For World Book Day, we wanted to introduce you to books written by refugee authors or books about refugees
Life around us so rapidly moves that we are often unable to appreciate each fragment of it. Especially talking about the life of refugees, where the flow of stories flies past us, in the blurry picture of a crowd, the cry of a baby and a clatter of suitcases filled with just the essentials. The mission to stop, look and report rests fully on the writers’ shoulders. They are the one who manage to capture small fragments in the flow of life and make them into a mosaic of feelings, emotions and memories, for the whole world to see.
For World Book Day, we wanted to introduce you to books by authors who have been able to capture these moments. You can choose the mosaic fragments that you are particularly interested in, and immerse yourself into the life of its heroes. First, we will present a series of books written by refugees themselves about their own experiences, then fictions about refugees and children’s literature, and finally poems.
Refugees’ stories by Refugees
No one can describe the life of refugees better than the refugees themselves.
Malala Yousafzai is a refugee from Pakistan who has written a number of books. In We Are Displaced, which is part memoir, part communal storytelling, Malala not only shares her own story, but also the ones of some of the incredible girls she has met throughout her journey – girls who have lost their community, sometimes relatives, and who have often been obliged to leave their world behind. In I Am Malala, she describes her childhood in a Pakistan ruled by the Talibans: music and dancing were forbidden activities and education was generally reserved to men and biased by religious fundamentalism. Malala, because she fought for the right to education for all, was shot in the face on her way to school and saw death very closely that day. I Am Malala narrates her fight for fundamental rights under a violent regime and her path to becoming a strong human rights leader. Malala’s Magic Pencil and Malala: My Story of Standing Up for Girls’ Rights are children’s books in which Malala, with simple examples and images, describes the lives of children overcoming the difficulties of living in countries where the right to learn does not exist.
Khaled Hosseini did not see the brutality of the new Afghan regime with his own eyes as he was living with his parents in Iran at the time. When the 1973 coup happened, his family left everything behind and moved to a new country. Hosseini therefore grew up with a sense of loss and a desire to tell the world about his home country. His first book, The Kite Runner, a bestseller later adapted in a movie, tells the story of an Afghan boy, his family and friendships, in the mist of the tumultuous political events Afghanistan witnessed in the 70s and 80s. Hossein’s latest book Sea Prayer is an attempt at drawing the public’s attention to the increasing number of refugees dying at sea. The book is inspired by the story of Alan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Syrian boy whose dead body was found off the coast of Turkey. The novel takes the form of a letter, from father to son.
Viet Thanh Nguyen fled Vietnam as a kid and moved to the United States after the capture of Saigon by communists in 1975. He wrote two books based on his own reflections, research and family memoirs. For The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives, he asked 17 fellow refugee writers from across the globe (Mexico, Bosnia, Iran, Afghanistan, Soviet Union, Hungary, Chile, Ethiopia and others) to share their experience as refugees. The book is a powerful dispatch of individual lives, usually forgotten behind news headlines. Viet Thanh Nguyen’s second book, The Refugee, is an autobiography, where he narrates the cultural shock he experienced when he first came to the United States, as well as shares the stories and confessions of people he met. This book has won a number of awards and became a bestseller, reflecting the combination of two cultures, two worlds.
In the book RU, which means “stream,” Kim Thúy reflects on the time she ran from Vietnam to eventually end up in Canada. She shares her memories through metaphors, irony and poetry.
In Taking Flight: From War Orphan to Star Ballerina, Michaela DePrince recalls her childhood in Sierra Leone, her adoption by an American family and later her entry into the Ballet World. Victim of a rare skin disease, she was called “a child of the devil” and abandoned. Against all odds, she achieved the mastery of her dance to become star ballerina
Finally, Isabel Allende, who ran away from Chile, understands the importance for refugees to be heard. In the Midst of Winter not only explores the issues faced by refugees and immigrants living in cold foreign lands, but also the difficult psychological state of people who can only be warmed by love, acceptance and compassion. Allende’s newest novel, released this year, A Long Petal of the Sea, tells the fate of two refugees during the Spanish Civil War, whose forced marriage gradually deepens into true love while fleeing to Chile.
