(I wrote this article in October 2020 on The Bookwallis Facebook page as part of a series...Voicing the Silent(ces) in Children's literature.)
In the book ‘WE ARE ALL BORN FREE’ - The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Pictures, a book published by Tara Books in association with Amnesty International, a simplified version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, you will find these statements…
‘If we are frightened of being badly treated in our own country, we all have the right to run away to another country to be safe.’ (Article 14)
‘We have the right to belong to a country.’ (Article 15)
‘We have a duty to other people, and we should protect their rights and freedoms.’ (Article 29)
‘Nobody can take these rights and freedoms from us.’ (Article 30)
Our news abounds with stories about refugees, featuring unimaginable and heartbreaking visuals of people who have been forced to flee the only home they’ve ever known, in a bid to protect themselves and their families. The numbers of refugees is staggering. A huge number are children, some without their families or separated from their families. As we see the rise of economic uncertainty, political upheavals, religious intolerance and climate change, these numbers are only going to go up.
While as adults we may want to shelter our children from these traumatic situations which we are lucky not to find ourselves in, we have the duty as citizens of the world, to try and uphold the basic human rights of all. In order to try to understand what refugees face and closer home...our migrant workers, we need to try to walk in their shoes. But how do we do that?
Books are a wonderful intermediary to introduce the refugee crisis to children. Books help:
Instil awareness of the situation and humanise an issue that may be very abstract to a child cocooned in a safe comfortable world.
They are a stepping-stone to foster empathy and understanding for people in situations very different from our own.
Inspire readers to take action, by volunteering to create awareness or raising funds.
Nudge healthy discussions, facilitate dialogue and explore possible solutions within a classroom, library or home setting.
Foster welcoming and understanding environments within our communities.
If we do not provide our students with a variety of literature, however controversial and teach them to read it and discuss it critically, we cannot hope that they will ever develop into sensitive, thoughtful, and reasonable adults." - Gallo (1994)
Stories about the refugee experience may be divided into 3 main areas: i. The Flight ii. Life in a refugee camp or detention centre. iii. Adapting to a new home and culture.
Refugee themed stories could focus on one, two or all of these issues.
Before reading the stories, help children to understand the difference between refugees and immigrants.
1. MUKUND AND RIAZ by Nina Sabnani (Tulika) 2. STITCHING STORIES by Nina Sabnani (Tulika) 3. ONE DAY IN AUGUST by Bharati Jagannathan; illustrated by Prashant Soni (Pratham) (Each of the above are stories of refugees are set against the backdrop of The Partition of India and Pakistan)
4. HOMECOMING by Aaniya Asrani (Katha) HOMELAND by Aaniya Asrani (Katha) HOMEBOUND by Aaniya Asrani (Katha) (A three part series called “Portraits of Exile”, these thought- provoking books look at ‘home’ and what it means to the Tibetan refugees living in Bylakuppe, Karnataka.)
5. THE JOURNEY by Francesca Sanna With stunning illustrations, this book narrates ‘refugee flight’ experience through the eyes of a young child. It is a difficult, and frightening experience and they face many obstacles along the way. The further the family travel, the more they leave behind, until they find a new home where they are accepted, and have no reason to be frightened. This Amnesty International book does not disclose where the refugees are coming from or where they go, making it a universal story, which could be applied to many people in so many parts of the world.
6. THE PAPER BOAT: A Refugee Story by Thao Lam (9/10 +) In this poignant wordless picture book, the artist draws from her own family’s experience fleeing from VIETNAM, during the war in the 1970’s. She parallels the flight of the family with that of ants fleeing to create new colonies when their old one is threatened, rebuilding and working together for survival much like refugees. I found this book extremely touching, and a unique allegory, however it requires the understanding of an older child.
7. THE DAY WAR CAME by Nicola Davies; illustrated by Rebecca Cobb
This simply narrated, poignant and powerful picture book, is endorsed by Amnesty International. “The day war came there were flowers on the window sill and my father sang my baby brother back to sleep.” It tells of an ordinary day in the life of ordinary people just like you and me, when war came and turned the town to rubble. A moving story written in poetry form, is a book about the devastating repercussions of war, yet remains a book about hope.
CHAPTER BOOKS: All the three books mentioned below, brought me to tears. I guess that is what a well written book will do, to get you to feel the unimaginable struggle, pain and loss. However what they do is also to fill you with hope...the hope that goodness and humanity do exist.
