• JoAnne Saldanha

The Boy at the Back of the Class


November 3, 2019


The empty chair at the back of the class has been there for a while.


But then one day, three weeks into school there is a new boy named Ahmet, sitting in it.

He is 9 years old, has short black hair, dark eyes, comes from a far away country, doesn’t speak English and carries a torn backpack to school.

He doesn’t smile or talk.

He even has a teacher all to himself, who guides him in his own language.


When they overhear that Ahmet is a refugee from Syria, who has run away from war…a real war, with bombs and big bullies who hurt innocent people, the narrator and her group of friends try to befriend Ahmet, but it isn’t easy to do.


Every lunch break, Ahmet disappears and they do not know where he disappears to.

Waiting after school, as Ahmet is accompanied out to the gates by the teachers, the group of friends make progress, with offerings like lemon sherbets and stickers which he looks at quizzically, but strike gold with an offering of a pomegranate, a fruit from his home country.

Soon Ahmet comes out to play during lunch break, surprising everyone with his football skills, everyone except the school bully Brendan.

Rumours fly around school about Ahmet, but the four friends are very protective of their new friend.

When they learn that Ahmet does not know where his parents are, or if they are still alive, and that he lost his younger sister who drowned while crossing the sea, the children are shocked and want to help him. They wonder how to get him in touch with his parents. Overhearing that the government was going to close the ‘gates’ to all refugees, the friends panic, coming up with all sorts of plans, until the narrator thinks up the "the Greatest Idea in the World." This idea involves getting a letter to the Queen explaining Ahmet's situation, the urgency of reuniting him with his parents before the gates close, and asking her to help. This innocently hair-brained scheme is bound to get the children into BIG trouble, but their motivation is only to help Ahmet.

Ignoring bigoted comments about refugees, spewed by a few adults, the perfect planners set off with extra tea-bags( in case the queen doesn't have enough) and a packet of biscuits to share with her, when they sit down to a chat and tea at Buckingham palace.


This is THE most wonderful book I’ve read off late.

Topical, it 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.


A must read.


"The word ‘refugee’ has a very special meaning, and is different to the word ‘immigrant’”. An ‘immigrant’ or ‘migrant’ is someone who has deliberately moved to new country or another part of their home country because it is what they wanted to do – it was their choice. But a ‘refugee’ is not an ‘immigrant’ or a ‘migrant’, because they have been forced to leave their homes and countries suddenly, and risk a chance of death if they do not do so"
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