immigration

Refugee Stories

One thing I always knew I had to instil in my own children, and in the children I work with, is a sense of history. Where they come from, from whom they are descended, how they got where they are today. Whether it’s tracking a grandparent’s entry here via kindertransport, or a boat, smuggled on a truck, or simply purchasing a plane ticket, most of us have a story if we look back further enough, and dig deep enough. Not many of us were born and bred where we live today.

But not all children equate their own great-grandparents’ journeys with the stories of refugees and migrants they see in today’s news headlines. How do we make our children see and understand their plight, and how do we explain what we mean when we say ‘migrant’ or ‘refugee’? Luckily, there are a whole host of books that can help guide us in this education, teaching compassion and empathy at the same time. In fact, the number of new ‘refugee’ stories being published is quite startling. Here’s my pick…

Three novels that take away the label and instead highlight individual stories – so that we can see the people behind the headlines – are A Dangerous Crossing, The Bone Sparrow and A Story Like the Wind. There’s not just a stark photograph of suffering here, splashed across a newspaper, but fully rounded characters, with hopes and fears, with pasts and futures. They all desire food and shelter, but they all have different ideas of home, of safety, of the kind of future they want. They are all individuals. What they have in common is the need to move from the place they called home.

A Dangerous Crossing by Jane Mitchell
When 13 year old Ghalib Shenu is caught in a barrel-bomb explosion in Kobani’s souq in Syria, his family decide enough is enough and they must leave. Together with his siblings, parents and grandmother, Ghalib begins the long journey from Syria to Europe.

The compelling force about this book is that it feels completely real – from the dangers surrounding the family, to the banter they engage upon on their way. The questions posed are real and immediate – what should they take with them – Ghalib is reluctant to leave his belongings behind, but the further into the journey he gets, the more he realises how it is just the essentials that matter. There are other realities – the images of other people living their normal lives even as the refugees are passing through their territory; the stigma attached to refugees, as Ghalib realises how unwelcome the Syrian people have become:

“We look. A cardboard sign in Turkish and Arabic is stuck inside the door. No Syrians. The Arabic is not written properly but the message is clear.”

Because the reader is so involved with Ghalib and his family, the hurt and humiliation sting. Mitchell also allows the reader to dwell on things that we ordinarily might take for granted – the wrench to leave the future you had assumed would be there for you in your home country – the bonds at home – family, friends, a business, books, belongings – all those things which give a person a sense of individual identity – something that’s stripped when you’re labelled as a refugee.

As Ghalib and his family progress further on their journey, the book becomes tenser, at first crossing the border, then leaving the refugee camp, and finally attempting the boat crossing. This last piece causes stomach-churning anxiety – Mitchell’s writing prickles with tension.

Mitchell portrays the family’s powerlessness brilliantly, and although the language is English and written with literary style, using challenging vocabulary such as ‘redolent’ and ‘pulverise’, the reader does get a good sense of the Syrian lifestyle – the smells and tastes of Ghalib’s home, the way of life.

Told in first person, the text feels immediate, but the secondary characters are also fleshed out well, each bringing authenticity to the story, but also highlighting different issues, from the treatment of the elderly, to treatment of women, as well as those who are too young to have experienced any other Syria than one which is at war.

This is a powerful book, well-researched and written, and achieves its aim of encouraging sympathy and understanding, but importantly, telling a really good story.

The publisher recommends the book for 11+ years, but I would wager a fluent reader aged 10+ would be capable of understanding the text too. You can buy it here.

The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon
This is a gripping story without a physical journey, and tells the story of one boy who was born in a detention centre, and has never known anything different, and highlights a group of people who aren’t brought to the media’s attention very much. Subhi, aged 10, is a member of the Rohingya people of Burma, but has never known his homeland, relying only upon the memories of the older generations. This gives the novel both the grief of the elders for what was known about Burma, but also gives Subhi a grief for all the unknowns too.

