Tag Archives: Refugee

Salih by Inda Ahmad Zahri illustrated by Anne Ryan

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Salih by Inda Ahmad Zahri illustrated by Anne Ryan

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This is an example of a picture book that should not be categorized as being only for children.  The passages of short simple text and the expansive illustrations that pull the reader in, combine to set a powerfully moving tone that holds you in it’s grips until the final page.  The names and hijab clad women could make this book a refugee tale with #muslimsintheillustrations, but because the author is Muslim, and the book so beautiful, I wanted to do a full review.  Some of the vocabulary is a bit advanced for younger children, so I think the best application of this book is not to hand it to a small child to read independently, but rather to read it to a child and let the words tickle their hearts while they immerse themselves in the pictures.  I look forward to sharing this book at story time to kindergarten through third grade.  I think the imagery, concepts, and emotion will resonate and open minds and hearts.

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Salih is like a turtle, he carries his home on his back. He and others are heading to the sea.  He tries to remember when things were better, and forget the bad times.

An old man shows him how to paint.  Salih shares this creativity with others.  Then he slips all the paintings into bottles and when he is on the rough sea, the bottles float away.

The storm rages, but then it calms, and land is seen, and hopes and dreams return.

We, collectively, have become numb, apathetic even, to the plight of refugees.  I have been trying for a while to get this book from Australia, and even though I am over a year late since its publication, it is still timely.  It will always be timely.

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We cannot be so arrogant to dismiss the plights and challenges faced by those in our world.  That is why I say, yes it is a children’s book, but people of all ages, need to be reminded.  It isn’t the worst of the worst incidents that need to only be shared, or the over the top happy stories.  We need to not let our hearts grow so hard. And this gentle book, with a sweet boy and turtle shell imagery has a lot of potential to remind us of the human element of global conflict.

Available to purchase in the USA here

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As Long As the Lemon Trees Grow by Zoulfa Katouh

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As Long As the Lemon Trees Grow by Zoulfa Katouh

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Anything I write about this YA book will fail miserably in conveying how powerful, beautiful, lingering, moving, emotional, and overall masterfully written every one of the 432 pages are; it just might be my favorite book of the year.  I do know that this will be my new standard for Muslim OWN voice stories, as the authenticity was absolutely engulfing, I’m not Syrian and I could feel it and naturally, I also verified it.  There is no pandering to a western gaze, the story and characters pull you in and show you Syria from the ground, there is no telling, there is no lecturing, it is mesmerizing storytelling at its finest.  The book has mental health issues, war, and a sweet “halal” romance, that I think upper YA, 16 plus, can handle and appreciate.  I hope every adult will spend time with this book, it truly is incredibly well done, alhumdulillah.

SYNOPSIS:

Homs is under the protection of the Free Syrian Army, but that isn’t enough to keep pharmacy student Salama and her family safe.  Her mother is killed, her father and brother taken, and so she moves in with her best friend Layla, her pregnant sister-in-law, her only family left.  Working as a doctor in the hospital where anyone remaining is given responsibilities far above their skill level, education, and experience- every day is a struggle to survive.

Haunted by the physical manifestation of her fear, “Khawf,” who urges her to fulfill her promise to her brother of keeping Layla safe and getting them out of the country, Salama at eighteen years old has to find a way.

Before all the pieces come together to escape, a boy enters the picture, Kenan, who gives Salama hope, who distracts her from the death and destruction that has consumed their lives.  A boy unwilling to leave his beloved homeland.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I’m a crier, but this book brought out ugly angry tears, shocked tears, heartbroken tears, sentimental tears, you get the point, this book held me in its grasps and never let go. I.COULDN’T. PUT. IT. DOWN. If this is the author’s debut novel I can’t even fathom what is yet to come.

I love that the characters are Muslim, and that they pray together, that they plead with Allah (swt) and meet at the mosque.  It is who they are, it is not up for debate or in need of explanation, it is what it is and it is not anything to discuss.  The parts where a character pleads with Allah for death over being taken, absolutely wrecked me.  Just as efforts to keep everything halal between Salama and Kenan made me beam.  (If I’m completely honesty, I did on occasion get frustrated, I mean come on they are being shot at, bombed, nearly sexually assaulted, scoop her up in your arms and console, her, I know haram, but it is fiction and I was invested, and there is a war.  Thankfully, I am not an author and she kept it all clean and her characters much stronger and mindful of the shortness of this world.)

