“Refugee” by Alan Gratz: A Book Review by Kirsteen McLay-Knopp

Refugee by Alan Gratz is a New York Times best seller, and for good reason.  I came across Refugee when my fourteen year old son was reading it for school.  My husband then read it and raved about it, so I decided to read it too.

Refugee follows the stories of three young refugees (all about 11 to 14 years old) from three very different cultures and time periods.

Photo Source: Back Cover Schoolastic Australia 2018 edition.

Initially, before reading the book, I thought to myself, “Why not a Vietnamese or Cambodian Refugee?”  I have lived in Vietnam (Hanoi) for three years and have a number of Vietnamese former refugee friends.  During my time in South East Asia I travelled extensively and also visited Cambodia.  As well as this, during my childhood, a number of refugees from both Cambodia and Vietnam came to my home country, New Zealand, and I attended school with some of them.  A Cambodian or Vietnamese young person would also fill the “timeline gap” in Gratz’ book, as most of these refugees were making their journeys from the mid 1970s.

There are refugees from numerous other countries and time periods throughout the 20th Century too.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees defines a “Refugees” as:

“…people who have fled war, violence, conflict or persecution and have crossed an international border to find safety in another country.  They often have had to flee with little more than the clothes on their back, leaving behind homes, possessions, jobs and loved ones. 
Refugees are defined and protected in international law. The 1951 Refugee Convention is a key legal document and defines a refugee as: ‘someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.’  By the end of 2017, there were 25.4 million refugee men, women and children registered across the world”.   Source: https://www.unhcr.org/what-is-a-refugee.htm

There have always been refugees throughout history.  Unfortunately mass human displacement has intensified during the 20th and 21st Centuries.  Battles have never just been between soldiers of opposing sides,  but recent conflicts have become, more and more, centred in our cities and towns, effecting ordinary men, women and children.  Our weapons have become more destructive.   As well as this, there are “environmental refugees”, those fleeing natural disasters, some of which have come about through “global warming” and human created environmental issues.

As I read Refugee it became clear that the three stories (of Josef, Isabel and Mahmoud) are very cleverly connected.  There is a reason for the Gratz’ choice of these three.  Through connecting them, the book shows, without needing to state it directly, the interconnectedness and commonality of all humanity: across cultures, faiths, times and places.

The characters in Refugee are fictional, but Gratz has successfully entered their hearts and souls.  Each is a “real” child with hopes, fears and dreams, set in the context of their own nationality/ religion/ race.  At the end of the book Gratz describes the inspiration behind each character, as well as minor characters in the stories who are real people, as are the events from history.  My husband says he found the book “confronting”.  I agree, but I also found it compelling: the stories are interspersed: first Josef, then Isabel, then Mahmoud, then back to Josef and so on.  The chapters end on “cliff hangers” and we want to read on, not only to see what will happen, but also because, as the interconnectedness of the three stories becomes apparent, they are also fascinating.  We all know that the journeys made by refugees are dangerous, life and death ventures.  We become embroiled in their worlds, we worry for them and hope for their eventual safety: elements that definitely make this book a page turner.

For me personally, I found that Refugee connected with my sense of humanity and social justice.  As a mother, I thought of how I would hate my children to go through ordeals like those suffered by the children in the book.  Refugee children are among the world’s most vulnerable and are often go without health care and education, due to being “on the run” and “countryless”.    They also suffer from the trauma of things they have seen and experienced, things which are sewn into the fabric of the “forever years” of their childhoods.  Many refugees and former refugees whom I have known personally say that they never expected to have to leave their homes.  We never know what the future will hold: it is a situation which no one would want to find themselves in, but which could happen anywhere.  Gratz expresses this in Refugee, particularly through his tying together of Josef, Isabel and Mahmoud’s stories.  This is a powerful book, by a skilled author, which young people– indeed any people– should read to understand the human face of this very important world issue.

Advertisements

Book Review by Kirsteen McLay-Knopp: “Dear World” by Bana Alabed

Cover

Bana Alabed, a brave young girl from Syria, was born in 2009 in Aleppo.  Her early years were peaceful and happy, surrounded by a loving family.  The onset of war in her country changed her life and the lives of her family forever.

“Dear World” is Bana Alabed’s account of what living through a war feels like, through the eyes of a child.  Alabed writes in a simple, straightforward and very honest way and her book is very readable, both for adults and children.  It is also interspersed with writing by her mother, giving us an insight into the pain of a parent trying to protect her children from harm in the most terrible circumstances: circumstances which ultimately lead to the family deciding to leave Syria and become refugees.

Alabed says, “I dedicate my book to every child suffering in a war.  You are not alone.”   Her book is prefaced with a quotation from Anne Frank…. another very famous girl who wrote about her experiences living through a war.