Fraillon excels at highlighting the extreme hardships and terrible conditions of the refugee camp without the book becoming too depressing or maudlin, by the fact that Subhi possesses an overwhelming optimism – a sunny disposition no matter how hard things get.

Much of his day is spent in drawing and stories. There is no entertainment, no outside distractions. His height is measured on the diamonds on the wire fencing, there is no school, scarce food.

In a Boy in the Striped Pyjamas allusion, Subhi is befriended by Jimmi, a girl who gets through a hole in the fence from outside and rejoices in Subhi’s ability to read stories to her. In return for his reading, she brings food from the outside. It’s never explicitly stated in which country the camp is, but the reader assumes it is Australia. Both children seem fairly oblivious to the fact that their meeting is unusual, and that the way Subhi is treated is profoundly wrong and must be changed. In fact, it’s not just Australia that isn’t mentioned – Faillon, one must assume deliberately, doesn’t show many traits of the Rohingya people. Also, the gap in the fence, set against the rules and severity of camp life, seems fairly unrealistic so that, as in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, the story becomes fairly allegorical.

What does feel very real though is the depiction of the harsh life and treatment within the refugee camp – the terrible conditions, and the references to the horrible scarring – both mental and physical – that the older refugees faced before their arrival in the camp.

The crescendo of the story when it comes is horrible beyond words, and yet because the children have shown how powerful friendship and storytelling can be, there remains a great deal of hope at the end of the book – even if Fraillon’s afterword brims with anger.

Fraillon displays a wonderful lyrical lilt to her writing, a compelling voice with a gripping story, and has been shortlisted for both The Guardian Children’s Fiction prize and for the CILIP Carnegie Medal 2017.

The overall message is one of hope, but also the meaning of freedom – it’s more than just being free from the containment of fencing, it’s the entitlement of a future. 10+ yrs. You can buy it here.

A Story Like the Wind by Gill Lewis
This highly illustrated book for seven year olds and over, meshes myth with reality in this storytelling tale about a boy who narrates a story over a night spent adrift at sea, to a boatload of fellow refugees escaping from their war-torn homeland. They carry nothing with them, except their names and their memories. Rami, the narrator, cleverly plays his violin to accompany his storytelling, using music as the universal language to bind humans together. In this way, reminiscent perhaps of The Mozart Question by Michael Morpurgo – which used music to highlight the plight of Jewish refugees fleeing the camps of the Holocaust – Lewis attempts to use the story of how the violin came about to tell a story of hope and freedom in a time of war and injustice.

Rami tells his fellow refugees the story of a young boy who rescues a wild foal from near death and nurtures him to life, whilst refusing to claim ownership of him. When he races the horse against the Dark Lord and wins, the Dark Lord banishes him, and takes ownership of the horse – treating it cruelly – until it escapes and finds its way to the boy in exile, before collapsing and dying. The boy takes the beast’s bones and carves a violin from them.

The story that Rami tells draws connections between the cruelty of the Dark Lord and his harsh treatment of his subjects, to the cruel treatment that the boat’s passengers have endured in their war-ravaged country from which they are escaping, as well as explaining the meaning of freedom and dignity. There is no resolution to the overarching story – the refugees remain floating in their boat with only the beauty of the music against the waves to succour them – but this is an interesting fable to disseminate the big issues that face humanity today.

Beautifully illustrated by Jo Weaver in a dream-like fashion, this is an unforgettable little story. You can buy it here.

Children In Our World: Refugees and Migrants by Ceri Roberts and Hanane Kai is a non-fiction text that seeks to explain gently what we mean when we label someone a refugee or a migrant. Who are they? Where have the come from? In very clear, unchallenging text, this square book – laid out like a picture book – presents a tame factual reality of what we mean by refugee and migrant.

It describes why people move from their homeland, what they have left behind and why they might leave in a hurry, as well as life in refugee camps, what it means to seek asylum, and lastly what the reader can do to help people.

The text is written for a Western audience, explaining to a child to make a new child welcome in their school, as well as repeating the usual rhetoric nowadays that children should discuss with an adult any worries or fears they have, making clear how unlikely it is that they themselves will become refugees. There’s a glossary at the back, and a ‘find out more’ section.

