Hay event

Refugees’ realities and representations

21st June 2019 | Blog

At Hay Festival this year our Head of Communications Emma Taylor joined bestselling authors Onjali Q. Rauf and Sita Brahmachari in an event chaired by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education’s Farrah Serroukh discussing refugees’ experiences and their representations in children’s literature.

It was a fascinating event. We’ve gathered together below some of the thoughts and insights shared.


A young refugee reads in Echo's mobile library in Athens
Much of the news coverage about refugees doesn’t show the large numbers of women and children that are displaced

Anyone can be a refugee, even Kim Kardashian

Onjali: “Do you remember the California fires a few months ago? Kim Kardashian’s house was under threat. If your house is on fire, you have nowhere to go, you are running for your life, then you are a refugee. It can be Kim Kardashian or it can be a boy from Syria. You cannot judge the two as different.

The people I meet in the camps are doctors, surgeons, teachers and business people who have had to forsake everything, they can’t go back. The first time I visited the camps in Calais and Dunkirk I was absolutely shocked at the number of babies, children, toddlers and women because we don’t see that in any of our coverage.”

Habiba reads to her son
Refugees want to read a diverse range of books

Refugees don’t just want books to help them learn English – they want to read about dragons and magic too

Emma: “People in camps in Europe want books to learn English but equally they want books about dragons, stories about hope, stories about moving and transition and magic. Refugees are living lives as diverse as the people in this room and their needs reflect that diversity. [When I was visiting camps in Greece] I spoke to a mother from Afghanistan. She borrowed See Spot Run for her young son and was urging me to send more cookbooks. She cooked a lot in Afghanistan and she really missed cooking. So books can help her son to learn to read. But also enrich the life of the mum so she can take the ingredients she finds in Greece and figure out how to cook something that reminds her of home – or something completely new.”

Refugees are not a new phenomenon

Onjali: “Refugees are nothing new. Many people have grandparents who are refugees themselves or are the children of holocaust survivors. The difference is that conversations about people’s journeys weren’t being had twenty years ago. We have refugee authors and refugee characters littered throughout our children’s literature. Whether it is Judith Kerr and When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, or Paddington Bear.

Koffi and Cisco
Koffi (L) and Cisco (R) found a new community at Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants – and there are many places like it across the UK

There is some great work going in in communities across the UK in support of refugees

Sita: “Behind the blue door of a building in Islington, London,  there are people from about 40 countries in the world who are eating in the family room and talking, communicating across languages, across cultures. This is the Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants and it’s a place where they can find some sense of community. In that room where people are eating and drinking comes language teaching provision, comes advice on how to go to the doctor, how to look for housing. The centre tries to replicate what a family does when a family member gets into difficulties – you come together and you help. That’s the feeling at the Islington centre but it’s not just the staff and volunteers – it’s the other refugees too.

In the stories I write I look at how a person goes from arriving in a new place to feeling a sense of home there. Places like the Islington centre are just the start. There are centres like this all over the country.”


Kakuma friends
People can be stuck in refugee camps for many years and books can add richness to life

Books give displaced people hope and a window on the world

Emma: “Some books we send to refugee camps are about displaced people and actually those aren’t always the ones people pick out. They choose stories about people who overcome things. Most refugees will stay in the camp for a long time and books offer a window into the world, a bit of richness to what is otherwise a very grey world. They need respite from the tedium and challenges of camp life, they need a place to feel human again. And that’s what books offer.”


Sita and Onjali's books
There are many great children’s books available to help them learn more about refugees’ experiences

Books are a great way for young people in the UK to learn about issues facing the world today

Onjali: “The young people in the audience today shows that they want to understand what the issues [around the refugee crisis] are. Many of them will have solutions that the grown-ups would not have come up with. This is a curiosity that we should encourage.”

Emma: “The power of literature is that it humanises the experience. It reminds you that in a lot of ways, that the refugee story is a very human experience. We all know what it is to be lonely or to go into a room full of people you don’t know. The refugee experience is that times a thousand. I think that is the real power of the books that writers like Sita and Onjali write, they help to bring out that experience.”

Sita: “I think that’s why I chose to set my new book in a mythological European landscape, because I think the temptation is to think that this happens in far-away countries and is not happening here. I think that it’s really important to bring it to the reader’s doorstep. It doesn’t allow you to stand outside of it.”

Kids do amazing things when they read!

Onjali: “A school in Darlington [that had read The Boy at the Back of the Class] decided to set up a Just Giving page to raise £500 to buy every primary school in Malvern a copy of the book!”

Sita: “I was doing an empathy cafe in Sheffield and these two girls had this long long hair. The next time I went back to the empathy café, they had these really short little bobs and the mum was like “you got them to do that!” We’d been talking about empathy and afterwards I think they watched a programme about cancer and they realised children can’t have adult’s hair; they have to have children’s hair. So they decided what they could give is their hair.”

There are lots of great books for children and young people about refugees’ experiences

Top books to read are:

Books about refugees' experiences


Onjali and Sita particularly recommend Illegal, Red Leaves, The Day the War Came, Don’t Call me Refugee, Welcome to Nowhere, The Arrival, Dreams of Freedom and A Story Like the Wind. Why not them all a try?


Take action for refugees!

Check out our resources page filled with ideas and information from us, Onjai, Sita and CLPE.


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