an Arabic version that will be used for the Backpack’s second push this fall.

The power of the format

The student of cultural studies in the College of Letters and Science knows the power of comic books to explain ideas and discuss difficult topics — even across boundaries of language and culture.

She is the author of Feminist Fables for the Twenty-First Century: The F Word Project (McFarland 2015), graphic narratives about gender-based violence and inequity, and has done work for other nonprofits.

For her degree, she is creating a 300-page graphic dissertation about themes of displacement and transgenerational trauma. Each chapter is about her relationship with a female family member who lived through World War II and its aftermath in Germany.

This summer, she will teach “Human Rights, Genocide and the Graphic Novel,” a course she is designing about the use of graphic novels in response to trauma and political events.

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