I love that there are political voices, but that it isn’t a political book trying to give back story to the conflict.  In so many ways the news has failed to keep a light shining on Syria and books such as this, remind those of us outside Syria without strong connections to the land, that the conflict is still raging.  If this was a journalistic article it would be a human interest piece, it is character driven.  Readers see themselves in the characters that live lives that most of us of privilege could never imagine, yet here we are spellbound by the characters, their choices, their dreams, and their safety.  This book shows the power of fiction in opening our eyes to the horrors that are happening in our time, by giving us a face and a character to care so deeply about, that we are spurred to action and determined to not remain apathetic.

FLAGS:

Death, torture, physical abuse, sexual assault, fear, loss, coercion, war, murder, torture, child abuse, crimes against humanity, starvation, mental health, PTSD.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would love to use this book in a high school book club.  The story and themes of the book would open themselves up to discussion so effortlessly and the beauty of the writing would be a gift to share with students.

Welcome to the New World by Jake Halpern illustrated by Michael Sloan

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Welcome to the New World by Jake Halpern illustrated by Michael Sloan

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I really like the concept and approach of this 192 page non-fiction graphic novel.  It isn’t a memoir or OWN voice retelling, it is basically an in-depth news story about a Syrian refugee family that has been fact checked and then illustrated.  Unfortunately, parts of the story are really choppy and unresolved, details shared for no purpose and occasionally reinforcing of stereotypes.  The book is an easy read and the Muslim family is shown to practice and be fleshed out, but more than once I found myself questioning what the author’s commentary was suggesting/implying based on what was being included.  I allowed my 12 year old son to read it before I was finished, but the last few pages had both misogynistic and homophobic slurs coming from bullies so I made sure to discuss that with him.  I think upper middle school to YA is probably the ideal readership because of the subject matter of escaping war, facing financial insecurities, PTSD, bullies, islamophobia, and navigating a new environment when you are not quite a child, but not yet an adult either.

SYNOPSIS:

Naji’s family is undecided if they should leave Syria or not.  Part of the family has permission to travel to Connecticut in America, but part of them still do not, including Naji’s grandmother.  The war has already imprisoned Naji’s father and uncles in the past and with the US election showing Trump having a chance, they feel like they need to make a decision quickly.  Naji loves all things American and is the only one in the family anxious to get to the US and get on with life, but when the moment of saying good-bye arrives, he has doubts.

Once they arrive in America, all their doubts multiply as life is difficult, help is hard to come by, and day to day fears of safety have not been left behind.  School, finding jobs, learning the language, and facing hate are just the big things that plague a family who has left everything to start over in this detailed account that follows Naji and his family as they navigate their new world.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that the book has been approached as a news article.  I just didn’t like the unresolved threads that seem to take up so much of the narrative only to be abandoned.  I really struggled with the idea that Naji knows America and obviously media is global, but is shown to be confused by a dining table.  I didn’t like the commentary of Naji’s sister Amal and her hijab, I find it hard to believe there aren’t other hijabs in the school or larger community and why it is made to be such a big deal by her, and those trying to help her.  It would seem small after everything she has been through.  I do like that there are a few other Muslims in the school and at least they discuss that there is not a nearby masjid.  I wish other Muslims would have been around to help settle the new family.  I know a few groups that helped in immigrants in New England, so that there were no Muslims in the welcoming groups seemed hard to accept.  By and large it does show Islam being practiced, not just names and hijabs, which I appreciated, but for a book that is based on a real family, with graphics, I really expected a stronger emotional impact that ultimately for me was just not there.

FLAGS:

Death, abuse of power, war, language, bullets, shooting, kidnappings, detainment, destruction, kids making out in hallways, implied rape/sexual assault, death threats, racism, islamophobia, misogyny, slurs, name calling, differential treatment, fear.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This wouldn’t work for me for a book club selection, but if I ever teach a journalism class again, I think I would some how incorporate this book as a way to show what journalism can be, and also as a clear way to show how what parts you include and what parts you keep out affect the messaging of the story as well.

