Today sees the beginning of Refugee Week here in the UK. More than ever we need to be nurturing compassion and empathy in our children so that they grow up able to recognise the toxicity of xenophobia and intolerance, both of which are so worryingly prevalent today, fed by public voices who irresponsibly spread messages of hate. There is a global crisis of refugees that cannot be ignored or passed along as someone else’s agenda. So I like the proactive and positive theme of this year’s Refugee Week: Welcome. It reminds us that we can make a difference for refugees by offering a welcoming safe haven AND enrich our own lives through opening our hearts and arms to fellow human beings in dire need.
It is nearly six years ago that I edited an issue of PaperTigers.org about Refugee Children. It is still very relevant, however, so do take a look at it – though the number of refugee children, already difficult to grasp then, is much higher now: an almost incomprehensible figure within the mind-numbing statistics as a whole. (Read this article published today by the UNHCR.)
Here on MWD you can read my article based on my presentation at the 2012 IBBY Congress, ‘Escaping Conflict, Seeking Peace: Picture books that relate refugee stories, and their importance‘ and a more recent reading list that includes refugee stories: Reconciliation and Friendship in the Face of Fear and Distrust in Children’s and YA Books.
I recently shared a favourite of mine with my teenage son: Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate (Feiwel and Friends, 2007) – a beautifully, spare novel in verse that evokes all the heartache and confusion of a boy with traumatic experiences in his past in wartorn Darfur, trying to find his way in the unfamiliar landscape and culture of Mineappolis in the US. From fragile beginnings, he finds strength and a place for himself in the world through his friendships with Hannah, who is in foster care, and, of all unlikely but ultimately special creatures, a cow.
My recent interview with author Sita Brahmachari has highlighted two of her books in which refugees play important roles: Artichoke Hearts (Macmillan, 2011) – published as Mira in the Present Tense in the US (Albert Whitman, 2013) – and Red Leaves (Macmillan, 2014), both of which are engrossing reads filled with memorable characters who stay with you long after you’ve finished the book…
…Likewise Hidden by Miriam Halahmy (Meadowside Children’s Books 2011/Albury Books, 2014), about two friends who find a half-drowned Iraqi refugee washed up on the beach. They decide to hide him and look after him but of course, that is not a simple course of action… and all the time while reading you can’t help thinking, ‘What would I do?’ As I wrote in my introduction to an interview with Miriam in 2014: ‘readers will dig deep to think about their own prejudices and any intolerance assimilated unthinkingly from social pressures, the media etc. One aspect of the book that works well is the way it combines the big questions raised by the central plot with scrutiny of the kind of unthinking, uneducated racism that readers are likely to witness themselves, so that we are left questioning our responses on many levels.’
I will post a full review soon of Last Airlift: A Vietnamese Orphan’s Rescue from War by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch (Pajama Press, 2011); a couple of sentences here will not do it justice. But it is certainly worth pointing it out now as a superb non-fiction book for children that gets across the dangers encountered by refugees fleeing conflict, and how the fear of past and future don’t just magically disappear even when, as here, a child refugee eventually finds a loving home to welcome her. Tuyet, whose story this is, was put on a plane from Saigon bound for Toronto along with fifty-six other orphans in the closing days of the Vietnam War, the last rescue flight to make it to Canada.
Finally, a book I just encountered: Michael Foreman’s picture book The Seeds of Friendship, a beautiful story that, while it sends the imagination soaring, has its feet solidly on the ground in its premise that communities are enhanced by opening up to friendships and ideas from newcomers: in this case, Adam, a refugee in an unfamiliar city landscape, finds solace in planting the seeds his new teacher gives to him. His plant pots grow and overflow; and his new friends, already wowed by Adam’s imaginative take on snowmen, join him in transforming their concrete urban environment into a huge collective community garden…