The Power of Books

Some books to help us learn about the struggles and strengths of refugees.

Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

While I do not tend to write serious blog posts, having seen what is currently happening in the world, and witnessing the callousness of some people regarding this, I believe it is important for me to speak up in my own little way. I’m not going to go too deeply into the political side of things. Instead, I want to talk about what it means to be human.

At the heart of it, every single person on this planet has the right to feel safe.

Many of you, like me, have never known what it feels like to be truly scared for your life. To be so scared that you are fleeing your home in search of safety, into the unknown. I don’t think any of us can genuinely fathom what it must feel like to be so absolutely terrified, that you are willing to give your children to soldiers just for the chance that they might live. For the chance that they might one day be happy and not remember the cruelty that other human beings put them through.

I am ashamed to know people who disregard what is currently happening in Afghanistan.

Every time I see a Facebook post, or the like, saying that we should just abandon these people, these terrified people who have done absolutely nothing wrong, it makes me wonder what kind of world I live in. People who are ready to write off those that truly need our refuge and human decency, in my mind, don’t understand what it means to be a decent person. It makes me feel sick to my stomach that they are willing to abandon human beings, simply because they are from another country than our own.

I will never understand the reasons for such a disregard for human life

Maybe it’s down to ignorance, or the fact that if they acknowledge what is going on in the world, it makes it real. It makes it frightening for them too. We can never understand what it feels like to be the person on the other side of the TV screen, fleeing for their lives through whatever means they are able to. This is where the dissonance lies. There’s a separation between the two of us. Those of us safe in our homes, and those fighting for their lives. So, without the ability to live through what the Afghani people are currently experiencing (for which we should thank our lucky stars, for it is luck and nothing else that we were not born into a different life), what can we do?

Read, understand, learn.

We need to keep up-to-date with what is going on in the world, something I am trying to do better at myself, and that involves watching the news, reading articles and blog posts, and also reading books on topics we know little about. The refugee journey is something that many of us misunderstand. You hear people, far too often, say how easy it is to get into our country and that people are doing it to steal our jobs, or benefits, or whatever else. The reality is far, far different, as we come to understand when we acknowledge our ignorance and learn what being a refugee, or growing up in a war-torn country, is really like, rather than simply forming opinions based on relatively small (and super biased) information.

Both fiction and non-fiction books can be used to gain perspective on topics such as what we have been discussing here. I would like to share with you some highly recommended ones that will help you to gain a deeper understanding of the world we live in, no matter what your current level of knowledge. We’ll start small, with three fiction and three non-fiction, just to get the ball rolling.

Here are some fiction books that can help us to understand what is going on in the world right now.

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.

This has to always be the first on the list for me. I am so incredibly thankful that this masterpiece of a book was on my college reading list, and therefore I read it at a relatively young age. Khaled Hosseini has been a welcome interlude on my newsfeed over the past couple of weeks, advocating for the rights of those in Afghanistan.

The unforgettable, heartbreaking story of the unlikely friendship between a wealthy boy and the son of his father’s servant, The Kite Runner is a beautifully crafted novel set in a country that is in the process of being destroyed. It is about the power of reading, the price of betrayal, and the possibility of redemption; and an exploration of the power of fathers over sons—their love, their sacrifices, their lies.

A sweeping story of family, love, and friendship told against the devastating backdrop of the history of Afghanistan over the last thirty years, The Kite Runner is an unusual and powerful novel that has become a beloved, one-of-a-kind classic.

I don’t believe that words can be used to accurately describe the impact this book has on a person, while also being easy to read and unputdownable. Khaled Hosseini has also blessed us with a few other books, which are equally as fantastic, on the subject. My advice; start with The Kite Runner.

The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christina Lefteri.

This is a book I picked up recently, and have since recommended to every person I know. My mum and auntie are currently reading it. Much along the same vein as The Kite Runner, the story told in this book is easy to read but with a big message. It focuses on the journey of a refugee attempting to flee Syria, but doesn’t stop when they get to England. It delves into the heart-breaking hoops those seeking refuge must jump through in order to be allowed to stay. It opened my eyes to the struggles faced once in the ‘safe’ country and certainly made me re-think my understanding of what it means to be a refugee.

