Honouring refugee stories in Refugee Week and beyond

Published on: 20 June 2021

As Refugee Week comes to an end, BookTrust Writer in Residence Onjali Q. Raúf shares some of her favourite children's books about refugees' experiences for children and why it's important for us to hear, and tell, these stories.

Writer in Residence Onjali Q. Raúf photographed by Rehan Jamil
Writer in Residence Onjali Q. Raúf

“What you leave behind 
Won't leave your mind.
But home is where you find it.
Home is where you find it.”
― Michael Rosen 

The stories that need to be told

Over the past three years, and most especially in the run up to every Refugee Week, I have had the immense honour of speaking to thousands of readers little and big in classrooms, libraries and festivals across the country. All of them hungry for one thing: to listen to stories they know they need to be told.

Stories which are real, painful, eye-opening, humane, tragic and ever-hopeful, which centre on the plight of over 80 million people on this planet who, right at this very moment, are searching for the very same gifts so many of us take for granted: ‘peace’, ‘safety’, ‘home’, ‘family’. Gifts they no longer possess thanks to geo-political decisions, actions, events and unrests that have nothing to do with them.

In short, stories about refugees.

Refugee: a word so often mired in racisms, fears and one-sided, negative suppositions and imagery, that it will take a world of authors, illustrators, poets, and storytellers to unpack the baggage it travels with, and unpackage it in the light of human beings in need of humanity.

Which thankfully, is exactly what is being done and has been done, by an army of storytellers in all our book worlds, past and present.

Footsteps on the Wind

From Paddington Bear, Superman, and the Pevensie children in the Narnia Chronicles, to Harry Potter and Willie Beech in Goodnight Mr Tom; from Judith Kerr, Benjamin Zephaniah, Shaun Tan and Michael Rosen to Andrea Davis Pinkney, Nicola Davies, AM Dassu, Catherine Bruton and Ele Fountain and a world of so many more brilliant authors and creations, our children have access to shelves of stories which centre on the story of fleeing persecution, searching for better worlds and peoples, and safety from the unfathomable.

And they will need more. More stories that highlight truths - however hard they may be, so readers can begin to aspire to the roles they will need to play in the coming decades to humanise those who have been dehumanised, and hold out hands that are currently being held back.

Which is why, when award-winning former BookTrust Writer-in-Residence Sita Brahmachari approached me with the opportunity of storyboarding an animation about the plight of refugee children, I couldn’t help but cry out, ‘Yes please!’

The animation, set to a song by Sting called Inshallah (the Arabic for ‘If it be God’s Will’) and entitled Footsteps on the Wind (see the trailer here), sources its ingredients from Sita’s piercing refugee-centred stories Artichoke Heart and Red Leaves, and my own The Boy at the Back of the Class. In short, it is a dream project, centred on the hopes that it will help teachers and families around the world, understand even more deeply the stories they may already be reading about what refugee children are being made to endure.

In the midst of this collaboration, Sita and I inevitably began to share stories and experiences of our refugee aid works and book loves. To mark the end of this precious week, here are her three favourite refugee-centred reads, followed by mine.

After all, refugee stories and their authors aren’t just for Refugee Week: they’re for life. Many, many lives.

Which is why we must go on, reading…

Sita Brahmachari's top 3 post-Refugee Week reads 

From the cover of A Country to Call HomeFrom the cover of A Country to Call Home

A Country to Call Home: An Anthology edited by Lucy Popescu and with illustrations by Chris Riddell

A diverse and moving anthology featuring many children's and YA authors exploring refugee experience. Aimed at children and adult readers alike, it features work from Michael Morpurgo, Eoin Colfer, Judith Kerr, S.F. Said, Kit de Waal and Simon Armitage amongst so many others. A crucial addition to any bookshelf.

The cover of Butterfly by Yusra MardiniThe cover of Butterfly by Yusra Mardini

Butterfly: From Refugee to Olympian - My Story of Rescue, Hope, and Triumph by Yusra Mardini

This YA novel is a must-read because it really is the author's story, and one of incredible resilience and hope. An inspiration to all.

The cover of Welcome to Nowhere by Elizabeth LairdThe cover of Welcome to Nowhere by Elizabeth Laird

Welcome to Nowhere by Elizabeth Laird

This is extraordinary storytelling at its best. Laird expertly brings the lived details of a refugee’s experiences to life with so much heart, humanity, vast experience and empathy.

Read our review of Welcome to Nowhere 

Onjali Q. Raúf's top 3 post-Refugee Week reads 

The cover of On The Move by Michael Rosen and Quentin BlakeThe cover of On The Move by Michael Rosen and Quentin Blake

On The Move by Michael Rosen with drawings by Quentin Blake

Because it’s Michael. And because to dip in and out of these timeless poems, is to dip in and out of truths packed into sentences and stanzas that strike the heart and imprint forever.

Read our review of On The Move

The cover of When Stars are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar MohamedThe cover of When Stars are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed

When Stars are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed 

Want to understand just what life is like in a refugee camp for children? And wrap heads around the fact that sadly, Syria is not the only place from which children are having to flee? Then look no further. Omar and his brother Hassan from Somaliland, are here to open eyes, understandings, and hearts. Reaching the last page and understanding that this is a true story, will have you reaching out to hug your nearest human too.

Read our review of When Stars are Scattered

"No-one chooses to be a refugee": Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed on When Stars Are Scattered

The cover of Other Words for Home by Jasmine WargaThe cover of Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga

Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga 

I was gifted this incredible book - written entirely in verse - to mark Refugee Week by one of my team members in Calais, and to say I fell in love with the character of Jude from line one is an understatement. A rhythmic chronicling of a child’s journey, as she leaves behind her beloved father and brother in Syria to find safety and her sense of heritage and self in America, it is a deeply stunning read to have on any shelf on any week of the year.

Follow Onjali on Twitter

Follow Sita on Twitter

Explore more books

Looking for more children's books which tell refugees' stories? Take a look through our booklists, hand-picked to suit children of all ages.

Books about refugees and asylum seekers (younger children)

Since asylum can be a confusing issue for children (and even adults), here are some books that explore what it really means to flee your home and have to start your life over.

Books about refugees and asylum seekers (older children)

Since asylum can be a confusing issue for children (and even adults), here are some books that explore what it really means to flee your home and have to start your life over.

Books about refugees and asylum seekers (teens)

Since asylum can be a confusing issue for teenagers (and even adults), here are some books that explore what it really means to flee your home and have to start your life over.

Meet our latest Writer in Residence

Every six months, BookTrust appoints a new Writer in Residence to write blogs, run competitions and give us their own unique perspective on the world of children's books.

Find out more