Books about refugees are popular right now, and reading them will make you more empathetic. And then you can begin to fight back.
People are hungry for stories about refugees, especially since President Donald Trump introduced an immigration ban on seven Muslim-majority countries including the ones embroiled in war.
In response, fiction and non-fiction publishers are increasingly opening their doors to Muslim stories. A recent call for Muslim authors by literary agents is only a small example of this trend. Many of the agents in that call are already representing or hoping to represent writers with accounts of non-western narratives.
The reasoning behind this is apparent. If the American public reads books about refugees — learns about their difficulties as they walk hundreds of miles, starve in border camps or are killed by dictators — perhaps the sentiment against them will change. It will allow readers to understand the issues that Syrians, Iraqis, Somalis and countless others face on a daily basis, and eventually spur political action.
On the other hand, there is also a selfish desire to become better human beings by learning about the suffering of others. It teaches us gratitude, our children empathy, and makes our own environment a better one. It allows us to learn about politics and geography and even history.
Several lists have been created to help readers find the right books, either for themselves or for their children. For instance, one blogger created this very helpful list of 12 Children’s Books About Refugees, which can be used to teach empathy and world affairs to younger audiences. This list includes Four Feet Two Sandals, a book about friendship in a Pakistani refugee camp, and The Colour of Home, a story about a Somali family who escapes to the U.S. The list also includes older but no less relevant refugee stories, such as Oskar and the Eight Blessings, about the Jewish refugee experience, and Journey Home about Vietnamese refugees.
Another important list is offered by BookBrowse. Entitled Book Club Books about Immigrants and Refugees, this list includes many favorites, as well as books that are sure to be a surprise to readers. In addition to the expected stories from Iraq and Somalia, the list also highlights lesser-known stories about families escaping from South America, Africa and Tibet.
Realizing the importance of actual stories of real refugees, many organizations are beginning to collect non-fiction accounts through interviews and recordings. All are harrowing, but they need to be heard so that the public can begin the process of feeling empathy and ultimately helping. One website, Iraqi Refugee Stories, offers a multitude of videos and audio recordings, while the Migration Heritage Center collects stories from around the world.
The Pulitzer Center has published a book, Flight From Syria: Refugee Stories with the reporting and photography of prize-winning journalists. The book is available for download here.
The Chicago Tribune recommends a list of heavy hitters, including the accounts of Sikh discrimination in the aftermath of 9/11 and the stories of Vietnamese and Taiwanese refugees in the United States. The list is available here.
And finally, author Deborah Ellis has written many books showcasing refugee children’s narratives. In addition to Children of War: Voices of Iraqi Refugees, she has many other stories from Afghanistan, Palestine and elsewhere. Her treasure trove of books is on her website.
Reading the stories of refugees is an essential first step, but it must become the impetus for further action. Readers who are aware of the crisis in not only Syria and Iraq but also Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, South America and all over the world must be ready to take action. My suggestions: start simple and build a movement:
1. Share your books with your friends.
Once you’ve read books about refugees and heard their real accounts, there is no going back. The only way forward is to make others aware of the stories. Host a book club in your home, lend the books to your family members or friends, and share links like the ones in this article on social media.
2. Contact your public library.
Ask them to buy one or more of the books about refugees. If they already have several, convince the librarian to create a special display or hold a Refugee Day to showcase these books. If you offer yourself as a volunteer, and perhaps bring snacks, the library will be more than happy to accept.
3. Be politically active.
Write letters to your Congressional representatives expressing your resistance to discriminating against refugees. Follow the news and be ready to share articles and other information about the refugee situation. Things are fluid in war-torn countries and it is imperative to remain alert.
4. Find refugees in your area who may need help.
Many cities have refugee resettlement programs and are struggling to help their clients, due to lack of funding. Community volunteers can be a big help by donating household items, clothing, food vouchers, etc. You can also offer to teach English, drive them to job interviews or just help out with the kids. Adopting a refugee family can go a long way toward making their experience in a new country more positive.
I recently read and reviewed the story of Doaa, a Syrian refugee, in A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea. It’s one of suffering, but also ultimately of hope. Doaa goes on to help save the lives of other refugees, and despite her fears she is ready to do whatever is needed to solve the refugee crisis. We, the readers of these books, must do the same.
Featured image of Somali refugees by Udey Ismail. Creative Commons license.