In recent years, the refugee experience has been at the core of political and global news. Many young people have come to learn about events from the media. Many of the students we teach is someone, or knows someone, who has been a refugee. There are many examples of children’s literature that provide narratives that help students work towards an understanding of refugee turmoil and settlement. To help build compassion and empathy, it is important that we present students with picture books, novels and media texts to help them grasp the tribulations of those being forced to leave their home countries and those who find a place to belong when seeking asylum, when immigrating, when settling into a new place called ‘home’.
WE ARE LIKE THE CLOUDS (translation:SOMOS COMO LAS NUBES) by Jorge Argueta; Illus. Alfonso Ruano
The author has created these poems, drawn from his experiences from El Salvador’s war in the 1980’s. The words and pictures convey a moving account of thousands of children, often alone, who are forced to leave their their homes in Central American to seek refuge in the United States.
MAMA’s NIGHTINGALE: A story of Immigration and Separation by Edwidge Danticat; Illus. Leslie Staub
Saya’s mother is sent to jail as an illegal immigrant. Mama is able to communicate with her daughter by sending weekly tape recordings of bedtime stories based on Haitian folklore. With hopes of being united with her mother, Saya is encouraged to write a story that may bring her mother home.
OUT by Angela May George; Illus. Owen Swan
“I feel different. It’s the way people stare. I’m called an asylum seeker, but that is not my name.” So begins this story about a young girl who along with her mother is forced to leave their country and lucky enough to have found refuge in an Australian city, dreaming of being united with her father. The war torn country is not named, the boat that was travelled upon is not identified. Out is a tale, simply told, of the universal experiencing of migration.
LOST AND FOUND CAT: The True Story of Kunkush’s Incredible Journey by Doug Kuntz and Amy Shrodes; Illus. Sue Cornelison
A cat named Kunkush is carried hundreds of miles by his family that is forced to leave Iraq when life became too dangerous. Through all the chaos of the escape, Kunkush is separated from is family, only to be rescued by others and eventually returned to the arms of the his family in a safe home. That this is based on a true story is remarkable.
STEPPING STONES: A Refugee Family’s Journey by Margriet Ruurs; Art by Nizar Ali Badr
Rami, her brother Sami and hteir friends, free as birds, used to laugh and play together. But then war came to their country and the birds stopped singing and the family searches for a place where bombs didn’t fall: “A river of people in search of peace.” The story is told in both Arabic and English. The images that accompany the simple, poetic text is comprised of rocks which the Syrian artist, Nizar Ali Badr has collected on the beach.
THE JOURNEY by Francesca Sanna
When war begins, a mother and her two children must leave all their belongings behind and travel many miles to a place that will be unfamiliar and safe. In the author’s note at the back of the book, Sanna explains that The Journey is actually “a story about many journeys..’ a collage of personal stories adn the incredible strength of the people within them.”
ADRIFT AT SEA: A Vietnamese Boy’s Story of Survival by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch with Tuan Ho; Illus. Brian Denes
A fishing boat, overloaded with sixty Vietnamese refugees is a adrift at sea. Told in the first person from the six year old’s point of view, the author recounts the story of Tuan Ho’s dangerous, yet brave, journey with his family toward a new life in North America.
TEACUP by Rebecca Yung; Illus Matt Ottley
Once there was a boy who had to leave his home.. and find another. In his bag he carried a book, a bottle and a blanket. In his teacup he held some earth from where he used to play.” Simple text, lyrical watercolour illustrations, make this a picture book that contains universal connections for those who have been forced to leave behind a life, once enjoyed.
The five titles below have been featured in several of my blog postings. These free verse novels are shining examples of young people who have been caught in the web of the refugee experience and live of life where hopes and dreams underlie their struggles to survive and belong Past experiences, present salvation and future possibilities frame each of these novels. Any of these novels would initiate compassion, curiosity and connections to global issues. Together, these five books would help a teacher, grades five through seven, organize a literature-based unit that brings these global issues into the classroom.
HOME OF THE BRAVE by Katherine Applegate
ALL THE BROKEN PIECES by Ann E. Burg
INSIDE OUT AND BACK AGAIN by Thanhha Lai
THE RED PENCIL by Andrea Davis Pinkney: Illus. Shane W. Evans
MAKING IT HOME: Real-life stories from children forced to flee. London, UK: Puffin Books, 2004.
OUR NEW HOME: Immigrant Children Speak by Emily Hearn and Marywinn Milne (eds.). Toronto, ON: Second Story Press, 2009.
EXIT WEST by Mohsin
Amidst the turmoil of civil war (in an anonymous country), Nadia and Saeed meet and fall and love. As the war escalates, the two characters are torn with the decision to remain in their home city or leave their old lives behind by leaving through ‘doors’ that will take them to safer places, but places that are filled with uncertainty and new challenges of survival.
For an integrated drama unit on the theme of refugees, see Drama Schemes Themes and Dreams by Larry Swartz and Debbie Nyman. Markham, ON: Pembroke Publishers, 2010, Chapter 6: “Home”, pages 112-131.