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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: 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: 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: 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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