Refugee Week Book Blog: There’s room for everyone by Anahita Teymorian

I want to finish this week-long look at books focusing on refugees and migration with this uplifting picture book by Iranian writer Anahita Teymorian (Tiny Owl). The message is quite simple, there’s room for everyone!

At the back of the book, Anahita describes the day she sat shouting at the television about all the awful events happening in the world. Afterwards, she sat down and started writing down all the things she had said, molding them to become this book. The detail in the illustrations in this picture book is fabulous – there are whales with handbags, giraffes with necklaces and bracelets. We enjoyed giggling at some of the pictures, the birds on the washing line (my favourite is the last bird on the right) and the noses sticking out of the tanks.

The little boy starts by pointing out how all around the world, there is enough space for all the animals, all the stars, all the sea creatures but that as he grows up and travels, he sees people fighting for space. Now he’s grown up, his final message is a conspiratorial secret to share with the reader: “if we are kinder and we love each other then, in this beautiful world, there’s room for everyone”. What an uplifting message for the world!

What my daughter had to say:

Emma (5): I like this book because the drawings are really good. I like the elephant holding a yo-yo!

For more World Kid Lit titles, you can also visit the World Kid Lit blog.

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Refugee Week Book Blog: Do you speak chocolate? by Cas Lester

This is an English-language mid-grade novel that introduces year 7 pupil Jaz to a new classmate, Nadima, who has recently arrived with her family from Syria.

At first Nadima doesn’t speak any English and Jaz wonders how they are going to communicate. Enter the mobile phone and emojis. By using emojis of various items and a thumbs up or thumbs down, Nadima and Jaz are able to communicate. With a positive “like” to chocolate, Jaz shares her chocolate with Nadima and so the friendship is forged.

Over the course of the story, Jaz makes several attempts to “help” her new friend, most of which blow up in her face. Lester cleverly weaves into her story acts that we might be tempted to do to “help”, for example, raising money for a particular family because they are “poor”. She explains through her narrative that Nadima’s family don’t want charity, they are proud people who want a chance to be respected in their new home.

I thought this was a really insightful story to help youngsters understand how they can help their new peers and to explain how some of the things we might want to do are actually inappropriate.

For more World Kid Lit titles, you can also visit the World Kid Lit blog.

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Refugee Week Book Blog: The girl with seven names by Hyeonseo Lee

I came across this book thanks to a subscription to the Shelter Box Book Club. Hyeonseo Lee’s account gives an insight into a country that keeps much of its way of life shut off from the eyes of the world.

Hyeonseo recounts her childhood growing up in a relatively wealthy, well-connected family. Her family lived in a border town and as they move to a new house, they look out onto a river and on the other side, China. Her early life seemed “normal”. She tells of her schooling and of the groups session where students would be encouraged to denounce each other. But while life seems “normal”, there are also some sinister undercurrents. She witnesses her first public execution aged 7 and during the famine that hit North Korea in the 1990s, she sees widespread poverty and hardship.

Living so close to the Chinese border, her mother becomes skilled in trading on the black market, smuggling items in from China and selling them in North Korea. 17-year-old Hyeonseo hears of others crossing the border and slipping back and the temptation to try it, just once before starting college, becomes too much. One night with the help of a friend, she crosses into China without telling her family. Unbeknownst to her at the time, she will never return to North Korea again.

News of her escape begins to spread and it becomes apparent she would be placing her family in danger by returning. What follows is a journey across China as an illegal immigrant, stopping for periods of time to work and live before her past catches up with her and she is forced to move on once again. Eventually she decides to leave this life of hiding behind her and hatches a plan to seek asylum in South Korea, catching a plane to Seoul and announcing her intention to seek asylum.

Having been granted asylum and now settling into life in South Korea, Hyeonseo returns to that same border she once crossed, to smuggle her mother out of the country. Due to an issue as her mother crosses, her brother ends up crossing too and now the journey begins once again, this time to bring her brother and mother to safety.

While this is an incredible story of bravery and determination, I was really interested in the sections where Hyeonseo discusses adapting to life outside North Korea. As the successful asylum seekers are released into South Korean society, they go through a training course on what to expect. Her mum really struggles with her new life, so much so that she considers returning home. While we may wonder at this decision, it is one that according to the book, some people ultimately choose. Hyeonseo explains that for those who suffered immense hardship and suffering, life outside is a relief. But for those who were relatively well-off and knew how to work the system, while life in North Korea wasn’t perfect, life outside can be a struggle. North Korean education is viewed as all but worthless and Hyeonseo’s mum ends up working as a cleaner with little prospect of bettering herself. As someone who commanded respect in her hometown, this is difficult to swallow.