Books that let you dive into the world of real adventures
Books allow you to travel with the hero, whether he is fleeing war or persecution. Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s book Ulysses from Bagdad, makes the reader travel alongside the main character, from Iraq to Europe, in search of a safe life. Schmitt raises the philosophical questions of what being human means, what communities are and what frontiers represent for the modern man.
If you prefer photo books, we suggest reading Where Will I Live?, a selection of portraits of refugee children from around the world, by Rosemary McCarney. Her photographs reflect the whole palette of feelings that children had to endure in the flames of war, revolution, famine or military conflict. With these photos, the author wanted to put emphasis, not on the suffering, but on the strength with which children go through difficult times. A book of optimism and inspiration that will leave powerful stories in the reader’s mind.
With Refugee, Alan Gratz describes the lives of three children of different generations, countries and times. The first is Joseph, who escaped from Nazi Germany in 1938, the second is Isabel, who was looking for a safe house far from the protests in Havana, Cuba in 1994, and the third, Mahmoud, who escaped from Aleppo, Syria in 2015. While heroes are separated by time, distance and experience, they have the common story of forced migration. This book is an opportunity to look at the phenomenon of refugee through the lens of different people’s experiences.
In A Time of Miracles, Anne-Laure Bondoux tells the story of Gloria, a woman who escaped Georgia with an orphan boy she decided to take care of. The two run away from political turmoil and reach France by foot, discovering each other’s wonderful origins.
Wajdi Mouawad in Incendies writes about how forced travel and family drama usually intertwine. In this play, he describes the lives of twins Jeanne and Simon, as they unravel family secrets. They go to East to find out about their roots, who they really are and what forced their mom to leave her homeland.
Some author chooses to tell refugees’ stories of another time, through historical fictions. For instance, Muriel R. Gillick in his book entitled Once They Had a Country: Two Teenage Refugees in the Second World War describes the life and survival of two youngsters during the war. He uses different historical sources such as letters and police records. Mehr Meer by Ilma Rakusa takes the reader to 1950s Europe and the creation of the Convention of Refugees. The book is about people who had to leave their homeland and adapt to their new immigrant life.
Vahid is a unique book by Kristian Husted. Being a dramatist was not enough, so Husted decided to see for himself what a refugee crisis is. He traded his identity documents for Iranian ones and threw himself into the very epicenter of the migration crisis: Lesbos, Greece, in 2015. He has lived with refugees for 3 months and laid down his reflections on the asylum system in his book.
Kader Abdolah describes Iran prior to political takeover in his book entitled House of the Mosque. Through the lives of his relatives, all living under the same roof, he depicts the hopes, fears and trauma of displacement, to make readers better understand the motivations of those who dare to leave their Motherland.
Bessie Head, in When the Rain Clouds Gather describes political transformations through the story of a political refugee from South African Republic, who has to survive in the country of Botswana.
Finally, Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya depicts the surrealistic experience of a man from Latin America whose job is to amend texts from the Catholic Church about human rights abuses during military dictatorships. Through the texts he sees pictures of the past.
Small, but strong: children books and books about children
The greatest variety of books is found among children’s books. Children amount for a large share of refugees. They have to grow up in unsafe environments, adapt to new countries, learn foreign languages, while struggling for a decent life. In a number of books authors expose the lives of these children through little things: dishes, stones, animals, pencils etc.
Lubna and Pebble is a book by Wendy Meddour, which tells the story of a girl who had a little stone as her friend. The stone listened to her and helped her overcome difficulties. However, when the girl meets a boy with even more problems, she realizes that he needs the stone more than her. This is a story about friendship and the value of sincere relations.
Rebecca Young in her book Teacup writes about a boy who decided to leave his dangerous home in order to settle down in another one. He takes with him a little cup filled with land from his country, and starts a sea journey, during which he encounters both storms and stills but never fails to go forward.