The images seem to imply there are different families and children being shown, although always with the same cat, and although there is clearly a diverse range of nationalities from the clothes and hairstyles, the colour of skin remains the same. The imagery is supposedly generic in tone – pastel colours throughout, and the trees remain the same in all landscapes, presumably putting across the message that we are all the same the world over. The cat brings slight levity to the subject.

It’s a good text to have in a school library for a 6+ age group who may have questions, but I think for greater depth and insight individual stories, highlighting our differences whilst at the same time delineating our common necessities – love, shelter, food etc – will always win out. You can buy it here.

There are so many many more refugee stories, from the obvious, such as Elizabeth Laird’s Welcome to Nowhere, picturebook The Journey by Francesca Sanna, and the everyman refugee story, Close to the Wind by Jon Walter.

 

Welcome to Nowhere by Elizabeth Laird

It was with some trepidation that I started reading this novel, advertised for young teens, but I think appropriate for mature nine year olds, because of Laird’s introduction. The novel begins with a foreword from the author, which gives an explanation of why the war in Syria began and poses a question at the end about how history will judge our treatment of refugees.

Literature is there to pose questions and make us think, as well as imbue empathy. And good literature should teach us things too – but above all there needs to be a good story well told, otherwise readers won’t get to the crux of the book. Elizabeth Laird is an experienced writer, and has written many great, distinguished and prize-winning novels. Is this more than just another ‘issue’ book, a book that has written a story around an issue, rather than starting with a story and drawing an issue out of it? This isn’t Laird’s best book in my opinion, and yet this is way more than an issue book, and it certainly makes the reader think, and so it deserves this week’s book of the week spot.

Twelve-year-old Omar narrates the story – in past tense. He lives in Bosra, isn’t keen on school, but makes money selling postcards at a tourist site. His father also works in tourism – but for the government. When war breaks out, the family’s troubles grow – not least because Omar’s father has to move for work, but also because his older sister is being married off (having reached the marriageable age of sixteen). Omar’s older brother Musa suffers from cerebral palsy and starts getting in with a group who are anti-government. It’s a complicated situation and Laird does her best to navigate through the family’s journey. As the bombs fall on the city, they move again, and again, until eventually they have to flee Syria completely and cross the border to a refugee camp in Jordan.

Laird has done her research – she has spent time in the refugee camps and has prior knowledge of living in the Middle East as well as a presenting us with a hefty acknowledgements section that clearly names all the various experts and refugee families who have helped to share their experiences with her.

It’s not a short novel, coming in at over 360 pages in the proof copy, and is fast-paced and hugely enjoyable. Yet, even at this length, it still feels like a skeletal piece. The descriptions of places are somewhat lacking – particularly the urban settings, although there are glimpses of what was once there – the tourist areas boomed, and the ordinary society was buzzy and lively – and yet there wasn’t quite enough description to give that emotional evocation of what has been lost.

The secondary characters too – Omar’s sister is desperate to stay a scholar and not get married, Omar’s brother struggles with his illness that sets him apart as different (just as any boy would anywhere in the world), but neither are portrayed in enough depth to give complexity to their issues. However, other relationships do spring from the page – Omar’s mother’s relationship with her grandmother, and likewise her relationship with her sister – these feel alive and real – with just a light touch. Omar – our protagonist – is likeable despite having many flaws; he comes across as real – that awkward age of boyhood into adulthood that’s particularly difficult to navigate at the best of times, let alone in wartime, and when he’s dealing with an absent father and a physically weaker older brother.

Written from a very British perspective, the language used will be vastly familiar to the Western reader – words such as ‘bungling’ and phrases such as ‘ratting on someone’ and ‘I beg your pardon’. Perhaps this is on purpose, to make the readership feel familiar with the family portrayed – to show the readership here that this is something that could happen to anyone. And yet, as with the lack of physical description of Syria, it takes away some of the authenticity of the book.

