Books About Refugees
World Refugee Day is held on 20th June around the world.
Today (11th June) is also Empathy Day.
What better day to share this list?
In the U.K. Refugee Week is held around this time in order to celebrate the contribution that refugees have made to the U.K. and to help better understand the reasons why people might seek refuge.
Find out more about Refugee Week here.
Empathy Day was founded in 2017.
It aims to drive a new empathy movement, inspired by research showing that humans are not born with a fixed quantity of empathy – it’s a skill we can learn.
This year’s Empathy Day is on 11 June and is a lightning rod for a new story-driven empathy movement. A wide range of organisations are joining forces to harness books’ empathy-building power, inspired by scientific evidence that in identifying with book characters, we learn to see things from other points of view.
Schools, libraries, young people’s organisations, publishers, prisons, booksellers, TV producers are working with EmpathyLab to emphasise empathy’s importance and create story-based activities which help us all understand each other better.
On Empathy Day we want everyone to:
because stories and book characters build our real-life empathy
Find out more about Empathy Day here.
Read on to get to the list of brilliant books about refugees.
What are refugees?
A refugee is a person who:
‘owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country’
What is the difference between a refugee and an asylum seeker?
An asylum seeker:
- flees their home
- arrives in another country, whichever way they can
- makes themselves known to the authorities
- submits an asylum application
- has a legal right to stay in the country while waiting for a decision.
In 2018, the UK received applications for asylum for 37,453 people (including dependants). This is far less than Germany (162,000), France (110,000), Greece (65,000) and Italy (49,000).
In the same year, there were five asylum applications for every 10,000 people living in the UK. Across the EU, there were 14 asylum applications for every 10,000 people.
The UK is below the European average for asylum applications and ranks 17th among EU countries per head of population.
Asylum seekers were around five per cent of immigrants to the UK in 2018.
- has proven that they’d be at risk if returned to their home country
- has had their claim for asylum accepted by the government
- can now stay here either long term or indefinitely.
Refugees have a right under UK and international law to bring their immediate family members to join them.
How many refugees are there in the UK?
The UK offered protection – in the form of grants of asylum, alternative forms of protection and resettlement – to 15,891 people in 2018 (up 8% compared with the previous year). Of these, 42% (or 6,628) were children.
According to UNHCR statistics by mid-2018 there were 124,018 refugees, 33,035 pending asylum cases and 106 stateless persons in the UK.
The vast majority of refugees stay in their region of displacement, and consequently are hosted by developing countries. Turkey now hosts the highest number of refugees with 3.6 million, followed by Pakistan with 1.4 million.
(Source: UNHCR 2018 Mid Year Trends Report)
Where do asylum seekers in the UK come from?
In 2018, the largest number of asylum applications came from nationals of: The top five countries of nationality for asylum applications were Iran (3,327), Iraq (2,697), Eritrea (2,158), Pakistan (2,022) and Albania (2,001).
It seems that not a day goes past without another news story about the ‘refugee crisis’. Both children and adults are being bombarded with images and rhetoric, often which miss out the fact that each and every refugee is a human being rather than just a number.
As a teacher I am aware that my pupils will have some level of awareness about refugees, but I feel that it is important to open up discussions and attempt to create a sympathetic dialogue, rather than relying on news stories to convey all the information required.
For that reason, I have put together a list of some books about refugees which I have read and used in the classroom.
This is not an exhaustive list so I would love your recommendations for any that I simply must read and add to the school library!
No Ballet Shoes in Syria by Catherine Bruton
Aya is eleven years old and has just arrived in Britain with her mum and baby brother, seeking asylum from war in Syria.
When Aya stumbles across a local ballet class, the formidable dance teacher spots her exceptional talent and believes that Aya has the potential to earn a prestigious ballet scholarship.
But at the same time, Aya and her family must fight to be allowed to remain in the country, to make a home for themselves, and to find Aya’s father – separated from the rest of the family during the journey from Syria.
