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World Refugee Day: capturing the lives of refugees in books

Edward Nawotka By Edward Nawotka Published on June 1, 2016
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By Edward Nawotka

It should come as no surprise to anyone who has been following the news in 2015 that the Society for the German Language picked as its “word of the year” Flüchtlinge — or “refugees.” Yet, there remains some debate in the international community whether it is better to describe people who have been displaced from their homes as “refugees” or “migrants.” To anyone’s ear, “refugee” is a stronger, more assertive term — one that underscores the fact that the people in question did not choose their plight, but rather, were forced into it. Migrants, while politically correct, softens the blow, implying there was some choice involved.

The United Nations makes its preference clear and has declared June 20 as United Nation’s World Refugee Day. The UN General Assembly first inaugurated the event in 2000, to “honor the courage, strength and determination of women, men and children who are forced to flee their homeland under threat of persecution, conflict and violence.”

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) now estimates worldwide number of refugees, including people internally displaced, at some 60 million people — of which 20 million have been forced to flee their own countries. The greatest number of displaced reside in Sub-Saharan Africa, thought Asia and Europe are not far behind, particularly with the influx of more than one million Syrians. Altogether, some 13 million Syrians been displaced by the war at home, and a total of 6 million have fled the country altogether. Lebanon has absorbed the most, taking in some 1.5 million Syrians, with Jordan taking in another 1.3 million.

With the headlines focused firmly on the war in Syria and the displacement of so many families, it’s a great day to talk to your own children about the meaning of “home” and there are no shortage of books to help catalyze a conversation. Studies have shown that fiction can help us better empathize with people other than ourselves.

One of the finest examples of children’s books inspired by the mass migration of Syrians is ”The Journey” by Francesca Sanna. Sanna, an Italian illustrator living in Switzerland, inspired by conversations she’s had with young refugees throughout Europe. “Almost every day on the news we hear the terms ‘migrants’ and ‘refugees’ but we rarely ever speak to or hear the personal journeys that they have had to take,” she writes in the author’s forward to the book, which is a simple, beautifully rendered tale of two children who flee with their mother from a war-torn “city close to the sea” to “a country far away with high mountains.” They make the journey by car, fruit truck, bicycle, ferry and finally a train. The book strikes a prefect balance between pathos and the wide-eyed wonder of a child going on an unexpected, albeit frightening adventure.

Another powerful example of a book that captures the feeling of being a refugee is Australian writer Shaun Tan’s graphic novel “The Arrival.” It is a book of stark and moving visuals that uses no words and was initially inspired by Australia’s coping with boatloads of refugees traveling from Indonesia, and often displaced with this century’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Older readers will be enchanted by Thanhha Lai’s Inside Out & Back Again, which was awarded the 2011 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. It tells the story of one year in the life of Ha, a 10-year-old Vietnamese girl, who is resettled during the Vietnam War from Asia to Alabama. The story is told through 121 different poems and, surprisingly, depicts a world in which the war is chaotic but fun, while life in the United States proves more terrifying. Another notable chapter book is “Secrets in the Fire” by Sweden’s Henning Mankell, who is best known for his series of mystery novels featuring Kurt Wallander (which were themselves inspired by Mankell’s reaction to racism in Sweden) Mankell lived for many years in Mozambique, and based his book for children on the true story a family driven from their village by bandits only to find even further hardship when they fall prey to land mines.

Of course not all stories have such an ambiguous or unfortunate ending. Several heartbreaking but hopeful books have novelized the lives of children coming out of the refugee crisis resulting from various wars in Africa, including Dave Eggers’ “What is the What,” “Little Bee” by Chris Cleave and “A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier” by Ishmael Beah.

Any traumatic event takes time to translate properly into prose and few books have been published that directly address the most recent refugee crisis in Europe.

Finally, nonfiction readers and those looking for a smart, detailed and moving history of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), would do well to pick up “Human Cargo: A Journey Among Refugees” by Caroline Moorehead. Though the book is a decade old, Moorhead’s reporting, which entailed working and living with many refugees, is as relevant today as ever. In her words, the refugee crisis is — and remains — as a crisis as urgent as any other in the world, be it terrorism or disease, hunger or poverty.


American journalist, editor, traveler, and believer in the power of books to change the world.

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