It really is a fascinating read and I learnt a lot through this book about an area of the world I know very little about. If you are interested in hearing more, this YouTube video shows Hyeonseo speaking at the Perth Writers Festival.

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Refugee Week Book Blog: Dazwischen: ich by Julya Rabinowich

Today’s book is one of my favourites. This is a young adult book from Austria, which rightly won the 2017 Österreichische Kinder- und Jugendbuchpreis (Austrian Children’s and Young Adult Book Prize). Today’s book is the as yet untranslated Dazwischen: ich by Julya Rabinowich (Hanser).

My suggested title is “Torn between two lives” and the story begins like this:

Wo ich herkomme? Das ist egal. Es könnte überall sein. Es gibt viele Menschen, die in viele Ländern das erleben, was ich erlebt habe. Ich komme von Überall. Ich komme von Nirgendwo. Hinter den Sieben Bergen. Und noch viel weiter. Dort, wo Ali Babas Räuber nicht hätten leben wollen. Jetzt nicht mehr. Zu gefährlich.

Where do I come from? That isn’t important. It could be anywhere. There are many people in many countries who live through what I have lived through. I come from everywhere. I come from nowhere. Beyond the seven mountains. And much further still. A place where Ali Baba’s thieves wouldn’t want to live. Not anymore. Too dangerous.

What a way to begin a book!

In her debut book for young adults, Rabinowich depicts Madina’s arrival in a new country and the struggles she now encounters. These are not just the physical difficulties regarding language and the conditions where she lives, but also the pull of family and tradition against the desire to discover more about her new surroundings and engage with her new friends. As the narrative unfolds, we are offered glimpses of the journey she has undergone to reach this point and the life she has left behind. Madina is a strong female protagonist who must ultimately work out a way for her family to stay in their new country, pulling together the women in her family and those around her to ensure their safety.

This narrative is a moving account of the difficulties faced by young people as they arrive at their destinations. We never discover where Madina comes from and other than the references to learning German, we never learn where she has arrived. For young people across Europe, who are coming into contact with new arrivals from distant lands, this book opens their eyes to what life may be like for their new schoolmates and neighbours. A particular favourite passage is this one, which tells of how some days, Madina can’t get in the bathroom to have a shower before school and how her friend, Laura, helps her out:

Wir haben jetzt ein Seifenversteck ins Klo gemacht, damit es nie wieder passiert. In der dritten Kabine vom Mädchenklo ist eine Kachel in der Wand locker. Dahinter hat sie eine kleine, in rosa Papier verpackte Seifenkugel versteckt, und ich schleiche in der ersten Stunde auf die Toilette und wasche mich mit dieser kleinen Seife, die so toll nach Rosen duftet, als würde ich in einer Wanne voller Blumen baden. 

We’ve made a hidey-hole for some soap in the toilets so that it never happens again. In the third stall of the girls’ toilet there’s a loose tile on the wall. Behind it, she’s hidden a little bar of soap, wrapped in pink paper, and I sneak out to the toilet during the first lesson and have a wash with this little bar of soap that smells so sweetly of roses, as if I had bathed in a whole tub of flowers.

At a time when we here in the UK seem to be closing our borders and shutting people out, this book can help our young people to understand and welcome those who so badly need our support.

For more World Kid Lit titles, you can also visit the World Kid Lit blog.

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Refugee Week Book Blog: Let’s go see Papá by Lawrence Schimel, illustrated by Alba Marina Rivera, translated from Spanish by Elisa Amado

Many thanks to Lawrence Schimel for sending me this book to include on my Refugee Week Book Blog. This picture book is an interesting addition to this week’s selection as it looks at migration from a different perspective, that of the family left behind.

The little girl in the story hasn’t seen her papá for “one year, eight months and twenty-two days.” He’s gone to the United States to work and couldn’t come home for Christmas. She keeps a diary and writes in it every day, telling papá about all the things she’s been doing. And every Sunday, the family wakes up early and waits in anticipation for papá to call.

Then one Sunday papá calls to say that it’s time for his daughter and wife to join him in the USA. They start to pack their belongings, choosing what to take and what to leave behind. The little girl goes to school and tells her best friend that she’s leaving, we feel the worry of the prospect of making new friends in her new home. She realises that Kika, her beloved pet dog, is statying behind with Abuela, who’s too old to start her life over again.