A Bear for Bimi by Jane Breskin Zalben illustrated by Yevgenia Nayberg

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A Bear for Bimi by Jane Breskin Zalben illustrated by Yevgenia Nayberg

This 40 page picture book for preschool and up does a decent job of highlighting how many of us have immigrants in our family history who have relocated much like the immigrants today. The story focuses on Evie and her family welcoming a Muslim family to the neighborhood.  Some are excited to help, including a Muslim neighbor, others are not so welcoming.  The book shows some of the obstacles an immigrant might face, ways someone already established can help, and just how to be a good neighbor- all on a simple pre-schoolr to first grade level.  For little kids it is a good story to start a discussion, and for slightly older kids it is nice to see Islamic names in the text, smiling hijabis in the illustrations, and different characters to identify with.

Evie’s parents tell her that a family from far away is moving in next door, she asks if they are coming like her grandparents did, and indeed they are.  When they arrive Evie runs out to introduce herself to Bimi. Evie’s parents help the Said family move in.  But one neighbor, Mrs. Monroe just glares out the window.

Bimi asks his parents about Mrs. Monroe and Evie asks hers.  Bimi’s parents tell him that some people are scared of people that seem different, and Evie’s parents wish Mrs. Monroe would remember what it was like when she first came to America.

That night Evie has an idea to help furnish Bimi’s house.  The whole neighborhood helps out, including Fatima who lives around the corner.   After getting the apartment set up, they all share a meal, everyone that is, except Mrs. Monroe.

When the kids go out to play, Mrs. Monroe’s shopping bag spills, and Bimi helps her and Mrs. Said invites her in.  Later Evie gifts Bimi her teddy bear and Bimi gives Evie a stone from his grandma’s garden.  Evie asks him what he will name the bear, and when he says Evie, the reader knows the two are friends, and Bimi is “home.”

The book isn’t exciting, emotional, or particularly memorable, but there is value in it and I appreciate the Islamic representation.

Hakim’s Odyssey: Book 2: From Turkey to Greece by Fabien Toulme’

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Hakim’s Odyssey: Book 2: From Turkey to Greece by Fabien Toulme’

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It is easy to assume that refugee stories are all the same, but in my experience, the more I read about the journeys people take in desperation for safety, the more I realize it doesn’t matter if “parts” are similar, the individual experience should never be dismissed or become commonplace.  I try to make a point to read them, and spend time with them, and be affected by them, so as to not grow apathetic.  I have not read the first book in this series, but this book, the second book can stand alone, and I hope that you will keep an eye out for it when it is published, and spend time with Hakim and his son Hadi.  In much of the way the middle grade novel When Stars are Scattered, swept me up and consumed me, this book also enveloped me in the characters’ emotions and left me sobbing and heartbroken more than once.  The framing of the story, gratefully shows that Hakim survives, but the power of the words, illustrations, and experience, still physically move you and make you imagine how truly horrific situations must be that force people to risk it all to leave their homes and start over.  This 264 page book focuses on the part of his story that takes Hakim from Turkey to Greece, but references to Syria and his life there allow for a fleshed out understanding and appreciation for the trials he has faced, and continues to face, subhahAllah.  Suitable for mature teens, at least 16  or 17 and up.

SYNOPSIS:

The book starts out with the author/illustrator heading off with his daughter to interview Hakim.  His young daughter has heard a lot about Hakim and his family, but never met them.  They “recap” the first part of his journey, the first book, and settle in to hear more of his life and the extraordinary circumstances that he has faced to reunite with his family since fleeing the war in Syria.

The birth of his son Hadi is a definite high point in Hakim’s life and the daily struggle of selling enough goods on the streets of Turkey to provide for his son keep Hakim looking forward.  With his wife, Najmeh, and her family around them, they crave stability, but are managing.  As the days stretch on though, Hakim is prevented from selling without the proper permissions, and his father-in-law is still unable to find work. Hakim’s wife and family are granted permission to relocate, but Hakim and Hadi cannot legally join them.  The tearing apart of the family is devastating.  And carrying for his young son alone while trying to earn enough to survive is incredibly challenging.  When Hakim has exhausted all the legal ways to join his family in France, he considers illegal methods.

An Iraqi neighbor offers him the money needed to hire smugglers, so Hakim is faced with deciding what risks he and his young son are willing to take to “start living.”  The step in to the unknown, the crossing of the sea in an inflatable life raft, brings them closer, but with one more book in the series, and not knowing who the children are in the present time scenes, your heart will be made incredibly fragile as you hope that young Hadi survives.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that you get to know the characters and can see why they make the decisions they make, or rather why the choose to do what they choose based on the information they have, and the impossible choices before them.  I also love that it shows so much humanity.  You see Hakim’s story brought to life and you see him and his family as whole people, not just numbers or nameless, faceless victims.  You see the joy and devastation, the testament to human strength and mental anguish, it is moving and powerful.  I also love that you see the side characters, see the little mercies, and the horrific injustices, often in the same scene. The graphic novel format allows the subtleties to show without the words, it adds to the connection of emotions and truly putting yourself in the character’s shoes.