Anne-Frank-quote-about-life-from-The-Diary-of-a-Young-Girl-1a6515

What struck me, as an adult, reading “Dear World” was the universality or Bana Alabed’s experience of modern war: the similarities of her story to that of children and young people (like Anne Frank) who have suffered as a result of war, in our world’s recent history.  The words, “When will they ever learn?” from Bob Dylan’s famous song come to mind.  Regardless of the time period and technology, the trauma experienced by children living through a war is the same.  Alabed is a child of our modern technological age, born in 2009 (the same year as my third son).  She plays with Barbie dolls, wears “Princess Barbie boots” and watches Sponge Bob Square Pants and Tom and Jerry with her two younger brothers… in between running to the basement during shelling.  There is a sense of a “normal” childhood, interspersed with the horrors of war.  Alabed has an I-pad and she uses it to communicate with the outside world.  Her “tweets for peace” in English become famous around the world and draw attention to her country’s plight.

bana-alabed.jpg.image.784.410

aw-bana-alabed-tweet

These same tweets also made Bana Alabed, then aged only seven, an enemy of the Assad government, who actively attempted to silence her.  As well as living in fear of the war, the Alabed family were terrified for their young daughter’s life and dressed her as a boy whenever they went out, to avoid drawing attention.  Alabed is an intelligent, sensitive and perceptive child who lives through her father being taken away by the secret police and the death of her best friend  Yasmin, whose body is lifted from the rubble after a bombing.

“After Yasmin was gone, I was even more scared to die….the way I missed Yasmin…gave me a feeling like I was sinking inside. I couldn’t talk to her. We wouldn’t get to dress up in our favourite princess dresses ever again. I bet Yasmin’s favourite dresses were all under the rubble still.” [pp.114-115].

Alabed tells us that all the things she loved about her childhood vanished because of the war: going to the local swimming pool, going to school or the playground or shops.  Hospitals, schools and public places became targets and even in their homes, people felt like “sitting ducks.”

Although Alabed’s story ends with her safe escape from Syria as a refugee (and it does not destroy the story to tell you that), it raises questions for us all. What use is our modern technology and ability to communicate with those in a war zone if we are unable to help?  And why, despite our technological advances, do we still live in a world where war is necessary? And where children suffer because of war?

Alabed also draws attention to the plight of refugees the world over.  At the beginning of her book she speaks of her pride in Syrian culture and sense of belonging in her family and history.

“I wanted to live in Syria always.” [p.15]

Her mother says they never imagined a war could happen there.

“I suppose that’s what everyone believes until it’s too late.” [p.51].

This puts me in mind of people the world over, who have had to leave their countries.  Everyone likes to feel safe in their homeland, the land of their ancestors, and to believe that their children and grandchildren will always live there.  Unfortunately, this is not always possible.  Alabed advocates for children still living in war zones everywhere and for fellow former refugees.

“…children are still dying and getting hurt everyday…we all have to help one another, no matter what country we live in.” [p.203]

“If you had no country or your parents or children were going to be killed, what would you do?” [p.201]

Here at the “Forever Years”, we see the world’s children as our own children.  “There but for the grace of God go I” (John Bradford) is a phrase that comes to mind.

I recommend “Dear World” to children and adults alike.  As J.K. Rowling says, it is “a story of love and courage amid brutality and terror.”  Through reading this book, we come to love its young author, Bana Alabed, and the strength of character she displays as she continues to send her message of peace to the world.

forever-years-icon

 

 

 

How to talk to your kids about Syria, by Sarah Williams, Child Psychologist

Sarah Williams is a child psychologist at Refugees As Survivors (RASNZ). She is currently working with the Syrian children and families arriving in New Zealand who seek the support of RASNZ during their 6-week orientation at the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre.

World Vision spoke to Sarah about how to speak to Kiwi children about the crisis in Syria and about refugees, and about the new Kiwis arriving here from the Middle East. 

1. Speak honestly, but use language they understand

Firstly, ask your child what they know about the situation. Listen to how they are making sense of what they know or what they have seen in the media.

Any discussion with children needs to be adjusted for age and level of understanding but it also needs to be honest. Children trust their parents to help them understand what happens in the world around them.

With younger children use situations they might understand – leaving one’s home, leaving possessions behind, fleeing without saying goodbye, feeling scared, trying to find a safe place. Talk to them about people in Syria needing to quickly leave their home and travel to another country to be safe due to the war.

With older children we can talk about what it means to be a refugee, the complexity of the Syrian situation, persecution, and the difficult journey to seek refuge in another country.

(To read more of this article, please follow the link below…)

https://www.worldvision.org.nz/news-blog/blogs-2017/may/how-to-talk-to-your-kids-about-syria