By Don Vu
Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have books about refugees because no one ever needed to escape their homeland in search of safety and freedom? Unfortunately, refugees will always exist in a climate of greed and lust for power. And, books can help us share their stories, foster connection and build empathy in this ever-divisive world.
In 1975, as the American War in Vietnam ended, my family and I narrowly escaped Saigon in search of safety and hope. We were some of the fortunate first 120,000 Vietnamese refugees to have landed in America during that time.
Almost 50 years later, I was with my father when a similar situation unfolded halfway across the world in Afghanistan. I turned to my father as the evening news flashed chaotic scenes of people rushing onto airport tarmacs to escape certain persecution as the country fell into the hands of the Taliban. With misty eyes, he quietly got up and said, “The exact same thing is happening again. We never learn our lessons.”
It’s been several weeks since the Russian invasion of Ukraine that created over 10 million new refugees in the world. One day, people were living normal lives– shopping for groceries, watching their favorite television shows, taking their children to school, making dinner for their families. The next day, they are waking up in a tent or subway station, wondering what the future will bring. If and when they do come back home, it will never be the same.
You don’t have to be a former refugee to have sympathy for the refugees in the world. But you need to know their stories. And this is where books come in.
Books can be the windows (and for many of our students, mirrors) that allow refugees to share with us their loss, their fears, their hopes and dreams. Books give a voice to those displaced and marginalized. And they allow readers to connect beyond the 30 second soundbites on the nightly news. When we are able to see that their hopes and dreams are not much different from ours, we will realize that there is not much difference between any of us. Refugee status can be applied to anyone– regardless of nationality, skin color, or ethnicity. Here are a few noteworthy children’s books about refugees that can be shared with students:
Wishes by Muon Thi Van. With only 75 words, this picture book is poetic in describing the emotions of leaving a home in search of a new one. Each page offers educators an opportunity to explore the loss, fears, hopes, and dreams of those seeking refuge away from home. Because it does not specify where the setting is, readers can apply the discussion to any refugee scenario.
Lubna and Pebble by Wendy Meddour and Daniel Egneus. Set in a refugee camp, Lubna creates a new friend from a stone she finds on the beach to help her adjust to her new life. When she meets another child who just arrived to camp, they become friends until it is time for her to move on. This picture book allows us to get a glimpse of life in a refugee camp and how friendships can make all the difference.
Refugee by Alan Gratz. For older kids, this fictional work tells the stories of 3 young people, from different countries and different eras in history, as they face unimaginable danger as refugees. Students will be able to not only find the common threads of humanity across the stories but they will have an opportunity to reflect on how they would feel in similar circumstances.
These are but a few of the many books that are being published every day that share the stories of refugees. As educators, we have the responsibility to share these stories. We hope that our students will never have to endure the pain of losing their homes (although many are in our schools for that exact reason). However, when students read about the refugee experience, we can help the next generation develop understanding and sympathy in hopes that one day we will all recognize the humanity in one another.
Don Vu is the author of Life, Literacy, and the Pursuit of Happiness: Supporting Our Immigrant and Refugee Children through the Power of Reading. He has worked in schools for 24 years as a teacher and principal. He is looking forward to sharing the stories of immigrants and refugees at the 2023 CCIRA conference in Denver. You can find out more about Don at www.drdonvu.com.