A World Refugee Day Reading List

We’ve written in the past about how much writing and writers can nourish and sustain us. As Anne Lamott put it, in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life:

Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. … It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.

Singing in the storm is all too apt an analogy to use on June 20th, which has been marked as World Refugee Day since the beginning of this millennium. This year, UNHCR’s official statistics tell a shocking story: 70.8 million people forced from there homes, among them almost 26 million refugees, over half of whom are children.

Many of us know what this looks like all too well: we have worked alongside people fleeing; we have known them as friends, family, neighbors, colleagues; we have advocated for and defended their rights. We have celebrated the hospitality of those that open their homes and businesses and borders; raged against the hostility of those who want to build literal or figurative walls; and despaired the apathy of those who don’t seem to care. Some of us are refugees ourselves.

Every person has a story to tell. Those who, at some point in their lives, find themselves living as refugees are no exception. Some have written down their stories, and shared them with the world–even if that meant sending them via text message from Manus Island.

This #WorldRefugeeDay, we have put together a list of six great books authored by women and men who, among many other identities, are or were refugees. Read on for our recommendations and  add your favorites in the comments. Don’t let the conversation stop here. Support these authors with your attention, your business, and your solidarity:

MitM WRD Reading List

Read on for details…

  • Read one – we recommend skipping Amazon & going straight to IndieBound.org, a community of independent local bookstores
  • Share or gift a book to someone who needs it – perhaps to know they are not alone, or to build their understanding (beyond TV news soundbites & twitter threads)
  • Organize a reading in your hometown
  • Advocate for inclusion in your child’s school curriculum
  • … or something else!

2019 World Refugee Day Reading List

1. The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil 

The author recounts how, as a 6-year-old girl, she fled Rwanda in 1994 with her 15-year-old sister. Without knowing the whereabouts of their parents, they would “spen[d] the next six years wandering through seven African countries, searching for safety–perpetually hungry, imprisoned and abused, enduring and escaping refugee camps, finding unexpected kindness, witnessing inhuman cruelty” (Goodreads). They eventually receive asylum in the US and that is when a completely different journey begins.


Read an excerpt on NPR.org; available from Penguin Randomhouse


2. North of Dawn by Nuruddin Farah  


Available from Penguin Randomhouse

The latest novel by Cape Town-based, Somali author Nuruddin “tackles xenophobia and extremism with skill and subtlety” (Sunday Times). The quiet life of a Somali couple who have long since left their homeland and assimilated into Norwegian society is violently interrupted by their son’s return to Somalia and subsequent death while carrying out a suicide bombing.

They sponsor his widow and children to join them in Oslo, each of whom responds to their new Norwegian life in very different ways. Their country of asylum becomes itself a place of questionable safety as the novel unfolds against the backdrop of the 2011 far-right terrorist attacks in Oslo and on the island of Utøya.


3. The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

You’ve probably heard of Latin American novelist Isabel Allende. Did you know that her father was Chilean President Salvador Allende’s first cousin? And that, after Allende was overthrown by Pinochet in the CIA-backed 1973 coup d’état, she and family members were put on “wanted” lists and she fled to Venezuela for safety?  Years later, Isabel would find out about her grandfather’s impending death, yet not be able to safely return to visit him. So instead, she wrote him a long letter. This letter would evolve into her first novel, a saga that spans three generations of the Trueba family. It culminates with the patriarch Esteban’s “greatest joy: his granddaughter Alba, a beautiful, ambitious girl who will lead the family and their country into a revolutionary future” (Goodreads). #TheFutureIsFemale.


Available from Simon & Schuster


4. Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey by Margriet Ruurs (Author) and Nizar Ali Badr (Artist)

Inspired by Syrian artist Nizar Ali Badr’s images made from stones, a children’s picture book was born. Badr & Canadian author Margriet Ruurs beautiful book tells the story of a young girl and her family who must leave their village as civil war draws closer. The family sets their hopes on walking to Europe. The book is written in both English and Arabic, and had been translated into numerous other languages.

* * The publisher, Orca Book Publishers, will work with you/your school or organization to raise donations for your local refugee resettlement agency through selling the book. See their fundraiser page for more details. * *


Find out more about Stepping Stones on the book’s website

5. No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison by Behrouz Boochani and translated by Omid Tofighian


Available from Pan Macmillan Australia

Imagine writing a book through WhatsApp messages. While you’re being held in detention. For years. In an offshore prison. Because you fled Iran — where you were persecuted as a journalist — and set out on a rickety boat for Australia in search of asylum. Twice. The first time you sank and were rescued by fishermen from Indonesia. The second time, you were intercepted by the Australian Navy. Who brought you to Manus Island.

Scholar and writer Behrouz Boochani’s book, written in Farsi text messages sent to his translator, won Australia’s prestigious Victorian Prize for Literature as well as Non-Fiction, with prize money totaling $125,000 AUD. As he told Al Jazeera, “I don’t want to celebrate this achievement while I still see many innocent people suffering around me. Give us freedom. We have committed no crime, we are only seeking asylum.” His activism continues.


6. Curious George by Hans Augusto Rey and Margret Rey

Included in the New York Times 2017 list of “25 Great Books by Refugees in America”, this children’s classic was written by a Jewish couple from Germany as they fled Hamburg for South America (Brazil), then returned to Europe (France) only to be forced to flee again. “The mischievous monkey who had a canny way of getting in and out of trouble originated in the minds of Hans Augusto and Margret Rey. They conceived of the character while themselves trying to outrun the Nazis, finally escaping from France on homemade bicycles and carrying the manuscript with the first mention of George (then called ‘Zozo’) along with them” (New York Times).


Available from Houghton Mifflin Books


* * *

To close with the rest of that beautiful Anne Lamott quote:

When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again.

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