But overall this book ticks the boxes for me because it’s gripping and fast (the book sprints through the plot) and portrays the Syrian war and the refugee crisis so that an average ten year old in this country could gain some insight and experience some empathy.

The book extols the virtues of bravery and hopefulness. Of learning to look out for your family and put someone else first. And it makes you think – how will we welcome a family such as Omar’s in our country? Who are these people? Are they just like you and me?

You can buy it here. Fifty pence per copy of the hardback book sold will be donated to an international aid agency supporting the Syrian refugee crisis.

Food for Thought

Do you remember food from childhood books? Winnie the Pooh is synonymous with honey, Paddington with marmalade, the Famous Five with ginger beer. The tiger came for tea, the caterpillar was very hungry, and Narnia wouldn’t have been the same without tea with Mr Tumnus. Food functions as a symbol of togetherness. The OECD found that students who do not eat regularly with their parents are more likely to truant, that children were more likely to be overweight if they didn’t eat with their family at least twice a week (European Congress on Obesity 2014). In a topic close to my heart, researchers found that young children learned 1,000 rare vocabulary words at a family dinner, compared with 143 from a storybook reading (Catherine E Snow and Diane E Beals, 2006).

Three authors have cleverly woven food into their recently published family stories. Do have a look at each very different title.

library of lemons

A Library of Lemons by Jo Cotterill

A sad and touching middle grade story about ten year old Calypso. She lives with her father, and they are both grieving for the death of Calypso’s mother. Her father is suffering so much that his mental health deteriorates and he starts to obsess over lemons for a book he is writing on the History of the Lemon.

Calypso has been told by her father to nourish her inner strength – to show the world a steely exterior rather than exposing her emotions – so she nourishes herself with books and stories. In a compellingly poignant portrayal, Calypso’s Dad is neglectful because of his all-consuming grief, and the cupboards in the kitchen are starkly empty.

Although a loner, and Cotterill portrays this part of Calypso particularly well, leaving the reader feeling that solitude is not a black and white issue – there is loneliness and then there is wanting to be more solitary than others – Calypso does find a friend in Mae, and through her, a family, complete with family meals, and warm, giving parents who expose what is so severely lacking in her own home circumstances. The scenes with Mae shine with affection and are particularly engaging.

Jo Cotterill writes with emotional insight and tenderness in this well-crafted novel. From her clever perversion of the lemons – usually such bright, alluring, wonderfully scented fruits – she twists the metaphor so that the lemons are hidden and grow hard – revealing what happens when fruit is kept in dark places, and when emotions are left hidden in dark places rather than expressed and managed.

By contrasting darkness and light, inner and outer, family/friendship as opposed to loneliness, Jo Cotterill reveals how Calypso can come out of herself and forge a new way forwards for herself and her father. It’s compelling reading and draws on the point that there are always some adults on hand to help a child through such a crisis – from friends to a support network of child carers.

There are some good insights too about children wanting to please their parents and meet expectations, the benefits of writing as a way of venting emotion, and of course, as you will guess from the title, a liberal sprinkling of literary references, and a paean to reading and its comfort.

The characters feel well developed, the ending is not too saccharine – it’s uplifting but with a hint of realism that grief/depression cannot just be turned off like a switch. Easy to read, not too sentimental – this is a bittersweet novel. For age 9+ years. You can buy it here.

caramel hearts

Caramel Hearts by ER Murray

A slightly older, much grittier read, Caramel Hearts tells the story of 14 year old Liv. Liv resides with her older sister while her mother recovers in a unit for alcoholics. Whilst her mother is away, Liv discovers a homemade book of recipes, written in her mother’s hand, and clearly at a time in the past of love and happiness. Liv endeavours to make the recipes within, in the hope that some of that love will come dripping back into her life. Sadly, at the same time, she has to contend with issues at school, lack of money, and her own anger, which comes flooding out of her at the slightest tension or confrontation.

