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Six Books to Make Your World Refugee Day More Meaningful

Jun 06, 2016

Blog Post

Rachel Nusbaum, HIAS.org

Established 15 years ago by the United Nations, World Refugee Day honors the courage, strength and determination of those who are forced to flee persecution, conflict and violence.

The scale of the crisis is huge—millions of people have been displaced from their homes. It can all seem overwhelming, even incomprehensible.

But sometimes all it takes is a single story to remind us that, at the end of the day, it isn’t so terribly complicated. Refugees are ordinary people in extraordinary situations, and it takes only a little imagination to walk in their shoes.

So we asked the refugee experts at HIAS, the oldest refugee protection organization in the world, to tell us which books moved them, inspired them and changed the way they thought about refugee issues.

Read one, or read them all. Let us know if we missed your favorite: @HIASrefugees


Brother, I'm Dying

By Edwidge Danticat

 
Brother, I'm Dying By Edwidge Danticat
“In a single day in 2004, Danticat learns that she's pregnant and that her father, André, is dying—a stirring constellation of events that frames this Haitian immigrant family's story, rife with premature departures and painful silences. When Danticat was two, André left Haiti for the U.S., and her mother followed when Danticat was four. The author and her brother could not join their parents for eight years, during which André's brother Joseph raised them. As Danticat prepares to lose her ailing father and give birth to her daughter, Joseph is threatened by a volatile sociopolitical clash and forced to flee Haiti. Poignant and never sentimental, this elegant memoir recalls how a family adapted and reorganized itself over and over, enduring and succeeding to remain kindred in spite of living apart,” Publishers Weekly wrote in a starred review.
 
“No book does a better job of humanizing the dehumanizing way this country now treats asylum seekers,” said Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS. “I've written extensively about the treatment of asylum seekers in expedited removal, but Edwidge Danticat writes movingly and poetically about her Uncle Joseph, a Haitian pastor and asylum seeker whose expedited removal experience ended in tragedy at a Florida detention center.”

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit

By Judith Kerr

 
For those with kids, Melanie Nezer, vice president for policy and advocacy at HIAS, recommends When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit.
 
In 1933, a young Jewish girl is forced to flee to Switzerland with her family as Hitler is elected to office. The story tells of their struggle to adapt to a new life as a refugee family.
 
“Anna does not really understand why her family leaves Germany . . . but during the next three years in Switzerland, France and England she learns from firsthand experience what it is like to be a refugee. . . The narrative is absorbing and believable," said Booklist.
“This classic is one that I read as a kid,” said Nezer. “It shows what it is like to be a refugee through the eyes of a regular kid, with the message that even when things are scary, kids are kids and there is always hope.”

The Road from Home

By David Khordian

 
The Road from Home: A True Story of Courage, Survival, and Hope  By David Khordian“Vernon Dumehjian Kherdian was born into a loving and prosperous family. Then, in the year 1915, the Turkish government began the systematic destruction of its Armenian population,” writes Amazon.
 
Author David Kherdian tells the true story of his mother’s childhood, recounting her experiences in 1915.
 
“I read this young adult book as an 11 year old, and it has stayed with me ever since. It gave me my earliest understanding of the way in which arduous journeys, hunger and unfathomable loss can be part of a refugee's experience,” said Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, vice president for community engagement at HIAS. “The images and feelings it evoked are still with me and, in a certain way, are reference points for all the stories I have read and heard since.”

What is the What

By Dave Eggers

 

What Is the What tells the story of a refugee from the second Sudanese civil war (1983–2005), one of the 20,000 so-called Lost Boys who walked thousands of miles from their decimated villages to relative safety in Ethiopia and later Kenya. From there the surviving boys’ fates diverged greatly and the novel’s protagonist ultimately makes his way to America.

Told by Valentino Achak Deng, one of 4,000 refugees offered sanctuary in the U.S. in 2001, the story moves from a harrowing account to a reflection on assimilation and identity, loneliness and newfound community.

Deng’s adolescent voice is both poignant and heartbreaking as he recalls his pre-war village life, his devastating journey, his refugee-camp adolescence, and his early experiences in Atlanta. “It’s at once a page-turner journey tale and a deep-dive into being a new American with a past that has become irrelevant but is impossible to break free from,” says Zhanna Veyts, director of digital strategy & engagement.


A Backpack, a Bear and Eight Crates of Vodka

By Lev Golinkin

 

Lev Golinkin tells the story of his family’s flight from the Soviet Union in what The New York Times called a "hilarious and heartbreaking story of a Jewish family’s escape from oppression." Through the eyes of his younger self, Golinkin paints a heartfelt and compelling picture not only of the life they left behind but of the challenges of everyday life in Indiana for the family of newly arrived refugees.

“Eight-year-old Golinkin’s deeply moving description of being taunted and beaten at school in his hometown in Ukraine—for no reason other than that he was a Jew—helped me to better understand the suffering so many endured in the Soviet Union,” said Bill Swersey, senior director of communications and digital media at HIAS. “The chapters on his family’s comic, bizarre, courageous escape to the West are as gripping as any action movie. 25 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, this book serves is an important reminder and tribute.”


Half of a Yellow Sun

By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

“When the Igbo people of eastern Nigeria seceded in 1967 to form the independent nation of Biafra, a bloody, crippling three-year civil war followed. [Half of a Yellow Sun] is a transcendent novel of many descriptive triumphs, most notably its depiction of the impact of war's brutalities on peasants and intellectuals alike. It's a searing history lesson in fictional form, intensely evocative and immensely absorbing,” wrote Publishers Weekly.

Half of a Yellow Sun follows two sisters, Olanna and Kainene, and uses their voices to paint a stark and uncompromising picture of civil war and its victims.

“Adichie’s characters are so real and so alive, they carry with them the type of deep truth that sometimes it is easier to tell in fiction. She reveals, in devastating detail, how far removed the war’s victims were from its causes,” said Bethany Orlikowski, a program officer for HIAS’ global programs. “While this is a fictional account, the stories told in this book are all too real for millions of refugees and displaced people across the globe.”