Tag Archives: refugees

‘Homes: A Refugee Story’ by Abu Bakr Al Rabeeah with Winnie Yeung

“That’s how it was in Syria; when we heard an explosion, we ran towards the chaos. Often the police and ambulances were late arriving, if they arrived at all, so we took care  of each other.”

This is an important memoir written by Iraqi teenager Abu Bakr Al Rabeeah (pronounced: Abu ba-CAR al Rah-Bee-ah) with the help of his teacher Winnie Yeung. It is a book that I think every Canadian would benefit from reading and I think it deserves to win Canada Reads 2019.

Whenever we see news footage of Syria, with all the broken buildings, bombed out neighbourhoods, and hear about the random violence that the place has suffered from for so long, it seems impossible to imagine how it was for people to be living there in the midst of a civil war. Bakr has done just that. He has told the story very honestly and vividly. “We all gained skills that we could not have imagined. Knowledge that we never really wanted to know filtered into our lives. Our ears could pick out the differences between mortars, grad rockets, and car bombs. We could tell the high notes of the metallic smell of fresh blood on the streets from the low reek of a corpse waiting for days to be found in the rubble.”

Wise beyond his years because of his circumstance, Bakr also speaks simply as a normal teenager about going to play video games with his cousins and soccer with his friends. He was just 10 when the conflict began and his memories are childlike, yet riveting because his days were marked by the juxtaposition of living the life of a normal teenager in the middle of a war zone.

What I like most about the book is his honest perspective about how it was when he came to Canada as a refugee. When he was living in constant danger he dreamt of a life where he could safely live and move and go about daily activities. But when a new home in Canada became a reality, it was far from easy, albeit safe. He speaks of homesickness and a host of unexpected and different fears to deal with like fitting in, learning language, and building a new life in a foreign culture. Though totally understandable, these emotions also made him feel ashamed and ungrateful for the opportunity he had been given to begin a new life in safety. Homes features a remarkable young man and a compassionate teacher who have given Canadians a window to understanding the refugee experience.

‘Sea Prayer’ by Khaled Hosseini

From the author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, comes a short but powerful picture book for all ages, dedicated to the thousands of refugees who have perished at sea fleeing war and persecution. Enhanced by the illustrations of Dan Williams, it’s a letter from a father to a son, on the eve of their departure. He knows he is doing everything he can to protect his child, but also realizes that his choice will put them in grave danger.

Impelled to write this story by the haunting image of young Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy whose body washed upon the beach in Turkey in September 2015, Hosseini hopes to pay tribute to the millions of families, like Kurdi’s, who have been splintered and forced from home by war and persecution, and he will donate author proceeds from this book to the UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) and The Khaled Hosseini Foundation to help fund lifesaving relief efforts to help refugees around the globe. Khaled Hosseini was born in Kabul, Afghanistan, and moved to the United States in 1980. Here is a short documentary from the author about his own journey in writing this book:


‘Exit West’ by Mohsin Hamid

This is an inventive and elegant love story set in the middle of an unnamed war zone. The author, who is best known for his book and subsequent movie The Reluctant Fundamentalist, has a strangely compelling writing style and a fanciful premise for this story which I will not mention since it is best discovered while reading. (Hint: think about something in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) Saeed and Nadia meet when their country is at the brink of civil war. Eventually their only option is to escape to an alien and uncertain future. Can their relationship weather such a huge transition? Issues such as the plight of refugees and migrants, as well as the anger of nativist extremists are all well portrayed, making this slim novel extremely current.

To be honest I loved the creativity of the first half of the book, but found it became a bit flat and less strong in the latter half.  Nevertheless, I’m glad I read it for its quietly profound quality, its perspective on emigration, and because it covers the kind of events that are happening right now.

‘Refuge’ by Anne Booth and illustrated by Sam Usher

RefugestarstarstarRefuge is a small children’s picture book featuring the Christmas story but told with emphasis on the fact that Mary, Joseph and their tiny babe were refugees who depended on the kindness of others as they fled. The story is simply told, narrated by the donkey who provided them transport, and beautifully illustrated. It was published this month by Nosy Crow publishers, who do not want to make any profit on it. From the sale of every book, 5£ is donated directly to War Child.

From Nosy Crow: “Like you, I suppose, all of us at Nosy Crow have watched the ongoing refugee crisis on the news – the terrible stories, the appalling pictures, the daily suffering and tragedies – and have wanted desperately to do something. Not just to raise money, but to help parents with young children asking difficult questions about the pictures they see of boys and girls their own age in unimaginable circumstances.”

‘The Illegal’ by Lawrence Hill

The Illegalstarstarstarstar“The lives of undocumented refugees have haunted me for years. Will they be welcomed or deported? Persecuted in countries new or old? The countless question marks in their lives inspired me to write The Illegal.”–Lawrence Hill

This is a timely novel, appearing when the news is full of the migrant crisis. Boatloads of hopefuls arriving on distant shores, refugees fleeing certain death in their home country, economic migrants hoping for a better life, questions of ethnicity and identity, oppressive regimes, corrupt government officials, genocide….this novel has it all. The setting of the story is imaginary. Freedom State is the third richest nation in the world and just across the Ortiz Sea is Zantoroland, a poor country ravaged by colonization and populated by a desperately poor and persecuted people. Hill has produced a novel that is all about complex social commentary, but reads like a thriller. He did the same thing in his epic novel The Book of Negroes/Someone Knows My Name, one of the most successful Canadian novels of all time. The Illegal will no doubt meet with similar success.

There are so many interesting characters in this novel, including a disabled/black/gay journalist, a philanthropic brothel madam, and a very feisty grandmother! But running like a thread right through the book is the main character, an “illegal” marathoner named Keita Ali who just wants to escape the horrors of genocide and loss, trying to find a way to save his life and that of his sister. The only resources he has are his legs and his ability to run. And he uses these gifts not to promote his own career, but in a selfless desire to help others. Through Keita Ali, we get a first hand look at what it would be like to be stateless and paperless.