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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Refugee Week Book Blog: Butterfly. From Refugee to Olympian, My Story of Rescue, Hope and Triumph by Yusra Mardini

Before I read this book, I had a certain perception of who refugees were. This book really opened my eyes.

Yusra Mardini hit the headlines when she competed in the swiiming events as a member of the Refugee Team at 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Originally from Syria, this book is her story of her previous life in Syria and how all that changed. She fled from Syria, boarding a small dinghy headed for Greece. When the boat’s engine cut out still a distance from shore, her and her sister, as swimmers, slid into the water and pushed the boat to land.

Not to downplay this heroic act, Yusra herself comments, it is this feat that the journalists always hit upon and want to know more about. However, this book tells of more than simply this courageous act. It tells of the people Yusra and her family used to be and tells of the people they become as they begin their new lives in Germany. It outlines the difficulties of accepting charity when it was once you doing the giving.

It was this book that made me realise that the people fleeing lived very similar lives to ours – they had computers, they went out to restaurants, they had money. She is quite clear when she states that those fleeing on boats are the ones who can afford to pay the smugglers. Those who have no money cannot escape as her and her family are able to. It makes me reflect on what we would do if this were to happen here…

An amazing account of determination and drive and another example of a personal story behind the facts and figures.

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Refugee Week Book Blog: Refugee Tales

Refugee Tales Volume 2

At the beginning of June, I went to the Derby Book Festival event about Refugee Tales. During the event, Patrick Gale and Marina Lewycka spoke about the Refugee Tales project and the experience of producing this book. The book I am reviewing today is the third volume in the series, telling the stories of people who have been detained by immigration. Most of the stories relate to people held in the UK; however there are also stories from further afield.

As background to this collection, the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group (GDWG) is a group of around 70 volunteers who visit and befriend people being held in the Gatwick Detention Centre. One of the shocking facts that I learnt at the Book Fair event, is that the UK is the only country in Europe that detains people indefinitely under immigration rules. The GDWG is campaigning for an end to indefinite detention. One of their outreach projects is Refugee Tales.

This series of books aims to give a voice to those who have been detained, raising awareness of the impact of detention on people’s lives. They take their inspiration from the Canterbury Tales and the idea of journeying. People who have left detention are introduced to writers who then write their story. Writer Patrick Gale described himself as a vessel, a scribe to whom a story is told to put down on paper.

The tales themselves are heartbreaking. They tell of a man who becomes a father, who within 14 hours of his son’s birth is taken from his room in detention for deportation, saved only by a technical problem with the aircraft. They tell of a young man who has spent his teenage years in England, who, once he turns 18, has to reapply to remain in the UK. He can no longer work. He can longer study. He is detained and after many requests for a single phone call, is eventually allowed to call his girlfriend to say he can’t collect her daughter from nursery. They tell of a pregnant lady, passed from person to person while she tries to receive appropriate medical care. They tell of an educated man who “disappears” in the system. Stories of an incompetent system, of seeing a different person at every meeting and of unprepared officials.

The way people’s lives are turned upside down in the blink of an eye is incredible. Someone turns up to sign in and instead they are detained, without their belongings, without a word to anyone. It has been eye-opening to hear how people are treated by the authorities in our own country and I feel indignant and angry on their behalf. One detainee asks: “I heard that you had human rights in the UK, but where are those rights?” This is another book to read and then pass to someone else to raise awareness of how people are treated in our country.

The other thing that Refugee Tales does is organise a week long event called “Walking with Refugees”. This year the group is walking from Brighton to Hastings in solidarity with refugees. Each day culminates in the telling of one of the tales. For more details, please see their website.

This third volume of Refugee Tales goes on sale in July and is available here. Many thanks to Comma Press for the advance copy.

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Refugee Week Book Blog: Mama’s Nightingale, A Story of Immigration and Separation by Edwidge Danticat, illustrated by Leslie Staub

Today’s book comes from a different part of the world but one that faces it’s own challenges: Mama’s Nightingale, A Story of Immigration and Separation by Edwidge Danticat, illustrated by Leslie Staub (Dial Books).

This book is written from the perspective of Saya, a young girl in America, whose Haitian Mama is in the Sunshine Correctional, “a prison for women without papers”. We feel Saya and her Papa’s sadness that Mama can’t be with them and the pain of separation following a prison visit. Mama starts to send Saya a cassette tape every week with a bedtime story recorded on to it and Saya listens to the tape, imagining Mama tucking her in and kissing her goodnight.

Papa keeps writing to newspaper reporters, the mayor, the congresswoman but nobody ever writes back. One day Saya asks if she can write and she does just that. She writes her story in her words which is then sent to the papers. One paper picks up on her story and soon they are inundated with people wanting to talk to Saya and Papa about Mama. consequently, Mama’s case gets brought before a judge (a black female judge!) and finally she is allowed home while she waits for her papers.

The illustrations in this book are wonderful. The colours and the imagery are just fabulous. I love colour and this is so bright and captivating. We see the nightingale pictured on most pages, sometimes in a cage, sometimes free. The use of thought and sound bubbles help to imagine what Saya is thinking and feeling – a locked padlock here, an unlocked padlock later on, and Mama, floating all around.

When my 8 year old son and I read this, it sparked such a big discussion. The concept of “papers” is completely alien to him. So first we had to look on his wall map to see where Haiti is in relation to America. We then talked about work permits, relating that to his aunt, who lives in Australia. We then got onto Brexit and how at the moment we can live and work anywhere in Europe. We used his classroom and classmates as the example of the 49% vs. 51% and discussed democracy. We kept on going and I fetched out my old passport with stamps and visas for places like Australia and India, which he found fascinating. And all because we read a book. Amazing!