In the midst of war, he found love In the midst of darkness, he found courage In the midst of tragedy, he found hope.

Nuri is a beekeeper; his wife, Afra, an artist. They live a simple life, rich in family and friends, in the beautiful Syrian city of Aleppo – until the unthinkable happens. When all they care for is destroyed by war, they are forced to escape. As Nuri and Afra travel through a broken world, they must confront not only the pain of their own unspeakable loss, but dangers that would overwhelm the bravest of souls. Above all – and perhaps this is the hardest thing they face – they must journey to find each other again.

This is a great book for those of you who aren’t super into reading. The story-writing is beautiful and poignant, telling the story in enough detail to keep you riveted, while not becoming long-winded. Christina Lefteri has a new book out at the moment, named Songbird, telling of similar experiences.

The Jungle by Pooja Puri

The Jungle is a wonderfully written book, aimed at teen readers (but that doesn’t mean we grown-ups can’t enjoy it too!) about life in a makeshift refugee camp in Calais. Sometimes, a story about children seems to hit home more. It’s a quick read, a relatively short book, with a huge impact. It can help people to understand that living in a refugee camp is also terrifying and not something a person would do if they had any other choice.

Mico is a young African boy who’s lost his family and livelihood, and is trying to get to safety in England. Stuck in the notorious, makeshift refugee camp at Calais that became known as the Jungle, Mico never has enough to eat, and like many refugees, has no money either. Hunger and difficult circumstances make the lure of joining the gangs and turning to crime almost inevitable.

The camp is overcrowded, unhygienic, freezing cold, and very dangerous. Mico is surrounded by people of many nationalities and backgrounds who’ve also been forced to flee from conflict and poverty.

As we follow Mico’s story, we can’t help but hope his friendship with Leila and her pregnant sister will see him through the trials of life in camp without getting into serious trouble – but Mico can be foolhardy and reckless. Does he stand a chance in a place like this?

The Jungle at Calais has now been disbanded, but Mico’s story stands as a reminder of what life is like in any refugee camp, and helps us understand that choosing to leave your homeland and your family is not an easy option. No one would choose this path if alternative was available.

This would be the perfect book to share with your older children in order to help them understand truly what life is like for refugees and asylum seekers, or to read alone. By delving inside the lives of people who have truly experienced the worst that humanity has to offer, we gain perspective, understanding, and compassion.

I think fiction can be under-estimated. Yes, it is escapism, in which we can lose ourselves in somebody else’s life. But it is also exactly that! We leave our (mostly) comfortable lives and are given a peek into what it is like to be somebody else. Often, we chose to experience magical lives, or those that are better than our own. But why not the opposite? Why not allow ourselves to briefly experience the pain, suffering and torment that refugees and asylum seekers face, so that we can become better human beings?

Now, that’s not to say that non-fiction isn’t invaluable too. Here are three non-fiction books that are recommended.

I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai

It goes without saying, that nobody can explain to you what it feels like to be a refugee, than somebody who has experienced that first hand. We are lucky enough to live in a world where people are willing to tell their stories, and one such that really hits home, is the story of Malala Yousafzai. I’m sure you’ve heard of her, she’s taking the world by storm. She’s written a few different books, aimed at different age groups, which is brilliant, but the one I will recommend is I Am Malala, which tells the story of what it is like to be a child in Pakistan under the Taliban regime.

I come from a country that was created at midnight. When I almost died it was just after midday.

When the Taliban took control of the Swat Valley in Pakistan, one girl spoke out. Malala Yousafzai refused to be silenced and fought for her right to an education.

On Tuesday, October 9, 2012, when she was fifteen, she almost paid the ultimate price. She was shot in the head at point-blank range while riding the bus home from school, and few expected her to survive.

Instead, Malala’s miraculous recovery has taken her on an extraordinary journey from a remote valley in northern Pakistan to the halls of the United Nations in New York. At sixteen, she became a global symbol of peaceful protest and the youngest nominee ever for the Nobel Peace Prize.

I AM MALALA is the remarkable tale of a family uprooted by global terrorism, of the fight for girls’ education, of a father who, himself a school owner, championed and encouraged his daughter to write and attend school, and of brave parents who have a fierce love for their daughter in a society that prizes sons.

I AM MALALA will make you believe in the power of one person’s voice to inspire change in the world.