“A perfect balance of tragedy and triumph” – Natasha Farrant, author of The Children of Castle Rock
I feel privileged to have read this beautiful book -one that is destined to become a classic, like the books that inspired it, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and the Sadler’s Wells series.
The story follows Aya as she attempts to help her mother and younger brother negotiate the vagaries and difficulties of life as an asylum seeker. They have had a long, hard journey from their home in Syria in order to reach the safety of England, but it is still unsure if they will be able to stay or not.
This book is both an ode to the power of dance to express emotions and change lives and an eye-opening look at the dangers causing many families to flee their homes. I read this with both a full heart at the resilience of the human spirit and tears trickling down my cheeks at the challenges Aya and her family face. Such an important and inspiring story!
See my full review here.
The Day War Came by Nicola Davies and Rebecca Cobb
A moving, poetic narrative and child-friendly illustrations follow the heartbreaking, ultimately hopeful journey of a little girl who is forced to become a refugee.
The day war came there were flowers on the windowsill and my father sang my baby brother back to sleep.
Imagine if, on an ordinary day, after a morning of studying tadpoles and drawing birds at school, war came to your town and turned it to rubble. Imagine if you lost everything and everyone, and you had to make a dangerous journey all alone. Imagine that there was no welcome at the end, and no room for you to even take a seat at school. And then a child, just like you, gave you something ordinary but so very, very precious.
This book should be in every classroom! It does such a good job of introducing children to issues they may be hearing about in the media and humanise the individuals who are suffering from the effects of war, rather than lump them all together under the label of ‘the refugee crisis’.
Beautiful illustrations, sparse but effective language and an essential message make this a book that should be used in every classroom to teach our children empathy and understanding.
See my full review (complete with examples of the illustrations) here.
Journey by Francesca Sanna
With haunting echoes of the current refugee crisis this beautifully illustrated book explores the unimaginable decisions made as a family leave their home and everything they know to escape the turmoil and tragedy brought by war. This book will stay with you long after the last page is turned.
I have been meaning to read this for ages so was glad to finally pick up a copy in my library today. The story follows two young girls and their mother as their live changes beyond recognition and they are forced to flee their country. The art is both beautiful, whimsical and menacing. Personally, I liked the mixture of fantasy and reality as I could imagine the little girl comparing her experience to that of heroes and heroines from stories she has read.
This is a powerful, important book which could spark many important discussions about refugees and asylum seekers and help to develop empathy in readers, regardless of their age or political opinions.
House Without Walls by Ching Yeung Russell
For most people, home is a place with four walls. It’s a place to eat, sleep, rest, and live. For a refugee, the concept of home is ever-changing, ever-moving, ever-wavering. And often, it doesn’t have any walls at all.
Eleven-year-old Lam escapes from Vietnam with Dee Dee during the Vietnamese Boat People Exodus in 1979, when people from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia fled their homelands for safety. For a refugee, the trip is a long and perilous one, filled with dangerous encounters with pirates and greedy sailors, a lack of food and water, and even the stench of a dead body on board. When they finally arrive at a refugee camp, Lam befriends Dao, a girl her age who becomes like a sister-a welcome glimmer of happiness after a terrifying journey.
Readers will feel as close to Lam as the jade pendant she wears around her neck, sticking by her side throughout her journey as she experiences fear, crushing loss, boredom, and some small moments of joy along the way.
Written in verse, this is a heartfelt story that is sure to build empathy and compassion for refugees around the world escaping oppression.
I wasn’t prepared for the emotional depth and heft of this story. Written in verse, it follows Lam and her brothers as they attempt to leave Vietnam and emigrate to another country, in the aftermath of the victory of the north Vietnamese forces and the subsequent discrimination against her family and other Chinese families.
