Refugee children and their stories

The Suitcase StoriesI 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, etc. 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, US 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, Australia 2004) Ages 5-8

In this perfect introduction for very young children to the plight of refugees, 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 (The Breadwinner (2000), Parvana’s Journey (2002) and Mud City (2003) by Deborah Ellis (Groundwood Books) Ages 9-12

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Set in Afghanistan and 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 books 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 histories. Photographs of the painted suitcases and accompanying accounts of hardship, resistance and hope make this touching, challenging book.

This slideshow, from a 2007 exhibit called “Through the Eyes of Children” 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 to realizing what we can do to help.


8 Responses to “Refugee children and their stories”

  1. FredH Says:

    Deborah Ellis (The Breadwinner) will have a new book coming out next January that again deals with refugee children, this time in a non-fiction format; Children of War: Voices of Iraqi Refugees. As a result of the violence in Iraq, 5 million Iraqis have been displaced; of these, 2.5 million have had to flee their homes and are now living in other countries as refugees. As always, it is the children who are paying the biggest price and Deborah shares some of their stories in Children of War.

    There’s another group of children also being touched by the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Off to War: Voices of Soldiers’ Children coming out in September, she interviews kids ages 6-17 from military families across the U.S. and Canada, and in the book they tell their own stories, in their own words. It’s very powerful stuff, and provides a deeply affecting look into the lives of children whose voices aren’t always heard.

  2. Aline Says:

    Thanks for letting us know about these upcoming titles, Fred. Ellis is famous for never shying away from hard topics, and these two books sound very relevant and powerful indeed. Refugee children and child soldiers telling it like it is… heartbreaking, I’m sure, but VERY important to hear. I’m looking forward to reading and highlighting them on PaperTigers.

  3. Corinne Says:

    Truly heart wrenching to think of what the life of a refugee child is like. The slide show takes my breath away. Words fail me!

  4. Marjorie Says:

    Seeing the photograph and reading about the girls’ reactions to Four Feet, Two Sandals reinforces the power of books and how important it is for young people to find reflections of their lives in books. And for other young people to find out about what life is like for children whose lives have been torn apart through war and/or displacement. Herb Shoveller’s Ryan and Jimmy And the Well in Africa That Brought Them Together is an inspiring read for young people who want to make a difference…

  5. Camp Jobs New York Says:

    - I can see from an educational standpoint why someone would like to see where local refugee camps are in areas around Africa and The Middle East. Being able to see and hear would not be for the squemish.
    - I wasn’t there this year, but I was at World Refugee Day in 2005 and everything from the people I met to what Mr. Guterres spoke about just broke my heart into pieces. I didn’t just contribute monetarily, but I spent my entire vacation volunteering in the Czech Republic. I did this by cooking, cleaning out portables, covering up waste holes, digging up new holes, planting essential foods (i.e. rice), and aiding in bringing in supplies (pillows, blankets, clothing, etc.). I have known about what these refugees deal with, but to actually see it 1st hand was beyond my comprehension as to explanation. Let me just say that they need help from those of us who are more fortunate. Imagine every person in the states donates 1 dollar/year. That’s over 260 million dollars getting funneled into purchasing more tents, building actual concrete buildings for showering and toilets, bigger canteens, and the like. Thank you.

  6. carlos Says:

    i feel sorry for refugees. why can’t they be left alone and not treated differently. were all human…………………………………………………………………