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: 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: The Gurugu Pledge by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel (trans. Jethro Soutar)

Today’s adult title on my Refugee Week Book Blog is The Gurugu Pledge by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel, translated from Spanish by Jethro Soutar (And Other Stories).

To give some background to the novel, it is worth mentioning that Spain has two enclaves in Northern Africa: Melilla and Ceuta. As Spanish territories and therefore European territories, they act as a glimmer of hope to refugees desperate to make it to Europe. Climbing the fence to Europe is perhaps less perilous than the alternative boat journeys to the mainland but it is still fraught with danger. Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel is a writer from Equatorial Guinea who now lives in exile in Spain.

This novel joins a group of Africans living on the side of Mount Gurugu in Morocco, not far from the border with Melilla. For the most part, the migrants are left to their own devices as long as they stay up on the mountain, but they are rejected by the local population and treated brutally by the Moroccan police should they stray into the local towns looking for food or medical aid. On the mountain there is precious little to eat and inhabitants are lucky to get a blanket to sleep under in their caves at night

The first part of the book focuses on storytelling, the Africans sharing their stories among each other, telling the reasons for leaving their homelands. Interspersed with these stories, we are also given an idea of what life is like on the mountain. Playing football offers some relief from the daily battles against hunger and idleness: they are not allowed to work, they have nowhere else to go and so football keeps their bodies and minds engaged. They organise a tournament, but on the day of the tournament, an occurrence take place which means the tournament does not go ahead.

We are told the story of Shania. The group she is travelling with reaches a checkpoint run by “bandits dressed in official uniforms but accountable to nobody”. Spotting a woman amongst the group, the supervisor becomes “exercised and upset”. He takes Shania and shuts her in a room. Shania’s husband is at a loss as to what to do and so another man in the group comes forward and negotiates with the supervisor. Shania is released and the group leaves the checkpoint, Shania with tears flooding down her face, a disgusting smell emanating from her body. In her fear, she has soiled herself. She removes her underwear and leaves them at the side of the path. The young man who has negotiated her release promises to buy her a new pair of knickers, but “the promise became a threat”. And so in order to pay her debt, Shania is regularly called upon at night by different men sent to her by the man who “saved” her. While Shania has been saved from one awful fate, she is now living a nightmare.

Due these repeated visits, Shania and another woman are now in need of desperate medical attention. As they cannot walk, the women are carried to look for help, but rather than receive the assistance they desperately require, they are beaten by the police and left for dead. Shania miscarries in a “dry riverbed at the bottom of Mount Gurugu”. Two men escape before the beating and return to camp to tell the story and the following morning Shania and those with her hear “war cries coming from further up the mountain.” What happens next is the migrants response.

Ávila Laurel packs in so many different themes in this relatively slender book. For a look at some of these other themes, please read this fantastic review by Kapka Kasabova on the Guardian website. As Kasabova states, this is “a stark reminder that what is dystopia to some is everyday reality to others”. Two topics that really stood out for me are the abuse and suffering of women and Ávila Laurel’s discussions on the aspirations of black children.

On children he says: “You can’t expect a child, no matter how humble, to say when I grow up I want to be an agency cleaner at Charles de Gaulle airport. Or when I grow up I want to be a fake-handbag salesman, never mind a razor-wire acrobat or a shipwreck rescuee.” We need role models in society of all colours to inspire and encourage all children to achieve their full potential.

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Refugee Week Book Blog: The Journey by Francesca Sanna

Today’s book choices focus on journeying, starting with a book endorsed by Amnesty International: The Journey by Francesca Sanna (Flying Eye Books).

As the author explains, this isn’t a book about a specific journey and, as such, the reader isn’t told where the family are fleeing from and where they are going to. The book is written in the first person from the child’s perspective. One particularly heart-wrenching page is nearly all black with the words: And one day the war took my father. The mother is left alone with her children and takes the decision to leave the country with her two children.

The inner strength of the mother really comes through. On one page we see the mother holding her awake children to her and the colours around her include splashes of oranges and yellows and greens. On the opposite page we see the same image but the children are asleep and only now does the mother release her tears, the colours now muted blues and darker greens. I love how the tears form part of the the mother’s hair.

