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World Refugee Day

Today is World Refugee Day, a time to celebrate the contribution of refugees to our communities and to stand in solidarity with refugees around the world. The theme for this year’s Refugee Week 2020 has been “Imagine”, with the organisers inviting us to join in with the Simple Acts we can all do. Normally I talk about books in these posts, and I will come to a few of my current recommendations later on, but today I’d also like to share with you a couple of films that I have watched this week.

These are two films that I have had the option of watching previously but which, I must admit, I’ve been too scared to watch. I’ve read lots of books, and I meet people who have made these journeys; I didn’t know if I was strong enough to see the real-life images captured by these film makers. But the people in these films don’t have a choice about whether they are strong enough to face these conditions, and if I want to come closer to understanding their experiences, while accepting that from my position of privilege as a white British person, I can never truly understand what they have been through, I need to see these images and hear these stories. And so this week, I set out to do just that.

The Movement produced by Sharon Walia is a documentary that follows individuals who volunteer their time with grass-roots organisations that offer help refugees. She spends time with the crew of Sea-Watch, a boat that operates in the Mediterranean Sea, rescuing migrants who would surely drown without their help. These groups have come under fire from European authorities, accused of helping the smugglers. In 2019, after the release of this film, the German captain of Sea-Watch 3 was arrested after defying the Italian ban on search and rescue boats docking on their shores. But as the volunteers in the film repeatedly highlight, there is nobody else out there to help.

As well as reporting from the sea, Walia also spends time on the streets of Paris, a major European capital, where migrants sleep under bridges, often in plain view of the traffic streaming past. She talks to volunteers and refugees in Rome and in Greece. It is a damning view of the response by Europe to this situation which, two years after the making of this film, shows no sign of abating. Available to watch free on Amazon Prime.

For Sama directed by Waad Al-Kateab and Edward Watts. I’m not going to lie, this isn’t an easy watch. For Sama documents the siege of Aleppo in Syria as filmed by a young female journalist. Compiled from over 500 hours of footage, this is a personal story of a young woman growing up, finding the love of her life, marrying and having a baby but all against a backdrop of war. Al-Kateab shows the physical devastation of bombs dropped in a built up city, often focusing on a aircraft flying over and releasing its weapons. She also depicts the human suffering, showing badly wounded people arriving at the hospital, blood stains across the floors as the medical staff, her husband included among these, struggle to keep up with demand.

Just as harrowing as these bloody images are the reactions of relatives whose loved ones are killed. Mothers refusing to put down their dead children, a pair of young brothers, covered in dust, mourning their younger sibling. Al-Kateab talks to young children whose vocabulary already includes words to describe bombs, shells and death. These images will stay with me.

As well as watching these films, I have also read a YA book that focuses on a different part of our globe but that is no less deserving of our attention. The Other Side – Stories of Central American Teen Refugees Who Dream of Crossing the Border by Juan Villalobos translated by Rosalind Harvey. It tells the true stories of teenagers who are trying to cross the border into the USA. The children, for that is what they are, come from different parts of Central America, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and at their time of crossing are aged between 10 and 17. These short stories give an insight into the lives these youngsters are fleeing – gang violence, extortion, discrimination – and their experiences of trying to escape. In many cases they are trying to reach relatives in the USA. Many of these young people are passed from person to person, vehicle to vehicle, along a seemingly endless chain, with the potential to end up being sent back to where they have come from. They talk of fear, of vulnerability and of courage.

For younger children, I would also recommend the book What is a refugee by Elise Gravel that I reviewed back in March. Gravel emphasizes the fact that refugees are people, “just like us”. With clear, concise sentences, Gravel takes us through the sort of situations that refugees might be fleeing, one idea to a double spread page. The accompanying illustrations are bright and bold. From here, she goes on to depict people at a closed border, in a refugee camp and she discusses simply what refugees are hoping for – a school, a job, a safe place to live. This is a great introduction for anyone wishing to have a conversation with children about refugees and migration.

For more reading suggestions, please take a look at my recommendations.

If you feel you would like to support the work of organisations working with refugees, particularly during these challenging times, please take a look at the Care4Calais website. If you are local to Derbyshire and wish to get involved, please visit Derbyshire Refugee Solidarity.

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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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Picture Books, Reviews

Flucht by Niki Glattauer and Verena Hochleitner

In 2018, my kids and I carried out 30 day challenge reviewing 30 books in 30 for #WorldKidLitMonth. This was one of the books we looked at and I think it’s one that’s worth revisiting for #WorldKdiLitMonth 2020. 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, pants and socks, 4 large bottles of water, 1 small envelope of documents and
1 large envelope 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 we have an image of refugees as people who had nothing to begin with. We perhaps picture them as poor, living in a rundown hut in the middle of nowhere. Of course, some people do live like that, but many come from societies which are, or were, just like ours. And if I were leaving in a hurry, I know I’d grab my mobile phone – it’s a map, a torch, a phone, a camera and I can use it to access my emails – an essential piece of kit!

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

What is really powerful about this book comes right at the end (spoiler alert!). Throughout the book, we as the reader make assumptions about who these people are and where they come from. Perhaps it’s Syria, perhaps it’s Africa. But Glattauer and Hochleitner turn this on its head, revealing that the family are not fleeing from Africa to Europe, but from Europe to Africa. It challenges us to consider how we would respond to such events: what would we do? And I think it’s really important to do this, to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and empathise with them.

What my (then) eight-year-old son had to say:

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.

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

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

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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 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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