We leave the little girl on the aeroplane, having said good bye to her friend and Abuela. She opens her diary to write to papá but of course, she’ll be seeing him soon. She opens a second notebook and starts to write: Dear Abuela…

The illustrations in this book are wonderful. The detail is incredible. I particularly like the pages where the drawings look like they have been done by a young child, something my son might have drawn.

When I go and volunteer, it is noticeably the young men who have made the journey to a new land. I recently spent an hour doing jigsaws with a young girl who had just recently arrived in the UK to join her father. As I read this, I imagined her receiving that call: it’s time to go and see papá. A useful reminder that migration doesn’t just affect those doing the journeying but also the families back home.

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Refugee Week Book Blog: Apfelblüten und Jasmin by Carolin Philipps

In the opening pages of this German fictional novel, we encounter Talitha, a 16-year-old Syrian refugee who, it transpires, is at risk of being deported. In order to stay, she has to tell her story. Written in the first-person, it is an account of her journey and how she has become separated from the rest of her family during her journey. Her father was left behind at a border relatively early on in their journey, her mother and younger brother end up registering in Austria as her brother has fallen ill. Talitha continues on to Germany alone.

As she registers for asylum in Germany, she registers with a false date of birth, believing that her passage will be easier if she is 18. She quickly realises her error and then has to try and prove her status as a minor. With her mother registered for asylum in Austria, and her own registration having taken place in Germany, EU law will not allow either party to cross the border until their applications are complete. Talitha is completely alone.

After living for some time in a hostel, she is taken in by a friend’s family; however the family’s son is anti-refugee and frames Talitha for a fire at the family farm. Talitha faces a choice whether to destroy her friend’s family by telling the truth of who actually set the fire, or whether to take the rap for it and face deportation. In the end she chooses to flee the family home, leaving her testimony in an envelope that she slides underneath the son’s bedroom door as she leaves.

I love the title of this book – the jasmine representing her past while the apple blossoms represent her future. One of the things I particularly like about this book is how it takes specific factual events and focuses on the effect this event has on the refugees living in Germany. A terrorist attack takes place in France and the refugees in Germany feel the backlash. It also suggests the idea of ignorance as a key factor for xenophobia and fear. As the son becomes more informed about Talitha’s background and experiences, he becomes more sympathetic to her cause.

This would be another great addition for our English book shelves!

For more World Kid Lit titles, you can also visit the World Kid Lit blog.

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Refugee Week Book Blog: The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q. Raúf

Today’s kid lit title is the Blue Peter Best Story Award winner The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q Raúf. Helping me with today’s book review is my 8-year-old son Dominic. Over to him:

The book is about a 9 year-old boy called Ahmet and he comes from Syria and he is a refugee. A refugee is a person who comes from a different country because of war. And so he took the empty seat at the back of the class and he didn’t talk much because he doesn’t speak English. And some other kids Michael, Josie and Tom and Alexa who try to make friends with him. Josie wonders where his mum and dad are. Ahmet tells them he doesn’t know. One day in class Ahmet tells them his story. Alexa hears some people talking on the bus about the borders being closed next week and the friends decide they have to find Ahmet’s family before the borders close. They come up with a plan which they call the Greatest Idea in the World. It involves sending a letter to the Queen. I really like the picture they draw of the plan

The book is very good because it’s like a real story but they’ve put it into somebody else’s words. It helps me to understand more about the people we help at DRS (Derbyshire Refugee Solidarity).

Dominic and I have enjoyed reading this book together. Until we sat down to write this review, we actually hadn’t realised that the protagonist’s name is actually not mentioned throughout the book. It isn’t right until the end that it is clarified that the protagonist is a girl called Alexa. Dominic had presumed it was a girl, I had presumed it was a boy. I get a bit of a bee in my bonnet about the typical girl/boy stereotypes so it is great that this is so refreshingly neutral.

The kids in class who befriend Ahmet are so open-minded and where they see that someone needs help, they jump right in. We also see how Ahmet is defended by our champions against Brendan-the-Bully – the importance of standing up for others. I did find a few aspects a little odd – do 9-year-olds take the bus unaccompanied? – but overall this was a great book for this age group. It’s not too scary but it does explain the circumstances of Ahmet’s homeland, the journey he has taken to get here and the fact his sister has died at sea. Dominic regularly joins me at DRS and it was useful to have the discussion that some of the children we meet there may have had a similar experience.

For more World Kid Lit titles, you can also visit the World Kid Lit blog.

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