Using books to understand global events: Refugees

4 October 2021

The world is a complicated place and often events are happening which can be confusing and difficult to explain to children. With thousands of people displaced by war and unrest, often fleeing their homes to escape violence, the plight of refugees features in the news on a regular basis.  The UN Refugee Agency predicts there will be over 92 million people forcibly displaced in 2021[1], of these 24 million are children.

Whilst we want to protect our children from hearing about the extreme trauma experienced by many refugees, it’s really important to help children understand these experiences in an age-appropriate way and encourage them to show kindness to those looking for a new place to call home.  One of the best ways to do this is through sharing stories that shine a light on what it means to be a refugee. Stories inspire empathy and understanding, prompt discussion, and show how even young children can make a difference to refugees in their communities.

Picture Books

A picture of the book cover of What is a refugee?

What is a refugee? by author & illustrator Elise Gravel is a simple, accessible picture book with clear explanations and the ideal title to introduce this important and timely topic. Next up is My Name is Not Refugee by Kate Milner (published by The Bucket List) which tells the story of a mother and her young son leaving the home they know and love which is no longer safe. Throughout this moving story, young readers are invited to think about the challenges the boy faces and how he is not just a refugee; he is a child the same as they are. The Journey by Francesca Sanna (published by Flying Eye) through a simple narrative and beautiful illustrations invites children to imagine what it must be like to have to leave everything behind and travel to somewhere unfamiliar and strange. A mother and her two children set out on such a journey; one filled with fear of the unknown, but also great hope. Hope for a better future is often what keeps refugees going and we can help fulfil that hope by welcoming them into our communities.

Many authors who themselves have had to flee their countries as young children, write stories based on their experiences to help children understand how it might feel and to campaign for support for refugees. Malala Yousafzai, the youngest-ever winner of the Nobel Peace Prize who was targeted by the Taliban regime, encourages even the youngest children to hold on to hope and make their voices heard in her book Malala’s Magic Pencil. Aeham Ahmad features in the non-fiction title, How To Be Extraordinary by Rashmi Sirdeshpande illustrated by Annabel Tempest. Aeham grew up as a Palestinian refugee in a Syrian refugee camp in Damascus but then went on to become a pianist and has since performed all over the world. These inspirational stories highlight the determination of refugees to overcome the challenges they face and use their creativity to inspire others.

Key Stage 2

The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q. Rauf illustrated by Pippa Curnick (published by Scholastic) gives a child’s perspective on the refugee crisis, highlighting the importance of friendship and kindness in a world that doesn’t always make sense, as he starts a new school. No Ballet Shows in Syria by Catherine Bruton (published by Nosy Crow) tells the story of 11-year-old Aya and her family seeking asylum from Syria. Just like many young girls, Aya dreams of being a ballet dancer but must overcome all the challenges of being an asylum-seeker to achieve her dream. On The Move by Michael Rosen and Sir Quentin Blake (published by Walker Books) features a new collection of poems, focusing on migration and displacement from the Second World War to today’s global migration. Using stories and poetry to explore this complicated topic can help unlock thoughts and feelings and allow children to think differently about what it means to be displaced.


Key Stage 3

Author Beverly Naidoo, who was exiled from her home at the age of 21, uses her experiences to create stories that explore what it means to be a refugee. Her books include the classic title, The Other Side of the Truth, the story of 12-year-old Sade and her brother Femi who flee to Britain from Nigeria and find themselves abandoned and alone. Gritty and determined, this is an important story showing just how much losing your home and loved ones can impact the lives of all those involved.

It’s important to remember in any classroom there may well be children who are refugees or who have family affected by displacement. Starting the conversation through stories written especially for children and young adults will promote healthy communication and support teaching and learning about this topic.

The UN Refugee Agency has additional support and resources to help talk about refugees in the classroom on their website. Save the Children have useful facts and information with commonly asked questions and answers and UNICEF has a learning pack that will facilitate making sense of the refugee crises, available here.

[1] UNHCR Global Appeal 2021 Update

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