A few weeks ago a riveting image showed up on my Facebook page. It was something like this:
I was immediately captivated by the artist’s style and searched out more images of Syrian artist Nizar Ali Badr’s work. It turns out some of his creations, which he shares mainly via Facebook, have been used to illustrate a children’s picture book about refugees. The book, Stepping Stones, is a stunner. Told in both English and Arabic, it touches on the horrors of the Syrian war and the heartbreaking experiences of the people. Nizar Ali Badr forms the rocks he collects into amazing images, full of feeling and movement, and ever so expressive.
The book, by Margriet Ruurs, is lovely work of art, and an introduction to the refugee crisis that is appropriate for even young children. But I think adults too will want to read this moving and beautiful book.
This book got me thinking about other refugee stories for young children. One that immediately came to mind is Oskar and the Eight Blessings, about a young boy who is sent to America — by himself! — to escape the horrors of Kristallnacht. He arrives on Christmas Eve, which in 1938 was also the seventh day of Hanukkah. Though Kristallnacht is referenced, and Oskar is having a very difficult experience, the book is ultimately about the power of small kindnesses and the fundamental good of human nature.
Uri Shulevitz’s How I Learned Geography also reflects on refugees during World War II, in this case survivors of the Warsaw Blitz who fled to the steppes of Central Asia. The story of Shulevitz’s own experience, this book tells of how his father came home one day with no food for the family, but with a huge map instead. Oh, how he resented his father for spending the food money on a worthless map! But the map allowed him to travel the world in his imagination, which he discovered was far more satisfying than a morsel of bread would have been.
Patricia Polacco has written two picture books about her family’s refugee experiences. The Blessing Cup and The Keeping Quilt both follow artifacts that have remained in her Jewish family since before they were driven out of Russia around 1900. As refugees, they were not able to take many possessions with them, making the few items they did preserve all the more precious. The cup was part of a tea service — only one cup came with the family to the United States. The quilt was made from scraps of clothing belonging to some of those refugees. Around these precious keepsakes she weaves tales of generations of family, who hold onto some of their old traditions even as they are assimilated into a new culture.
A present-day refugee story is told in My Name is Sangoel. Sangoel has escaped from southern Sudan with his mother and baby sister after his father is killed in the fighting there. They end up in the United States, where everything is strange and confusing. Sangoel struggles to hold onto his sense of self and his own heritage, especially when everyone, kids and adults, struggles with his name. They suggest he change it to something more American. But he doesn’t want to lose the name that was not only his, but his father’s and his grandfather’s. How he copes with this problem provides an upbeat ending to the story.
This book reminded me of an experience I had some years ago when I met a young Korean college student. She had been studying in the US for four years. When I greeted her, I addressed her by her Korean name . . . and she burst into tears! She said it was the first time in four years anyone had used her real name — the college she was attending refused to use her Korean name and made her adopt an ‘American’ name of their choosing. I felt so sorry for her. Never underestimate the importance of someone’s name! It is so closely tied to identity, inside and out.
For older readers, including adults, the wordless graphic novel The Arrival by Shaun Tan is a wonderful journey. The basic story, a man leaving an oppressive country and seeking a new life in a strange land, becomes a journey for every reader as well. The language, technology, architecture, and customs of the new land are as foreign to us as they are to the lonely immigrant. We feel and experience a bit of what he goes through, for we are as baffled as he.
I haven’t talked about any of the wonderful chapter books about refugees, but those will have to wait for another post.
By the way, I checked up on Nizar Ali Badr this week. He is alive and well and still living in Syria. He posts daily to facebook and is still creating his exquisite rock art.