I like that it should how happenstance much of the journey was for Hakim, at times he didn’t know who to talk to, where to go, what to expect.  I was a little confused about the payment to the smugglers, and how it had to be handled after he arrived.  I don’t know if my own understanding of how shady the smugglers are based on the media is making it muddled, or if I just missed something in the telling.

There is not a lot of Islam in the book, they don’t stop and make salat or say Bismillah, but they reference thanking Allah swt, and praying to Allah in desperation.  Hakim’s mother in law and wife wear hijab.

FLAGS:

Fear, smoking, cheating, lying, illegal immigration acts.  There is nothing obscene, the older audience recommendation is because of the weight of the subject matter, and the lingering effects of war and escaping.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This would be an amazing high school book club read.  The characters, the relatability, the empathy, it would be great to share it with a group of students that might have similar experiences and provide them with a platform to share with those that might not.

The Unexpected Friend: A Rohingya Children’s Story by Raya Rashna Rahman illustrated by Inshra Sakhawat Russell

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The Unexpected Friend: A Rohingya Children’s Story by Raya Rashna Rahman illustrated by Inshra Sakhawat Russell

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I have mixed feelings about this book. On the surface I am thrilled that there is a story highlighting the plight of the Rohingya for children and that it includes some character depth and relatability to global readers. On the flip side, the book is very vague and could be any refugee in any camp and is not Rohingya specific. Additionally, I feel that it is too idyllic. I am no expert by any means, I wouldn’t even say that I am well-versed, but the book paints an impression of a thriving organized camp with medical help, orderly food lines and a vibrant school. Yes, it talks about the lines being long, and naturally if you are out collecting firewood, it is a bit rugged, but I don’t know that the lasting impression is a humanitarian crises. I understand that in a 36 page, kindergarten to 2nd grade book, political complexities and horrors are not a natural platform, but I worry that the aim of bringing attention to the situation will miss its mark by not capturing its truth more clearly.

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Faisal has just finished his afternoon prayer and while outside the mosque he hears a faint chirping and discovers a small bird with a hurt wing.  He and his friend Rahim take the bird to the learning center to be cared for while the boys head to the forest to collect firewood.

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The forest can be dangerous, but in order to cook, they must have wood to burn.  While in the forest, the boys encounter an elephant and remark on how they are depleting the animals’ natural habitat.  When leaving Faisal trips and falls, scattering his collected firewood and breaking his arm.

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Rahim offers to share his firewood with Faisal and the two head back to camp to get Faisal to the doctor.    Like the bird, who’s wing has been bandaged, Faisal now too has a hurt appendage.  The two spend every minute together for weeks, and when both have healed, Faisal admits he doesn’t want to let the bird free. He knows it is the right thing to do and alas allows the bird to go.

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The book has an afterword regarding Cox’s Bazar and information about the author and Save the Children Foundation.

Hello! A Welcoming Story by Gina K. Lewis illustrated by Maria Jose’ Campos

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Hello! A Welcoming Story by Gina K. Lewis illustrated by Maria Jose’ Campos

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This 62 page early elementary story is told from two perspectives, you flip the book to read each parallel story from two points of view, the refugee children’s and the children welcoming them.  Overall, I feel it is very well-intentioned and gets a lot right, but I found myself not feeling comfortable with some of the messaging regarding the visibly Muslim character included.

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I love that there are characters of all skin tones both welcoming the refugees and the refugees themselves. And I love the vague universalness that binds all the refugees together being expressed:  that they love their home, they had to flee, the journey was dangerous, they left everything behind, etc..

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I also love the warmth and genuine compassion that comes from the welcoming children.  They are reassuring, open, and seem to truly want to provide confidence to their new classmates.  The simple text really conveys a lot of emotion albeit very idyllic, that provides ways that readers in similar situations can also mimic when welcoming anyone new.

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On one of the two story sides a map is included showing that the refugee kids come from all over the world, the side that did not have the map I worry might confuse young readers.  They might not realize that the five children do not all come from the same country.  There should be a map on both sides, ideally.