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

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Refugee Week Book Blog: Lost and Found Cat by Doug Kuntz and Amy Shrodes. Illustrated by Sue Cornelison

An extra one for you today: Lost and Found Cat by Doug Kuntz and Amy Shrodes. Illustrated by Sue Cornelison (Crown Books).

Like this morning’s book, Flucht, this story is about a family that takes their cat with them on their journey. Rather than a fictional tale however, this one is true.

The story begins with the family leaving Iraq and, unwilling to leave their beloved cat Kunsush behind, they take him with them, hiding him in a basket. It all goes well until the boat-crossing to Greece, when the cat basket gets broken in the chaos of landing and Kunkush runs away in fear.

The family are distraught at the loss of their cat but have to move on to their next destination. Kunkush meanwhile tries to fit in with a group of local cats but is rejected by them. Some volunteers come across a starving, bedraggled Kunkush and, having heard the story of the family who lost their cat, set out to reunite them.

It is story of people’s love for animals and the lengths people will go to out of human kindness. The fact that the story was shared so far and wide on social media before the book was produced, shows how it has touched a core with many people. You can watch a YouTube video about Kunkush’s journey here. I find it incredible to think that the family managed to hide the cat in a basket for so long without him being discovered.

The rejection by the other cats can also be seen as a metaphor for the rejection of people by other people. By concentrating on the cat’s journey, it opened up discussion about the human journey, too. The map at the back really helped to visualise just how far this family and their cat had travelled.

What my kids had to say:

Dominic (8): I thought the photos at the end were interesting because I hadn’t realised it was a true story. 

Emma (5): The cat’s really cute!

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

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Refugee Week Book Blog: Crossing the sea with Syrians on the exodus to Europe by Wolfgang Bauer, trans. Sarah Pybus

Crossing the sea with Syrians on the exodus to Europe by Wolfgang Bauer, translated from German by Sarah Pybus (And Other Stories).

In 2014, award-winning journalist Wolfgang Bauer and photographer Stanislav Krupar go undercover, joining a group of Syrians trying to get across the sea to Europe. Witnessing first-hand the smuggler gangs, the desperation, the anxiety and the very real dangers of drowning, this is Wolfgang Bauer’s account of his attempt to cross the sea.

It is a deeply moving story of human desperation and determination. These are not just facts and figures we hear about on the radio and read about in the paper; these are people with lives and families.

After days of travelling across land and hiding in flats, waiting for the right moment to cross, Wolfgang and Stanislav’s attempt to cross the sea ends in arrest and deportation. A poignant moment is where Wolfgang and Stanislav have revealed their true identities and Wolfgang observes that “in a matter of seconds, those papers transformed us into different people. From prisoners to privileged frequent flyers”.

After their deportation, Wolfgang has to follow his friends’ journeys from afar. One of the men, Amar (not his real name), makes so many attempts to cross the sea, thinking all the while of his wife and children who will follow him once he makes it. Time and again his efforts are thwarted and he returns to the same cheap hotel to plan his next move. When he finally made it across, having travelled to Africa and taken a flight to Germany on a false passport, I was moved to tears.

We are also told of the journey of brothers Alaa and Hussan, who get onto a boat and make that perilous crossing. In the description of that crossing it is plain to see the panic, the fear, the despair of those on board and the realisation of how near death may be : “We might die out here.”

The book finishes with an impassioned plea from Wolfgang Bauer: “Stop forcing men, women and children onto the boats. Have mercy”. Will the world take note?

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Refugee Week Book Blog: Flucht by Niki Glattauer and Verena Hochleitner

Today’s book recommendations concentrate on the journey that many refugees make across the Mediterranean sea.

This picture book comes from Austria and is yet to be translated: Flucht (Flight) by Niki Glattauer and Verena Hochleitner (Tyrolia Verlag).

This book is a little unusual in as far as the story is told from the cat’s perspective. His name is E.T. like the alien in the film who calls for help. E.T. leads us through the family’s preparations to leave their war-torn home and make the journey across the sea. We are told and shown an illustration of what is on Daniel’s packing list:

1 pencil case with pencils, crayons and felt-tip pens, 1 notebook, 1 bag of Lego Minecraft, 3 shiny stones, 1 mobile phone, 1 laptop, 1 pair of jeans, 2 pairs of shorts, the Messi T-shirt, 5 other T-shirts, 1 black leather jacket, shoes with the green flashing lights, 1 other pair of shoes, underwear and socks, 4 large bottles of water, 1 small packet of documents and 1 large packet of old photos. 

Seeing these items laid out with the rucksack underneath really brought it home for me how very little this family are taking with them but also what they are taking. For Daniel, the Lego and his Messi T-shirt, but photos, a phone and a laptop. Sometimes I think we have an image of refugees as people who in their original country had nothing. We perhaps picture them as poor, living in a rundown hut. Of course, some people do live like that, but many come from societies which are, or were, just like ours.

The illustrations are very powerful – one page shows a single small boat on an expanse of blue.

Towards the end of the journey, Daniel starts to talk of the water-ghosts, which are a little scary and as such, I decided not to introduce this to Emma. I read one review on Amazon suggesting that this was a book to read with children rather than leave them with and I tend to agree. There is so much discussion that can be had from this book, but younger children might find it too much.

What my son had to say:

Dominic (8): They are leaving their home because their country is in war. It must be bad where they are living. They are not taking much stuff with them. I think travelling on the sea must be a bit scary.

Glattauer and Hochleitner save the twist in the book right to the end: these people are not fleeing to Europe, but fleeing from Europe to Africa…

For any interested publishers, the English rights for this book are still available and I have a mocked up book of my translation. Please get in touch!

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

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