This story has moments of darkness, but is also shot through with hope as the children face obstacle upon obstacle to reach safety and their father, ho successfully emigrated to America years earlier. At every step Lam is torn between the hope of a new future, the family she has left behind in Vietnam and the new ‘found’ family she has made along the way.
Beautiful and important book, recommended for all!
(If giving to younger children, please note that there is repeated mention of the threat of sexual violence and rape against women and girls although our narrator does not experience or witness this. As might be expected from the dangerous journey undertaken, there are also descriptions of death)
The Closest Thing to Flying by Gill Lewis
Present day: Semira doesn’t know where to call home. She and her mother came to England when she was four years old, brought across the desert and the sea by a man who has complete control. Always moving on, always afraid of being caught, she longs for freedom.
1891: Hen knows exactly where to call home. Her stifling mother makes sure of that. But her Aunt Kitty is opening her eyes to a whole new world. A world of animal rights, and votes for women, and riding bicycles! Trapped in a life of behaving like a lady, she longs for freedom.
When Semira discovers Hen’s diary, she finds the inspiration to be brave, to fight for her place in the world, and maybe even to uncover the secrets of her own past
I borrowed this from my local library because Gill Lewis has become an auto-read author for me -everything she’s written is amazing!
In this book, she has done it again!
The story follows Semira, a young refugee from Eritrea as she joins a new school and attempts to support her mother. Her life changes when she comes across a Victorian hat, decorated with a small green bird that brings back memories of the country she left behind. In the bottom of the hatbox, she finds the diary of a girl around her age as she becomes involved in the early movements leading towards women’s suffrage and the founding of the Society for the Protection of Birds. Events in the past and the present overlap and intertwine, with the diary providing an escape and inspiration for Semira to change her life.
I was gripped – this is a must-read!
My Name is Not Refugee by Kate Milner
A young boy discusses the journey he is about to make with his mother. They will leave their town, she explains, and it will be sad but also a little bit exciting. They will have to say goodbye to friends and loved ones, and that will be difficult. They will have to walk and walk and walk, and although they will see many new and interesting things, it will be difficult at times too. A powerful and moving exploration that draws the young reader into each stage of the journey, inviting the chance to imagine the decisions he or she would make. From the winner of the V&A Student Illustration Award 2016.
This is, on the surface, a very simple book, but it manages to challenge assumptions and introduce a controversial topic in an accessible way.
The Boy at The Back of the Class
There used to be an empty chair at the back of my class, but now a new boy called Ahmet is sitting in it.
He’s eight years old (just like me), but he’s very strange. He never talks and never smiles and doesn’t like sweets – not even lemon sherbets, which are my favourite!
But the truth is, Ahmet really isn’t very strange at all. He’s a refugee who’s run away from a War. A real one. With bombs and fires and bullies that hurt people. And the more I find out about him, the more I want to be his friend.
That’s where my best friends Josie, Michael and Tom come in. Because you see, together we’ve come up with a plan.
I’m so glad to have finally read this! I have rarely come across a book that has moved me to tears, then had me laughing through the tears within seconds! This story comes from the heart and deserves a place in yours. It introduces characters who are instantly recognizable and makes you think more carefully about how issues can become polarised in the media and during political debate. Such an important book -I will be getting multiple copies for our school library!
A Story Like the Wind by Gill Lewis and Jo Weaver
In a small boat spinning out on the sea sits a group of refugees, fleeing their war-stricken homes. They have nothing – except their memories, their stories, and their music. An unforgettable tale of displacement, hope, and the search for freedom.
Beautifully-illustrated, poignant yet affirming story which would be an important addition to any discussion about immigration, refugees and asylum seekers. Highly-recommended.
Illegal by Eoin Colfer, Andrew Donkin and Giovanni Rigano
This is a powerful and timely story about one boy’s epic journey across Africa to Europe.
Ebo: alone. His sister left months ago. Now his brother has disappeared too, and Ebo knows it can only be to make the hazardous journey to Europe.