As the family progress on their journey, we see all the different ways they travel: in their own car, in the back of a van, in a lorry squashed among vegetables, on a bike, on foot, by boat and finally by train. We feel the despair and the fear along the way, as they hide in bushes trying not to attract attention to themselves. We leave the family on a train, crossing many borders. The book closes saying: I hope, one day, like these birds, we will find a new home. A home where we can be safe and begin our story again. Powerful words from a powerful book.

The illustrations in this book are just stunning and there is such detail, cleverly weaving dangerous looking eyes and fingers into the background.

What my daughter had to say:

Emma (5): I like all the birds at the end. I wouldn’t like to do a journey like that. 

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

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Refugee Book Blog: Dear World. A Syrian Girl’s Story of War and Plea for Peace by Bana Alabed

In 2016, eight-year-old Bana Alabed starting using Twitter to tell the world about what was happening to her family under siege in Aleppo, Syria. This book is her story about what happened to her and her family.

Originally I presumed this was a children’s book, but with the intense situations and colour photographs showing the brutal consequences of war, this is not one I would recommend for a young audience. Interspersed with letters to Bana written by Fatemah, her mother, Bana tells of her best friend dying, her home being specifically targeted by bombers and the arrival of her new baby brother against a backdrop of destruction and fear.

As a parent to an eight-year-old myself, I found this account absolutely heartbreaking and in places, difficult to read. In one of her letters, Fatemah says she now laughs about worrying about whether Bana was eating too many sweets: “What I wouldn’t have given for those to have remained my greatest concerns. To worry about what you ate, and not whether you would even have any food to eat”. Arguing about sweets is a regular occurrence in our house and this really put the situation into perspective for me.

With colour photographs accompanying the text, this book is very vivid, offering a child’s perspective on the horrors of living through war: destruction, violence and death. A reminder that war does not just touch the lives of adults, but that children too are caught up in the fighting. For anyone questioning why refugees are leaving, hand them a copy of this book and ask them if they would stay. Had this been written by an adult, it would be a powerful testimony. The fact it is written by a child makes it even more so.

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Refugee Week Book Blog: Tomorrow by Nadine Kaadan

Starting now to focus more on the current refugee situation, my other recommendations today look at why people are leaving their home countries. A great book for younger children is Tomorrow by Nadine Kaadan, translated from Arabic by the author (Lantana Publishing).

This book tells the story of Yazan who can no longer go to the park. He no longer goes to school. He even starts to miss it “which was a surprise”. His parents are preoccupied but Yazan’s concerns aren’t about the news; he wants to go to the park. One day, Yazan decides he’s going to the park, takes his red bike and leaves the house alone. Everything is different to how it used to be. I won’t spoil the ending, but needless to say, he makes it home again safely.

In her letter to the reader, Kaadan begins asking, “Have you ever been stuck inside the house when you’re desperate to go outside?” Most children probably can. It’s really clever that she has taken such a serious issue and created story around a situation that a child who has never experienced war can understand. The illustrations in watercolour and pencil are beautiful and the colours really help to convey Yazan’s feelings.

One of my concerns had been about broaching this subject with (then) 4-year-old Emma and whether she would find this all a bit scary. While the pictures are at times dark and eerie and the buildings pictured are damaged, they aren’t portrayed in a particularly scary way.

What my kids had to say:

Dominic (8): It’s about a boy called Yazan. Everything around him is changing and he can’t go to the park because there are people fighting on the streets. It’s too dangerous. It’s important for children like me to read this book. It tells you what life is like in Syria. 

Emma (4): The shadows on the floor look like bad news. Someone’s broked (sic) the houses. It’s sad that Yazan can’t go outside. 

For more World Kid Lit suggestions, you can also visit the World Kid Lit website

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Refugee Week Book Blog starts on Monday

On Monday, I will begin my Refugee Week Book Blog, recommending books on the topic of refugees and migration.

I aim to post at least two books a day, one adult title and one children’s book. These books can be used to inform ourselves but can also serve as a starting point for conversations with both adults and children. The picture books I will recommend this week are particularly important for opening our children’s eyes to the world around them and helping them to understand what may be happening around them.

Please join me as we stand in solidarity with refugees and asylum seekers around the world.