8. NOWHERE BOY by Katherine Marsh A wonderful story of friendship that develops between a 14-yr-old Syrian refugee Ahmet and a 13-yr-old American, Max who has reluctantly moved to Belgium for the year with his family. After fleeing a crooked smuggler, Ahmet finds a place to hide in the basement of Max’s house, unbeknownst to the family, that is until Max finds him there. Drawing inspiration from the example of real-life hero Albert Jonnart who hid Ralph Mayer, a Jew, during the Holocaust, risking his own life in the process, Max hides Ahmed and even figures out a way to help him attend school briefly. A story of kindness, compassion, survival and bravery.
9. THE BOY AT THE BACK OF THE CLASS by Onjali Rauf The empty chair at the back of the class is suddenly occupied. The entire class is very curious about Ahmet, the new kid who doesn’t talk or smile much. When the children overhear that Ahmet fled a ‘very real war’ and is a refugee from Syria, who got separated from his family along the way, a few of them band together to plan ‘The Greatest Idea in the World’, to ensure that the greatest effort is made to urgently reunite Ahmet with his family. This book portrays the current refugee crisis and the politics that surround it, through a child’s eye, with such sensitivity, ingenuity, thought-provoking, heartwarming, humorous and poignant storytelling, that you find yourself cheering for the children’s ‘greatest idea in the world’, laughing at their innocent escapade and hopeful that they will succeed.Without whitewashing facts, this book help children understand about the refugee crisis around the world, wrapping you in warmth and empathy and a strong message that no one is too small or insignificant, to make a difference.
10. REFUGEE by Alan Gratz Three children separated by time and place, have one mission in common...escape. Josef a Jew, Germany 1930. Isabel, Cuba 1994 Mahmoud, Syria 2015. All three children go through harrowing journeys and face unimaginable dangers in order to find refuge in a place where they hope they can live in safety and without fear. The focus on the journey of each protagonist using accurate historical detail, helps the reader feel what it must be like to be a refugee…not wanted by your own country, yet not wanted by the peaceful yet hostile world.Through all the struggle, Refugee highlights grit and perseverance, family and loyalty and above all HOPE. Alan Gratz weaves their stories together in a powerfully moving way.
What Mahmoud says in the book, could be the voice of all refugees… “ SEE US…HEAR US, HELP US.”
A book to make us question our role….quoting Lito, Isabel’s grandfather: “ I see it now Chabela. All of it. The past, the present, the future. All my life I kept waiting for things to get better. For the bright promise of manana. But a funny thing happened while I was waiting for the world to change, Chabela: It didn’t. Because I DIDN'T CHANGE IT.”
11. BAMBOO PEOPLE by Mitali Perkins (10+)
Chiko, a gentle, book loving boy is forced into the army by trickery after responding to an advertisement in the newspapers for school teachers. Tu Reh, lives in a refugee camp on the Thai-Burmese border. He burns with the need to avenge the Burmese soldiers who burned his home in his Karenni village. Narrated from both sides of the conflict between the Burmese army and the Karenni tribe, by Chiko a child soldier and Tu Reh, a refugee, Bamboo People tells us the human side of the war. Fear, anger, violence, prejudice give way to bravery, compassion, friendship and most importantly discusses the question ‘what does heroism really mean?’ NON FICTION
12. WE ARE ALL BORN FREE- The Universal Declaration of Human Rights Tara Books with Amnesty International A simplified version of The Declaration of Human Rights, perfect to use as an accompanying text with any of the books above.
13. BUTTERFLY: FROM REFUGEE TO OLYMPIAN- MY STORY OF RESCUE, HOPE AND TRIUMPH by Yusra Mardini This is the true story of a young Syrian refugee, Yusra Mardini. From saving her fellow refugees from drowning, to working towards her dream of competing in the Olympic games. Yusra participated under the Olympic flag as part of the first ‘Refugee’ team at the Rio de Janeiro Olympic games.
14. HOPE IN A BALLET SHOE by Micheala DePrince and Elaine DePrince Growing up in war torn SIERRA LEONE, Micheala sees what no child ever should...her father being killed, her mother dying of starvation and her teachers being murdered. From a war orphan, to ballet dancer...Micheala went on to become a leading ballet dancer, a prima ballerina with the Dutch National ballet. An inspiring true story that no matter what, hope shines through everything.
15. THE NIGHT DIARY by Veena Hiranandani (
A young girl narrates the events of the Partition of India and Pakistan through letters written to her mother, in a diary. Right from her initial confusion when the partition is announced, to the heartbreak of leaving a life and home that she knew, to the trauma of their journey on foot across the border, and the adjustment to a different life in India.
I end with the words of Eleanor Roosevelt...
“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighbourhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerned citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”