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The illustrations that show how the welcoming kids understand the refugee stories is clever in the showing of their understanding.  The images are similar, but the different style is a great emphasis on how we process from our point of reference facts that others have lived.

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The concept of a new kid finding everything so different and not fitting in, is a great concept to explore in terms of clothing and food and language, but for some reason I didn’t like how the girl in hijab was presented.  I’m ok that she took off her hijab to fit in, and that her classmates encouraged her to be herself, and put it back on, but the text is too over reaching, to an erroneous end.

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It says on one page, “No one looked like me, but most people smiled.”  Really, NO ONE? No other Muslims exist in your new home? It then says, “I was afraid to wear my real clothes to school.  The other kids didn’t dress like me.”  In the illustration her clothes are EXACTLY THE SAME, the only thing that changes is she has a scarf on. Hijabs are a religious article of clothing, they are not unique or country specific.  And what does real clothing even mean?

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I also didn’t like the text reading, “This is my journey’s end.”  That seems to imply that you leave the horrors behind, you build bridges, this is your home now, and that is it.  This is a children’s book, the message should be that there is so much more to you and to your life, and you will find welcoming people and be the one welcoming in the future.  I don’t like that it seems to carry the weight of finality to a person’s story.  People, all of us, are more than just a label.

My Name is Bana by Bana Alabed illustrated by Nez Riaz

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My Name is Bana by Bana Alabed illustrated by Nez Riaz

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OWN voice books are always important, and while we see a rise in minority voices claiming their own stories, to read a child’s story about war and hope by a child, is particularly impressive.  Bana Alabed was born in 2009, she is an activist, a Syrian refugee, and now an author.  Her clear voice doesn’t stumble and her perspective is unapologetic, yet hopeful.  Over 40 pages she tells her story in her own words with beautifully warm and complementary illustrations filling the pages.  For kindergarten and up, this book stands out in a crowded field of refugee inspired stories for its authenticity, strong author, and overall emotional connection.

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Bana begins her picture book memoir by asking her mother why she was named Bana.  Her mother explains that she was named after a tall bushy tree that grows in Syria.  Her favorite tree.  A tree that is qawai, Arabic for strong.

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Bana then asks what it means to be strong.  And once again her mother lovingly explains, that strong is to be brave even when you are scared, and to be sturdy so others can lean on you.  It also means you use your mighty voice to speak up when something is wrong, you read, study, and exercise your body.

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Bana appreciates her name, and being strong, because war came to her country.  When bombs fell they had to hide, when her brothers were scared, she had to keep them distracted, when they moved to a new place where they didn’t know the language or any people, she had to be strong still.

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As a young girl, Bana tweeted about the war, the book doesn’t touch on that, but it does show her being strong as she shares her story all over the world.  It then returns to her and her mother discussing amal, Arabic for hope, and Bana imagines herself strong, reaching into the sky.

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The book ends on a simpler note of acknowledging her little brothers’ names: Laith and Noor, lion and light.  The Author’s Note at the end is just as powerful as the text of the book and provides more information about Bana’s experience and outlook. The way that war is handled is not overpowering for young readers, and will provide a great starting point of discussion.  The relationship between Bana and her mother is warm and supportive and equally deserving of mention with the little people you share the book with, alhumdulillah.

“Kids shouldn’t have to always be strong.  Every child deserves to live in peace.” Bana Alabed

Samira Surfs by Rukhsanna Guidroz illustrated by Fahmida Azim

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Samira Surfs by Rukhsanna Guidroz illustrated by Fahmida Azim

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I have been anxiously waiting for this middle grades 411 page book in verse to be published.  The last few books I’ve read in this style with smart strong female protagonists have blown me away.  This book unfortunately really fell flat.  I think the difference is most OWN voice narrative do so well in prose when the emotion can be felt and explored deeply, so that when the story moves forward with sparse words the reader can forgive the gaps and jumps.  This didn’t have that insight, sadly, and just left a lot of holes for me. The author’s family on her father’s side is Muslim, she is Persian Indian Chinese, not Rohingya or Bangladeshi, and that isn’t to say that she can’t write a story about them, but it just felt lacking, and this is my assumption as to why.  The author is a surfer, and that is where the detail and passion really shines. The book is fine, it just didn’t inspire me or move me.  It checks boxes for having characters with strong Muslim identities, highlighting a persecuted population, showing diversity within subcultures, and showing universal similarities, so I’m glad the book was written and is available, I just wanted it to be so much more.

