Refugee Children and Their Stories

SuitcaseOfStoriesI recently found out, via the Library Boy blog, that the UN Refugee Agency has teamed up with Google maps to allow internet users to locate refugee camps in remote areas of Chad, Iraq, Colombia, Sudan’s Darfur region, and more. Now, with a few clicks, one can “see, hear and start to develop an emotional understanding of what it’s like to be a refugee.”

Reasons for displacement and relocation, as history and the news show, can be various (war; religious and cultural persecution; intolerance on grounds of race, sexual orientation, etc) and the challenges facing refugee children, in particular, are many, since they find themselves swept up in the consequences of adult conflicts and intolerances they don’t necessarily understand. World Refugee Day, coming up on June 20, is a good reminder for us to do what we can to educate others about these issues and to support efforts to lighten the plight of refugees around the world.

The term “refugee” is one that, unfortunately, still carries many negative connotations for both governments and individuals, being often associated with distrust, rather than distress. Books, as usual, can help counteract stereotypes and promote true understanding, so here are some titles that come to mind on this difficult topic – because the earlier we start children on the path to empathy, the better:

Four Feet, Two Sandals by Karen Williams and Khadra Mohammed (Eerdman, 2008). Ages 4-8

This book was inspired by a refugee girl’s question to co-author Khadra Mohammed about why there were no books about children like her in the US. You can read our review here. And on the author’s website you can read about how the book was received by a group of children at a refugee camp in Pakistan.

Refugees by David Miller (Lothian, 2004). Ages 5-8

In this gentle introduction for very young children to the plight of dislocation, two wild ducks become refugees when their swamp is drained and they have nowhere to swim, eat or sleep. Their search for a new home takes them to areas where they are not welcome or where they cannot find shelter or food. The ducks are close to giving up when “the intervention of an unknown person changes their fate.”

The Breadwinner Trilogy by Deborah Ellis (The Breadwinner, Parvana’s Journey and Mud City. Groundwood Books, 2000, 2002, 2003). Ages 9-12

The Breadwinner trilogy, set in Afghanistan, is inspired by the author’s experiences helping at an Afghan refugee camp at the Pakistan border, in 1997, when she had a chance to interview many women and children. Royalties from the book go to the Canadian not-for-profit organization “Women for Women” (formed just after the Taliban take-over of Kabul), which promotes education for women and girls in refugee camps in Afghanistan.

The Suitcase Stories: Refugee Children Reclaim Their Identity by Glynis Clacherty (Double Storey Books, 2008). Ages 12+

To help a group of unaccompanied refugee children deal with the trauma of their flight and arrival in South Africa, the author, who is a researcher specialized in participatory work with children, provided them with suitcases on which to paint their personal stories and recent history. Photographs of the painted suitcases and accompanying accounts of hardship, resistance and hope make this a touching and important book.

This slideshow, from a 2007 National Geographic Museum exhibit called “Through the Eyes of Children: Refugee Life in Pictures” presents sixty photographs taken by children and young adults ages 12-20 at a refugee settlement in Uganda. These images capture the pain and struggles of life as a young refugee and, by seeing things through their eyes, we come closer to understanding what it means to walk in their shoes and what we can do to help.