Malala’s story is difficult to digest. It is filled with cruelty, but also with hope. Malala continues to fight for the right to education and safety for all, and her impact upon the world is not to be underestimated.

The Ungrateful Refugee: What Immigrants Never Tell You by Dina Nayeri

The title of this book is one of those rare things that catches your attention. It is raw and grabs hold of you. It will challenge everything you think you know about refugees, and it’s always good to challenge our own beliefs. Part of the problem with our society, in my humble opinion, is that we are too ready to judge, instead of having open minds and questioning. As humans, it is our fundamental right to question everything, to be critical, and Nayeri does this perfectly in The Ungrateful Refugee.

Aged eight, Dina Nayeri fled Iran along with her mother and brother and lived in the crumbling shell of an Italian hotel-turned-refugee camp. Eventually she was granted asylum in America. She settled in Oklahoma, then made her way to Princeton University. In this book, Nayeri weaves together her own vivid story with the stories of other refugees and asylum seekers in recent years, bringing us inside their daily lives and taking us through the different stages of their journeys, from escape to asylum to resettlement. In these pages, a couple fall in love over the phone, and women gather to prepare the noodles that remind them of home. A closeted queer man tries to make his case truthfully as he seeks asylum, and a translator attempts to help new arrivals present their stories to officials.

Nayeri confronts notions like “the swarm,” and, on the other hand, “good” immigrants. She calls attention to the harmful way in which Western governments privilege certain dangers over others. With surprising and provocative questions, The Ungrateful Refugee challenges us to rethink how we talk about the refugee crisis.

This is one of those books when you put it down and just say, ‘Wow!’ It gets your mind working, your thoughts turning, and just makes you realise how ready we are to accept various notions dictated to us.

The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clementine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil.

The Girl Who Smiled Beads is an unusual one. It follows a significant portion of Clementine’s life, as she faces the difficulties of growing up in Rwanda, refugee camps across Africa, and then in America. We often forget that those living in conflict also have to deal with growing up too. Their lives follow the same patterns, but with the added difficulties of, of course, the realities of war and oppressive regimes.

Clemantine Wamariya was six years old when her mother and father began to speak in whispers, when neighbors began to disappear, and when she heard the loud, ugly sounds her brother said were thunder. In 1994, she and her fifteen-year-old sister, Claire, fled the Rwandan massacre and spent the next six years migrating through seven African countries, searching for safety—perpetually hungry, imprisoned and abused, enduring and escaping refugee camps, finding unexpected kindness, witnessing inhuman cruelty. They did not know whether their parents were dead or alive.
When Clemantine was twelve, she and her sister were granted refugee status in the United States; there, in Chicago, their lives diverged. Though their bond remained unbreakable, Claire, who had for so long protected and provided for Clemantine, was a single mother struggling to make ends meet, while Clemantine was taken in by a family who raised her as their own. She seemed to live the American dream: attending private school, taking up cheerleading, and, ultimately, graduating from Yale. Yet the years of being treated as less than human, of going hungry and seeing death, could not be erased. She felt at the same time six years old and one hundred years old.
In The Girl Who Smiled Beads, Clemantine provokes us to look beyond the label of “victim” and recognize the power of the imagination to transcend even the most profound injuries and aftershocks. Devastating yet beautiful, and bracingly original, it is a powerful testament to her commitment to constructing a life on her own terms.

This book is one for the people out there, you know who you are, who think that refugees aren’t human beings. That they don’t add value to society. Just because people have been through the worst life can offer, doesn’t mean they are broken. Clemantine is a testament to this.

In writing this blog post, I have realised how little I’ve dipped my toes into the books about refugeeism, life in war-torn countries, and living under terrorist rule.

I know that I can do better, and I plan to. I’ve added a good few books to my reading list for this year. Many of which are from the reading lists below, which I highly recommend you check out too. By learning more about things we are ignorant about, we are able to do better as people, which is something I think we should all strive to do more of. Thank you for taking the time to read my blog post. I hope that, in some way, it has a bit of an impact upon those reading it. For anybody wishing to discuss what I’ve written here, critically or otherwise, my emails and messages are always open.

As always, wishing you love and books that make your heart skip a beat,

Sarah Jules x

Further Reading:

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