In The Red Pencil Andrea Davis Pinkney describes the life of a Somalian girl who lost everything she had after an attack by Janjaweed militias. She attempts to reach a refugee camp on foot. During her journey, she is offered a red pencil. The gift reinforces her hope and opens up new opportunities.
Amy Shrodes and Doug Kuntz wrote a book entitled Lost and Found Cat: The True Story of Kunkush’s Incredible Journey sing simple language, the authors tell the story of a family from Iraq who lost their cat and how he returned to them after an unbelievable journey. This book depicts refugees as people who struggle to overcome the same challenges as the cat does, which may help children to feel part of Kunkush’s travel.
Although stories are interesting as they are, there authors decided to combine their stories with plastic art: in this way, books have a unique taste. A Stepping Stones: A Refugees Family’s Journey was born from the encounter of writer Margriet Ruurs with Syrian sculptor Nizar Ali Badr.This is a book uniting the whole specter of feelings of a simple Syrian refugee family with a unique piece of art.
A similar book is Dia’s Story Cloth: The Hmong People’s Journey of Freedom. Authors Dia, Chue, and Nhia Thao Cha describe the migration of Vietnamese people to a safer country through the art of sewing. Each illustration has stitches showing the story as if it was sewed together by experience and occurrences. Another book describing experience of Vietnamese refugees through their child memories and bright pictures is Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai.
The Journey by Francesca Sanna is an educational book on refugees. With big illustrations and interesting dilemmas, the refugees are facing, this book explains children what being forced to leave your home behind looks like.
A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park and Ginger Knowlton is a book about two Sudanese young men who have to travel very far every day to get clean water. In face of their routine, the two are wondering whether there is another life for them, beyond mere survival. The book gives readers a glimpse into the experience of people who survive and do not have the luxury to live.
Outcasts United by Warren St. John, relates the tale of a refugee soccer team living in a small American town and their passion for football. The author offers a relevant analysis of how refugees are been perceived and received by local populations.
Another unique book is Welcome! 34 authors for refugees. This collection of essays, illustrations and fiction stories gives one a complex picture of refugees’ life.
Finally, Ukrainian writer Nadiya Herbish in her book My name is Maryam recounts the life of a girl and her parents who had to leave their country and a big house back home, to settle in a small flat, in a land with foreign sounds and faces. Nadiya Herbish describes the difficulties faced by refuges, through the eyes of Maryam.
After prose, only poems stand
Some author put the stories of refugees in poems. Emotions and feelings make way to detailed stories.
One poet worth mentioning is Dragica Rajcic and her collection Integracion. At the start of the Balkan wars in 1991, she moved to Switzerland and now lives in Austria. Her poems are written contrary to orthographic and syntax rules, not because she does not know German well, but because she wanted to express the alienation, restraint and loneliness of migrants, being doomed to a cultural isolation in their host country.
Taban lo Liyong, with his own memories as inspiration, wrote a collection of poems entitled Carrying Knowledge Up a Palm Tree. His words are critical of English colonialism. His goal is to show how intellectually rich was the pre-colonial Africa.
Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth is a poem collection by Warsan Shire about refugee’s traumatic experience of life. The words became so popular that parts of the poems were used as lyrics in the song “Lemonade”, by Beyonce.
Refugees are haunted by their past even when they settle down in a new country. This is what Larry Tremblay depicts in The Orange Grove. He tells the story of a man who studies acting in Montreal. One of day, he is given a role that brings back painful and repressed memories: memories of the bombing that killed his grandparents, of the war and of his brother. The author uses harsh language, to express the feelings of the hero and the burden of his past.
All these authors managed to catch moments from the lives of refugees, which we did not notice because of their brevity. Thanks to these books, we can now see those fragments of life in detail and feel them together with the books’ heroes. Among the books we presented, there are those that will interest the readers with intriguing plots, emotional poems or a keen story. What we know for sure is that each of these books contributed to the treasury of the World’s library.
So, which book do you want to start with?
This article was edited thanks to the support of an online volunteer Sarah Vallée. Find volunteering opportunities at https://www.onlinevolunteering.org/en