Ebo’s epic journey takes him across the Sahara Desert to the dangerous streets of Tripoli, and finally out to the merciless sea. But with every step he holds on to his hope for a new life, and a reunion with his sister.
‘Beautifully realised and punchily told.’ Alex O’Connell, The Times Children’s Book of the Week
I can’t believe that it took me so long to pick this up and properly read it – the story follows Ebo and Kwame as they attempt to follow their sister to Europe and escape from poverty. The story is told from Ebo’s point-of-view and he is an endearing, beautiful character. Alternate chapters fill in the backstory, while the ‘now’ chapters look at the harsh realities of the brother’s journey.
The emotional punch in the gut wasn’t unexpected, but it still hurt when it came, transporting me seamlessly into that hopeless moment.
The text is sparse, the illustrations simple, but the emotion conveyed is immense.
The Weight of Water by Sarah Crossan
Armed with a suitcase and an old laundry bag filled with clothes, Kasienka and her mother head for England. Life is lonely for Kasienka. At home her mother’s heart is breaking and at school friends are scarce. But when someone special swims into her life, Kasienka learns that there might be more than one way for her to stay afloat.”The Weight of Water” is a startlingly original piece of fiction; most simply a brilliant coming of age story, it also tackles the alienation experienced by many young immigrants. Moving, unsentimental and utterly page-turning, we meet and share the experiences of a remarkable girl who shows us how quiet courage prevails.
This book changed my outlook on life. I picked it up in the university library and have since devoured everything that Sarah Crossan has written. So much is said in so few words. This book will insert itself into the cracks in your heart!
The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon
Born in a refugee camp, all Subhi knows of the world is that he’s at least 19 fence diamonds high, the nice Jackets never stay long, and at night he dreams that the sea finds its way to his tent, bringing with it unusual treasures. And one day it brings him Jimmie.
Carrying a notebook that she’s unable to read and wearing a sparrow made out of bone around her neck – both talismans of her family’s past and the mother she’s lost – Jimmie strikes up an unlikely friendship with Subhi beyond the fence.
As he reads aloud the tale of how Jimmie’s family came to be, both children discover the importance of their own stories in writing their futures.
A story that somehow manages to be both harrowing and hopeful, about a young boy who has grown up inside a refugee camp and his dreams of freedom and being treated as a person rather than a ‘problem’. Should be required reading!
The Other Side of Truth by Beverly Naidoo
After the murder of their mother, twelve-year-old Sade and her younger brother are smuggled out of Nigeria by their journalist father to escape the corrupt military government and growing violence. They are sent to their uncle in London, but when they arrive, he is missing and they are abandoned, passed between foster homes. Their father escapes to England to find them — but he will be sent back to Nigeria unless Sade can find a way to tell the world what happened to her family.
I read this years ago, but it remains topical and interesting as it follows two children attempting to navigate their way through the system to apply for asylum in the U.K.
Dreams of Freedom Amnesty International
“I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter… I have taken a moment to rest, but I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities.” Nelson Mandela
“If you are tired, keep going. If you are scared, keep going. If you are hungry, keep going. If you want to taste freedom, keep going.” Harriet Tubman
This inspirational book, following We Are All Born Free, contains 17 quotations about many different aspects of freedom, from the freedom to have an education to that not to be hurt or tortured, the freedom to have a home and the freedom to be yourself. All the chosen quotations are in simple words that can be understood by young children.
A beautifully- illustrated collection of quotes and poems about what it means to be free and the freedom that every child should enjoy. This should have a place in every home, classroom and library. Definitely one I will be sharing with my pupils, even the very young ones!
See some more recommended books in this list of 11 books about refugees from Teach Primary or read this article from Victoria Williamson, talking about ideas for discussing refugees with children in the classroom.
What did you think of my choices?
Have you read any of the books on this list?
Which books would you add?
Are you planning to take part in any events for Refugee Week?
Thanks for reading!