June 20th is World Refugee Day. In honor of the occasion, here are a few titles you should add to your summer reading list.
My family history can be traced back to economic migrants who came from Europe. (My paternal grandparents moved to Canada in search of a fresh start in 1950s; my maternal side of the family came to America in the late 1800s.) The face of the world has changed since that time, and today’s politics may look different, but the history of human migration—and the things that force people to migrate—are tales as old as time. The Bible itself is a narrative that mostly takes place against the backdrop of human migration and displacement. My own story of migration to live in another part of the world and my experience of being welcomed here has deepened my desire to see displaced people welcomed all over the world.
We can learn so much from the stories of displaced people. If we are brave enough, we can let their stories serve as a mirror; they can show us the best of humanity, of resilience and strength. Such stories can sting and convict us, showing us the evils humanity has done, pointing to the ways we can collectively do better.
We have been given a gift in the form of stories like the ones on this list, and the world is the better for it: the nations of the world are the better for becoming safe haven to the people to whom these stories belong. It’s high time we celebrate the refugees and immigrants who tell us about their experiences. It’s high time we see them as assets to our communities.
All of the books on this list are fairly quick reads that require no introductory/background knowledge. They’re a good place to start in learning to love the sounds of our global neighbors’ voices. Let’s listen together.
(p.s. I know that mentioned two of these titles in a previous book post, but I’m putting them here again with fresh descriptions because they are SO good, and because they fit the theme of this post so perfectly.)
“Readers and writers should not deceive themselves that literature changes the world. Literature changes the world of readers and writers, but literature does not change the world until people get out of their chairs, go out in the world, and do something to transform the conditions of which the literature speaks. Otherwise literature will just be a fetish for readers and writers, allowing them to think that they are hearing the voiceless when they are really only hearing the writer’s individual voice.”
– Viet Thanh Nguyen
Homes: A Refugee Story, Abu Bakr al Rabeeah, Winnie Yeung
I wondered how to begin. “Bakr, what is it like to live through a civil war?”
He patted his pockets, pulled out his iPhone, and began to type furiously. After a few moments he turned his phone to me; “the escape from death is something so wondrous.”
Much of the beauty of Homes lies in the simplicity and child-like nature of its storytelling. Abu Bakr al Rabeeah spent his early teenage years living in the midst of conflict in Iraq and Syria; his story of childhood is full of the fear of violence, but it is also full of the ordinary joys of boyhood, a reminder of the ways children strive to enjoy a childhood while their parents strive to keep the family alive. Abu Bakr was eventually resettled with his whole family in Edmonton, Alberta.
One of the things that moved me most about this book is the fact that it was co-authored by Abu Bakr’s high school ESL teacher; before he was fluent enough to write his own book, he expressed a desire to tell his story. She made it possible for him to do so. So many people tote the line, “being a voice for the voiceless” as if it is a good thing to be in front of a microphone on someone else’s behalf. It’s not. What is truly good is to get out of the way and to let people who haven’t spoken before use their own voices. This book would not exist if it were not for a high school ESL teacher who did just that.
The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives, compiled and edited by Viet Thanh Nguyen
This essay collection features a diverse set of voices from all over the globe. Some writers tell about the fractures and losses of fleeing their homelands, others talk about finding a way to belong, to cope with their memories, to find their identity in a new country. All of the essays are threaded through with themes of heartache, violence, injustice and resilience in the face of loss.
Viet Thanh Nguyen, the editor of the collection sums it up well: “True justice will be when we no longer need a voice for the voiceless. In the meantime, we have this book of powerful voices, from writers who were themselves refugees.”
The Unwanted, Don Brown
The Unwanted is another graphic novel, based on interviews with dozens of refugees who have fled Syria over the past decade. In an effort to respect the privacy and experiences of the individuals who contributed to the book, Brown wrote the book with only small pieces of the refugees’ stories interspersed throughout the greater narrative of the circumstances and major players in the Syrian war. The Unwanted gives a bird’s eye view of what has happened in Syria, zooming up close every few pages with small stories from the people who have lived to tell about it.
This memoir tells of a medical doctor’s work and relationships with resettled refugees in a clinic near Vancouver, B.C. During the course of her practice, she treats refugee families from all over the globe. “Your Heart…” is a unique—and at times heartrending—window into culture, displacement and trauma; it forces us to ask ourselves about our own identities in light of the suffering that others have experienced, and the ways we might be transformed by becoming part of one another’s lives.
The Best We Could Do, by Thi Bui
If I could get everyone to read one short book about refugees, I’d pick this one. Thi Bui’s graphic novel tells her family’s story: their escape from Vietnam and the challenges they faced rebuilding their lives in California. One of the recurring themes within refugee stories is the broken family relationships that often result from the trauma of a family having to flee and start over. Through words and beautiful illustrations, Thi Bui eloquently wrestles with the struggle of difficult family relationships, the loss of her Vietnamese cultural identity, and the battle with PTSD that is so common for refugees.
The God Who Sees is equal parts memoir, theology, and an examination of modern day immigration issues in the United States. Gonzales gently and persuasively tells her own childhood story of displacement from Guatemala and her search for an American identity in the midst of loss and transition. Her personal story is told in tandem with familiar Biblical narratives about foreigners and immigrants. This book will gently challenge you to examine your own sense of loyalty and national identity in light of the gospel. As Gonzales writes, “when we are part of the kingdom of God, our first loyalty is to a ‘nation’ that covers the entire globe and knows no borders.”
Have you already read the books above and you’re looking for more? Or are you looking for a couple additional titles to round out a summer book club on the theme of migration? (you should consider this!) Check out these titles, too:
The Complete Persepolis: a graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi
Tell Me How it Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions: a short book about US immigration, told in the format of questions asked on immigration intake forms. By Valeria Luiselli
Love, Undocumented, by Sarah Quezada
Feel free to look me up on Goodreads! I’d love to see what you’re reading lately.