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SYNOPSIS:

Samira and her family have recently made the perilous escape from Burma to Bangladesh.  Burma decided that the Rohingya must be killed and convinced the majority Buddhist to turn on their Muslim neighbors.  Her parents and brother survived, but her grandparents, her Nana and Nani, drowned on the way.  Samira’s family were turned away from the over filled refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar and have set up with others, their own meager living on the outskirts.  Samira’s father works for very little illegally as a shrimper, her brother as a waiter, and she sells eggs on the beach to tourist.  Ever on the lookout for police and from angry Bangladeshis, life is lonely and frightening.  Slowly Samira starts to make friends with other girls, her brother Khaled is helping translate and is beloved by his employer.  When their father gets injured however, the family is thrown in turmoil as they need his income.  At this same time Samira starts to be tempted by the ocean and the surfer girls that seem so free and fearless as they take on the waves.  Knowing that her family will not support her surfing, her brother agrees to teach her how to surf in secret, like he is teaching her to read and write English.  A surfing contest is announced for boys and girls with a substantial monetary prize for the winner, but Samira is not allowed to be in the water, and the Bangladeshis in charge of the surf boards are not happy with how much potential Samira has to win the competition.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the story brings some awareness to the under represented Rohingya and that it shows resilience and strength.  It talks about religion, they opt not to fast in Ramadan because the father is weak after his accident and he proclaims that if he isn’t fasting no one should.  The men go to the mosque, the mom talks about hijab.  Cultural words are dropped in and foods mentioned.  The illustrations are fun and engaging and do a good job of breaking up the text and keeping the reader connected.  I loved the dad and his way of supporting his kids, I also loved the brother sister relationship, but ultimately, the plot holes just overwhelmed the straightforward story line.

I wanted to know more about the tourist near this refugee camp, who were they (Bangladeshis? foreigners?) and what was that dynamic like.  I wanted to know where the eggs came from and how that was set up as a job for Samira.  How come the family was nervous about Samira being on the water since that was how her grandparents died, but not her brother? I get that as a female grows the family might not want her in a bathing suit out swimming for modesty issues, but I didn’t like how the book just chopped it up to swimming being against Islam, clearly she was taught to swim and obviously it isn’t.  I was looking forward to some big reveal about the brothers notebook of drawings.  I thought maybe he would get them to a newspaper or get them shared somehow to give insight to what his people were experiencing.  It seemed like it was teased that there was going to be a climax there, but there wasn’t and it felt misleading.   I didn’t get the whole standoff with the other surfers protesting if Samira wasn’t allowed to surf they wouldn’t either.  If the organizers weren’t letting her that makes sense, but why would her parents care? There wasn’t a clear connection and the speed and vagueness in which it was resolved was disappointing as it was presumably the point of the story.

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FLAGS:

Fairly clean.  There is bullying and mention of death.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think I would do this for a middle school book club.  It is a solid middle grade read.  Possibly it could be used to supplement a larger unit of study about refugees or particularly the Rohingya.  Older readers will be left with more questions than they had when they began the book though, and wonder what the point of the story was at all.

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World in Between: Based on a True Refugee Story by Kenan Trebinčević and Susan Shapiro

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I’ve read a lot of refugee stories over the years about people leaving a variety of countries, and while each one, no matter the quality of writing, is heartbreaking and important, this middle grades 384 page historical fiction/ fictionalized biography account stands out because it is written so incredibly well.  The story shows young Kenan’s life before the Balkan War in Bosnia, a year of the war, life in Vienna, and then in the USA.  The book is personable, relatable, and informative.  I had a very hard time putting it down despite knowing that the main character, the author, obviously survived; as the story is engaging and powerful and doesn’t rely on the horrific war to carry the character building and story arcs alone.  The character identifies as Muslim, but doesn’t actively practice or know much about Islam, sports and art are highlighted as universal activities that bridge cultures, language, and foster respect.  The book mentions drinking, kissing, hints at a crush, and features bullying, death, killing, and torture.  Suitable for mature fourth graders and up.

