I Read Canadian: Six books about the refugee experience

Here are some Canadian-authored titles that invite young readers to reflect on the resilience of refugee children.

By Hannah Scott and Lidia Abraha

For children, books are a child’s first chance to see the big, wide world. A study from Cambridge University found that, when reading books, children develop empathy and kindness. Because reading helps children understand something that they might not have experienced or been affected by before, stories about refugees that explore subjects like immigration are important.

Feb. 19, 2020, marks the first-ever “I Read Canadian Day,” a celebration of the richness, diversity and breadth of Canadian literature. This nationwide event recognizes how Canadian culture and children’s books work together to empower and inspire youngsters across the country.

According to the UNHCR Global Trends Report, Canada led the world in refugee resettlement in 2018. The country has welcomed more than one million refugees since 1980. Canadians have time and again opened their arms and hearts to newcomers who have been forced to flee their homelands because of violence and persecution. This generosity and kindness make Canadians — and the books they write — unique.

For the inaugural “I Read Canadian Day,” UNHCR Canada is highlighting six books from Canadian authors focusing on the experiences of refugee children — both abroad and here in Canada.

From Far Away by Robert Munsch and Saoussan Askar

In 1989, Saoussan Askar was just seven years old when her family fled Lebanon because of the civil war. After resettling and growing up in Toronto, Saoussan wrote a letter to her favourite author, Robert Munsch, telling him about her experiences as a child immigrant. Munsch, a prolific American-Canadian author now living in Guelph, Ont., was so taken with her story that they worked together to turn it into a book.

From Far Away tells the story of Askar’s experiences as a new Canadian. She struggled with not understanding the teacher, not knowing how to ask to go to the bathroom, and being terrified of a Halloween skeleton, among many other concerns.

From Far Away illustrates how refugees and immigrant children come to know Canada as their home, and offers a window into the struggles newcomers face in settling in a new home and recovering from the trauma of war.

My Beautiful Birds by Suzanne Del Rizzo

In My Beautiful Birds, Suzanne Del Rizzo, from Oakville, Ont., tells the moving story of Sami, a young boy living in Syria during the civil war. Del Rizzo explores the sadness and distress children feel when they are forced to leave behind everything they know.

For Sami, he longs for his home and hopes for the safety of his pet birds. My Beautiful Birds follows Sami’s experience as a refugee child: settling into life at a refugee camp, finding new friends, building a shelter, and his emotional journey as he begins to heal from the trauma of war.

More than 5.6 million Syrian refugees like Sami have fled their homes looking for safety in neighbouring countries. For Canadian children, My Beautiful Birds helps them understand and empathize with children personally impacted by the ongoing Syrian crisis.

Stepping Stones by Margriet Ruurs

When you flee your country, the items you bring on your journey often carry many memories of home. Stepping Stones tells the story of Rama, who is forced to flee the country she loves when bombs land near her home.

Growing up waking with the family’s rooster and playing with other children in her once-peaceful village in Syria, Rama and her family are forced to carry what they can on their backs, and travel to Europe.

This picture book was inspired by the artwork of Nizar Ali Badr. Badr still lives in his native Syria, and when lacking tools, he used the stones from the sea to tell the stories of those still in his home country. While living in Salt Spring Island, B.C., Ruurs worked with Badr to create Stepping Stones, and illustrate what it’s like to leave the country you love and prepare for uncertain — and sometimes dangerous — travels.

Stormy Seas by Mary Beth Leatherdale

Stormy Seas by Toronto-based author Mary Beth Leatherdale navigates readers through time, and shares five true stories of refugees who travelled by sea in search of safety and opportunity. Stormy Seas begins in the year 1939from the perspective of 18-year-old Ruth, who was among the hundreds of Jews to board the SS St. Louis escaping Nazi Germany.

The story then shifts to Jose, a 13-year-old who fled Cuba with his family. They hopped aboard the Mariel Boatlift, which carried thousands of Cuban refugees to the United States in hope of finding economic and political freedom. We then meet Mohamed who was driven from his home during the civil war in Ivory Coast, and crowded a boat headed for Europe. Stormy Seas also tells the story of Phu who set sail alone from war-torn Vietnam, and Najeeba from Afghanistan who fled the Taliban.

All five stories highlight the bravery and desperation shown by refugees to travel the unruly seas in search of safety. These remarkable accounts give young readers insight into the devastating effects of war and poverty.

The Sky is Falling by Kit Pearson

Edmonton native Kit Pearson’s novel The Sky is Falling follows the story of Norah, a ten-year-old English girl. In the summer of 1940, when all of England fears an invasion by the German Reich, Norah and her brother, Gavin, are sent to safety in Toronto.

The novel focuses on the unique experience of a child who has fled from war. When Norah arrives in Canada, she experiences bullying and anxiety. The Sky is Falling is the first of three books in the Guests of War trilogy, which follows Norah as she navigates the grief of leaving home, family and friends behind.

Story Boat by Kyo Maclear

When a young girl and her family are forced to flee their homes, the children turn to the items they carry as a source of imagination and hope. Story Boat, by Toronto-based author Kyo Maclear, encourages young readers to reflect on the journey of refugees and how they maintain inspiration amid uncertainty.

With no specific setting or named characters, Story Boat is meant to relate to all refugees — no matter where they come from or how they arrived. This book illustrates how refugees are able to hold on to their creativity, while they travel dangerous roads in search of safety and opportunity.

After spending years visiting schools all over Canada, the author intended to inspire children to become allies in the refugee cause.

“It’s our story. That’s the fundamental flaw in a lot of our conversations about the refugee situation: it’s seen as someone else’s story,” said Maclear.

Want to support refugees? Donate to UNHCR Canada here.

The UN Refugee Agency in Canada is dedicated to providing life-saving support to refugees, displaced and stateless people.

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