According to the United Nations, 65.3 million people were forced to leave their homes in 2015. 21.5 million of them are registered as refugees. That means they are on the move or in temporary camps looking for a place to stay. I can’t even wrap my head around these numbers. They exceed anything I can imagine. But what shocks me the most is that more than half of the refugees are children. Many of them have nobody to look after them. Their families have either been killed or they were separated in the chaos. These children are running away from war, terror, hunger or unimaginable poverty. They face many challenges every day, including the danger of being killed or exploited. When you live in a place you can call home, when you have enough to eat, go to school and have fun with your friends this is close to impossible to imagine. I tried to put myself into these children’s shoes and found some books to help me get a glimpse of what it would be like to be a refugee. Each of the books describes a different time in history, a different place and different challenges.
The Day of the Pelican by Katherine Paterson is the story of 11-year-old Meli and her family. They are Muslims living in Kosovo in the former Yugoslavia. When their ethnic group is targeted by Serbs they must flee or lose their lives. Surviving extreme hardship and violence, they arrive in a refugee camp, and finally are allowed to immigrate to the United States. For a while everything is well and the Lleshi family leads a normal life. Then the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 happen and their family starts to be mistreated for being Muslim once again. Sticking together as a family and practicing kindness and forgiveness bring about healing and the realization that in the end they have truly found a home and that it is possible to live together in peace and overcome ethnic prejudice. With less than 150 pages and short chapters this is a fast and easy read. The message, however, is profound.
Like the previous book, The Other Side of Truth by Beverly Naidoo is fiction based on real historical events. It tells the gripping story of two Nigerian children whose father has angered Nigerian authorities by criticizing them in his writings. Now the whole family has to pay the price. After their mother is murdered the children are smuggled into London for safety. But that is not what they find. Abandoned penniless and poorly dressed for November weather in London, Sade and Femi end up being homeless. They have to cope with aggressive and suspicious shopkeepers, the police and social services. Even after they are placed in a foster home and make friends with other refugee children their challenges do not end. They are bullied at school and must lie to protect their father, who, they hope, will join them soon. But their father, being worried about them, gets into England without applying for asylum and ends up in a detention center. Nigerian authorities demand that he’d be send back and put to trial for the murder of his wife. This is a story full of twists and turns. The suspense just never ends until the very end.
Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys was my very favourite book among those depicting the terrible histories of war crimes, flight and deprivation; perhaps because I grew up with these kind of stories. As World War II is drawing to an end, thousands of refugees in East Prussia form desperate treks fleeing from the vengeful brutalities of the Red Army. Among them are Joana, Emilia, and Florian, whose paths intersect on their way to the ship that promises salvation, the Wilhelm Gustloff. Each of them carries their own secret. Forced by circumstances they unite and find strength, courage, and trust in one another, albeit not easily. Just when they think they are on their way to freedom and safety, however, they face another tragedy. The Wilhelm Gustloff is torpedoed and all ten thousand people aboard must fight for their survival. Ruta Sepetys’ depiction of the characters made me aware that, although this is fiction, they could very well be real, even today, in a different war, in a different part of the world.
The last book, Red Midnight by Ben Mikaelsen brings us to South America. When soldiers come to his little village in Guatemala, killing whomever they can get their hands on and burning everything in their wake, Santiago is given the responsibility of looking after his little sister, Angelina. With some instructions from their uncle Ramos, a map, a machete, and very little food, Santiago and Angelina set sail in their uncle Ramos’s sea kayak, hoping to reach the United States for a better life. During their dangerous journey they evade soldiers, encounter tourists, pirates and even a shark, suffer hunger and thirst and survive terrible storms. Santiago has made twenty notches in the kayak and by now they should have reached their destination. But more days pass and there is no land in sight. They start to lose all hope when another storm carries them right to the coast of Florida. Here they are taken to a hospital and tell their story to a nurse who speaks Spanish. But have they gone through all this for nothing? Will they be deported back to Guatemala? You will have to read the book to find out.
What comes across in all these books is that being forced to leave your home always means a lot of hardship. Often your life depends on things that are out of your control. In fact you have very little control over anything. There is only one goal: surviving and finding a place to call home again, away from fear and suffering. It is important to understand this when we welcome refugees into our own country. Let us give them a place where they can feel safe at last.