This is such a character-led book that the reader feels invested in Liv from the start, which is important, as Liv doesn’t behave brilliantly. ER Murray’s portrayal of her – her inability to keep her emotions in check, even when necessary – her spontaneous and often not very well thought out decision making, and her wish to fit in, lead her to make some particularly unwise decisions, and yet she garners intense understanding from the reader precisely because she is so well-defined and so real in so many ways.

ER Murray is good at drawing the distinction between right and wrong, and yet at the same time, giving the reader those grey areas of discovery as teens grow and learn which path to choose.

There are some excellent scenes – and a particularly disturbing case of hardcore bullying, as well as the problems and uncertainty that go with being the child of an alcoholic.

Secondary characters are also nicely drawn – no one is completely good or bad – and, as with A Library of Lemons, there is a lovely supporting cast of adults who can help if given the chance – including a particularly wonderful dinner lady.

A love for food comes through of course – the recipes from the mother’s books are sprinkled throughout the text and seem easy to try, and there are references to music too.

The book is all about learning to stand up for what’s right – doing the right thing, but it makes no claims to provide easy solutions or quick fixes. As with the previous book reviewed, mental health – in this case, alcoholism, is dealt with carefully – it’s a long road, and there are no certainties.

Saying that, the ending is also uplifting – friendships are nurtured and thrive, food can be an equalizer, and forgiveness can be healing.

In the same way that A Library of Lemons toyed with darkness and light, this is sweet and sour – the joy that can come from finding a hobby/skill in the baking, the joy of sharing food with friends and family, and the sweetness of nostalgia for their mother in a more positive light, but also the sourness of doing the wrong thing, bullying, getting into trouble and not knowing how to get out of it. Age 12+ years. You can purchase it here.

Sweet Pizza

Sweet Pizza by G R Gemin

For younger readers, with bite-size chapters, is the tale of Joe, a young boy growing up in Bryn Mawr, South Wales. Joe’s mother runs a café, inherited from her father and his parents – who were Italian migrants before the Second World War. The café is failing to make money, and the book follows Joe’s attempts to discover his Italian heritage and make the café great again.

As with the other books featured, food plays a strong role in this book, with Joe’s fascination with learning to cook, the other youths’ addiction to the unhealthy ‘chicken box’ takeaways over the road, and Joe’s cousin Mimi who visits from Italy, and seasons the town with her good looks, but also her belief in fresh ingredients, healthy eating and the healing power of a good meal.

The tone of this novel is hard to pin down – it’s written so starkly, so matter-of-fact and mainly through dialogue, and yet somehow Joe’s feelings do shine through. For this age group the sparseness of the language works quite well, and moves the plot along quickly, although personally I would have preferred some rounding of the parental figures’ characters and a little more detail and description, but saying that, this is an important book for the following reasons.

The backbone of the novel comes from Joe’s grandfather. During the course of the book he suffers a stroke and is hospitalised, but his recordings of his memories of wartime Wales are played as a backdrop throughout the story, and the warmth flows mainly from these recollections.

Joe learns, as does the reader, not only the facts about Italian migrants in Wales during the war – the terrible cost when they were interned during the war, but ultimately the kindness of the community that surrounded the immigrants in Wales.

The gradual realisation that history can teach us something, that having a thriving immigrant community can lend so much colour and vibrancy to a town, and that the kindness of a community can see people through hard times, is a valuable lesson to both Joe and young readers. It’s an interesting study to compare immigrant experiences then and now, and debate the meaning of patriotism, migrants, heritage, and community.

Gemin weaves food and taste throughout his book – from the Italian food to the Polish supermarket across the road, and the coming together at family mealtimes as well as the community (Joe interacts with bus drivers, the doctor’s receptionist, and a whole host of other figures who make up his town). There are also some well-handled incidences in which Joe’s mum is worried about her son’s weight, and steers him away from the greasy takeaways.

An infusion of opera and its stories pervades the text too, and the mouth-watering descriptions of the coffee aroma and bubbling tomato sauces leave the reader lusting after their own home-made Italian meal. Bravissimo. Age 8+ years. You can buy it here.