SYNOPSIS:

Kenan has a good life in Brčko, Yugoslavia, he is good at soccer, is an amazing artist, has a bunch of friends, a teacher he likes, loving extended family, his father owns a popular gym, and his mom is an office manager, sure his older brother picks on him sometimes and he gets called, “Bugs Bunny” because of his large protruding teeth, but when it all comes crashing down because of his religion, he is at a loss as to why it suddenly matters.  While neighbors and classmates start sneaking off in the night fearing that the Serbs are going to kill all the Muslims and Catholics, Kenan’s dad holds out hope that he is well loved by everyone at his gym, no matter their religion.  But the family waits too long to leave, and friends, neighbors, classmates, and teachers quickly turn in to enemies.  Kenan’s buddies threaten and abuse him, his favorite teacher holds him at gun point, and neighbors shoot holes in their water cans.  The family ultimately has to hunker down in their apartment without much water, food, and electricity.  They get to Kenan’s aunt’s house in a safe zone, but the men have to register and his father and brother are taken to a concentration camp.  Somehow they get released, but the family’s troubles are just beginning.  Along the way they will be betrayed by people they thought they could trust and helped by people that they thought hated them- no matter the country, no matter people’s religion.  The family will get to Austria and to Kenan’s uncle, but even being away from war doesn’t give them peace.  They don’t speak the language, they can’t work, they must take charity.  Eventually they find themselves in Connecticut, and while some American’s make their difficult lives even worse, some prove to be absolute angels to a family that is trying to make a life in a new country while the war wages on back home.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that stories about the Balkan War are becoming more and more available, it is long overdue, and I’m glad that through literature, authentic voices are keeping the memory of the horrific acts from being forgotten.  The story is compelling, a few threads I wanted resolved that weren’t (more information on his grandma, his uncle in Vienna, his aunt that they left behind), but the narrative is rich and does a great job staying relevant to its target audience and not overwhelming the reader with politics or sensationalized emotions.  The rawness of the experience being processed by the 11 year old protagonist is impactful enough and doesn’t need to be exaggerated.  The book is not depressing, in fact there is a lot of joy and hope and kindness.  

I love that Kenan acknowledges that he has been to the mosque once with his uncle, that they don’t fast in Ramadan, but they do celebrate Eid.  It hints that at times they may drink, but they are good about not eating pork, although they eat jell-o. In shop class in the United States his first project is a replica of the mosque in their neighborhood.  Their names are known to be Muslim in Bosnia, and that is enough for them to endure the ethnic cleansing, belief or adherence, is not a factor.

I love that sports and art are universal.  Math is too, but Kenan isn’t good at math.  He wins accolades in each country for his drawings, and gets respect from classmates for his athletic ability.  Not speaking the language is hard, but being able to prove yourself in other ways is a salvation for Kenan.  He is on teams, he goes to the World Cup, he gets in fights, he is honored in the newspaper.  Life in general grounds him, yet soccer and drawing give him a release to excel in.

I love the diversity of everyone in each country.  Heroes are seen in immigrants, minorities, Americans, a Methodist preacher, an Israeli bus driver, a Serb bus driver, a Serb soldier and his family, a .  There are awful immigrants, and white Americans, and Serbs- it really shows that some people are just good and kind, and some people are not, it isn’t linked to any faith or country or culture or neighborhood or skin tone.  I was surprised that at no point were their other Muslims.   We got to know so many wonderful Bosnians in the 90s as our family helped them get settled, that I was really hoping there would be some in Connecticut working with the churches that helped settle Kenan and his family.  That isn’t a critique of the book, though, just my disappointment in my fellow Muslim-Americans for not stepping up enough in real life to make the literary cut, I suppose.

FLAGS:

Violence, torture, death, bullying, killing, shooting, hints at sexual assault, physical assault, ethnic cleansing, genocide, war.  It mentions that Kenan’s brother got to kiss a girl and have a drink, but nothing more detailed than that.  Kenan has a crush on a girl, but it manifests periodically as him just wondering if she survived and is ok.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book is on a short list for me to use next year for middle school book club.  It is a little below grade level for my group, but book club is supposed to be fun and not a burden, so I think it will be perfect.  The kids are going to absolutely love Kenan.  He is so relatable and personable, that I don’t think any supplemental questions or discussion points will be needed.  Kids will have lots of thoughts about Islam in Bosnia, friends turn enemies, restarting in new countries again and again, anger at people that didn’t step up, glee when people did, jealousy when he gets to go to a World Cup game, and hopefully empathy for so many who’s world changed so quickly.  The biggest takeaways will be how it didn’t take much to help, and I hope all readers will recognize that we can be kind and we can help and we can respect and care enough to truly help others.