Inspiration from the Refugee Experience

Library column printed in The Mercury, Jan. 1, 2012

Several books featuring refugee children have left me in awe of the rebounding spirit of children and their amazing ability to hope, dream and find their place in the world. Though these are all fictional accounts, several authors had personal experiences that led them to write, and their openness adds integrity and genuineness to the characters’ tales.

Betti on the High Wire by Lisa Railsback is an engrossing read told from the point of view of 10-year-old Babo/Betti. Babo is one of the “leftover children” in a worn torn country when two “melons” (as she calls them) from America decide to adopt her and rename her Betti. Betti’s honesty about losing the world she understood, however strange and difficult it was, and her struggle to understand American life is fascinating. Betti clings to what she knows of her past, of being born into a circus camp where her parents were famous, and is sure her parents will one day return for her, which is why she needs to convince Mr. and Mrs. Buckworth that she is so bad they need to send her back. Railsback, who has worked with children in refugee camps, creates a strong character in Betti that readers will love to get to know, and seeing from her perspective might make kids interact with more kindness and understanding when they meet other children who have moved here from different countries.

Similar in some ways, 10-year-old Ha’s refugee story comes alive in Thanhha Lai’s Inside Out and Back Again, which recently won the 2011 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Ha’s family flees South Vietnam in 1975, leaving behind everything they know and taking with them the unsettled sadness of their father missing in action for nine years. Lai gives the story a unique feel by writing in sparse verse. “Ten-year-olds, especially Vietnamese, think in tight images. I cut out every word I didn’t need,” she said in an interview. The words flow and match the tone of each experience as Ha describes her Saigon landscape, travel by sea, and acclimating to the strangeness of Alabama.

Ha’s story mirrors Lai’s own childhood when she moved with her mother and eight siblings from Saigon to the U. S. in the 70’s. “Life got more complicated, with me not speaking English and never having tasted a hot dog,” Lai recalls in her biography on the publisher’s website. “Add that to my looks. I was the first real-life Asian my classmates had ever seen.” In the story, Ha endures bullying from classmates, mean comments and alienation, but she also finds kindness, friendship and a determination to succeed in her new life.

Linda Sue Park’s A Long Walk to Water is a real gem. It is based on the true story of Salva Dut, one of the “lost boys” of Sudan, starting with the day soldiers burst into his village and burned his school. Young Salva ran into the bush and had to find his way without his family to a refugee camp in Ethiopia, and later to a camp in Kenya. Park says that some aspects have been “fictionalized,” but she interviewed Salva extensively and made the story as true to his experience as possible. Salva’s fear and daily trials are entwined with another story, that of teenage Nya who must walk two long trips every day to a pond to get water for her family. Although Nya’s story takes place years after Salva’s, they intersect with each other in the end.

Salva’s story is both upsetting and inspiring. The realities of war are so harsh and cruel, but Salva learns to take one step and one day at a time to persevere, which he says (in a letter at the end of the book) is the important thing that he would like to pass on to others.

Linda Sue Park flawlessly captures the essence of Salva’s remarkable story. Readers may want to start raising money for Water for South Sudan, a not-for-profit organization created and led by Salva Dut. More than 100 wells have been drilled, allowing children like the fictional Nya to go to school every day instead of walking miles to get water, and keeping families healthier with clean drinking water. It is amazing to read about the many close calls Salva survived in order to be at this point where he is helping hundreds from his country live better lives.

Finally, What You Wish For is a new short story compilation honoring the children of Darfur, with well-known children’s authors contributing like Meg Cabot (Princess Diaries), R. L. Stine (Goosebumps), Cornelia Funke (Inkheart), and Jeanne DePrau (City of Ember). The foreword by Mia Farrow describes one of her many encounters with children in refugee camps. “And this is the amazing thing,” she says. “No matter how dire the circumstances or bleak the prospects, every child I have met in Chad, Sudan, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, or Angola has a dream.” The stories are quite varied, going from an abandoned baby floating down a river in a box to a clique of teenage girls living in a futuristic, overcrowded world. They all contain the themes of wishing and hoping for something better, and often doing something about it. Sprinkled with poetry, photos of refugee children, and even a comic-book-style story, What You Wish For is perfect for short reading breaks or for sharing in a classroom setting.

Review by Jennifer Adams

Posted in: Children's Dept, Mercury Column

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  1. Sheila January 1, 2012

    >What a terrific post. I want to read them all, but have only read Inside Out and Back Again which was a great beauty. You have inspired me.


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