The Refugee Experience for Children and Young Adults

Editor’s note: Families are being separated at the border. Children are being held in concrete cages. Young readers who find themselves in better circumstances can learn about the refugee experience through this broad compendium of books, originally published as a two-part list in August of 2017. 

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), also known as the United Nations Refugee Agency, defines refugees as people

  • who are outside their country of origin and
  • whose life and or human rights are seriously at risk because of
  • who they are (e.g. their race, nationality, social group), or what they believe (e.g. their religious beliefs or political opinion); and
  • their governments will not or cannot protect them

With all the fear, uncertainty, and difficulties that adult refugees face, a young child’s experience is likely to be exponentially more challenging. In encouraging understanding and empathy—especially in schools and other kid-centric institutions—books can be especially useful as validation for the refugee child in seeing her/ him/ themselves reflected in the pages, and as portals for their new classmates and friends to learn more about the refugee experience.


Picture Books

adrift at sea marsha forchuk skyrpuchAdrift at Sea: A Vietnamese Boy’s Story of Survival, by Marsha Forchuck Skrypuch with Tuan Ho, illustrated by Brian Deines

Canadian author Skrypuch presents Tuan Ho’s real-life odyssey, one filled with urgency, fear, and ultimately hope. Tuan, his mother, and two sisters leave their home in Ho Chi Minh City in the darkness of night, and dodge gunshots to board a fishing boat. After six days of drifting—the sun relentless, the boat leaking, without enough drinking water—an American aircraft carrier brings the passengers to safety.


the arrival shaun tan The Arrival, by Shaun Tan

In an unnamed, troubled land, a man leaves his wife and young daughter behind to look for freedom in a new country. His adjustments initially overwhelm and disorient him, but with the help of new friends, he slowly finds his way and eventually reunites with his family. Tan’s spectacular book traces a family’s migration story with brilliant imagination—all without words.


half a spoon of rice icy smithHalf Spoon of Rice: A Survival Story of the Cambodian Genocide, by Icy Smith, illustrated by Sopaul Nhem

What Americans call the Vietnam War spread through Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Although the horrifying details and statistics of war are not age-appropriate for the youngest readers, children can, however, understand the story of one nine-year-old boy separated from his family, yet ultimately reunited and able to start a new life.




here I am patti kimHere I Am, by Patti Kim, illustrated by Sonia Sánchez

A young boy boards an airplane with his family and arrives in a new city. When he enters a virtually empty apartment, he longs for his brightly lit family home somewhere far away. He treasures his one memento, a red seed that holds within its tininess all the wonderful, comforting memories of back home. His strange and unfamiliar new life improves dramatically when he finds his first friend. A wordless wonder suitable for all ages.


im new here ann obrienI’m New Here, by Anne Sibley O’Brien

Meet Maria, Jin, and Fatimah. They’re new–not only to their classroom, but to the language, culture, and country that is our United States. Feelings of being “alone. . . confused. . . sad” are soon transformed into the camaraderie of a soccer game for Maria, the satisfaction of learning to read with a friend for Jin, and the relief of sharing her experiences through drawing for Fatimah. Encouragement and companionship help each child toward being able to say, “Here is a new home.”



refugees journey syria masonLeaving My Homeland (series): A Refugee’s Journey from Afghanistan and A Refugee’s Journey from Syria by Helen Mason, A Refugee’s Journey from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and A Refugee’s Journey from Iraq by Ellen Rodger

Working with members of the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University in Toronto, Canada, educational indie Crabtree Publishing introduces younger readers to the refugee experience, from leaving, to surviving, to adapting in new homes. Woven through the contextual history of each country—cultural, socioeconomic, political—is a child’s journey: Sonita, whose parents are Afghan refugees; Etienne, who was stolen from his family in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and forced into being a child soldier; Zainab, whose prosperous family in Iraq must start again in the U.S.; and Roj, displaced by war in Syria, who escapes to a refugee camp in Turkey before finally being granted asylum in Germany.


my two blankets irena kobaldMy Two Blankets, by Irena Kobald, illustrated by Freya Blackwood

War causes Cartwheel and her Auntie to leave their home for a new country “to be safe.” The strangeness all around her is only alleviated by wrapping herself in her old blanket, filled with the comfort of her past. As familiarity grows, she realizes that her past and present can both envelop her like ‘two blankets.’





out of iraq sybella walksOut of Iraq: Refugees’ Stories in Words, Paintings and Music, by Sybella Wilkes, foreword by Angelina Jolie

Through a mosaic of history, politics, statistics, and true stories from Iraqi refugees, author and UNHCR Senior Communications Officer Sybella Wilkes provides a window into the everyday lives of war survivors. The struggles that the children—the youngest, most tragic victims—must face are the most disturbing and challenging of all.


stepping stones margriet ruursStepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey, by Margriet Ruurs, illustrated by Niza Ali Badr, translated by Falah Raheem

Captivated by images she saw on the internet, Ruurs’ search for the artist “who can breathe such life into solid rock” led her to Badr, who works and still lives in a small village in Syria. Together, they created this remarkable story of young Rama and her family, who are forced to flee across oceans and lands, to arrive “[a]t last … to our future,” finally free of war, guns, bombs, and fear. The dual languages (English and Arabic) make stupendous Stones especially timely and accessible.


teacup rebecca young Teacup, by Rebecca Young, illustrated by Matt Ottley

“Once there was a boy who had to leave his home. . . and find another.” With a book, a bottle, a blanket, and a teacup “that held some earth from where he used to play,” the boy makes an epic journey in his small boat to a new life somewhere far, far away. Gorgeously illustrated with minimal text, readers are reminded “how things can change with a whisper” until nothing is familiar, and home is something new to be created in an unknown land.


this is me jamie lee curtisThis Is Me: A Story of Who We Are & Where We Came From, by Jamie Lee Curtis, illustrated by Laura Cornell

Writ large across a classroom blackboard is, “Where did you come from because it wasn’t here.” As the teacher shares her own family tale (“My great-grandmother came from a far, distant place. She came on a boat with just this small case”), she beckons her students to look into an empty suitcase, inviting each child to imagine such a journey: “How would you know in this case what to pack and that once you had left there’d be no coming back?” An interactive, effective reminder that we are indeed a nation of migrants—whether immigrants, slaves, refugees, sojourners, travelers—who all came from somewhere else.


two white rabbits jairo buitragoTwo White Rabbits, by Jairo Buitrago, illustrated by Rafael Yockteng, translated by Elisa Amado

A young girl and her father, each with just a backpack, make a perilous journey toward a better life. The titular rabbits are exchanged as a gift of friendship between the little girl and a young boy she meets along the way. As father and daughter’s trek continues, the rabbits transform into symbols of something beloved (companions), something sacrificial (purity), something hopeful (freedom), and even the threat of something sinister (two ghosts?).



all the broken pieces ann burg all the broken pieces: a novel in verse, by Ann E. Burg

By age 10, Matt Pin has already had a harrowing life as a child of war. As one of the first groups of children airlifted out of an imploding Vietnam, Matt begins life anew on the other side of the world with a welcoming mother, father, and little brother. Haunted by memories of his birth family, he fears his new American parents will send him back if they ever found out what really happened in Vietnam.





inside out and back again thanhha lai Inside Out and Back Again, by Thanhhà Lại

Lại’s 2011, National Book Award-winning debut novel, told in verse, is the autobiographical coming-of-age tale of 10-year-old Hà, whose family is forced to leave their homeland forever as Saigon falls. They board an old navy ship, eventually arriving in Alabama, where they are sponsored by a kind man and his not-at-all-friendly wife. Life in the new country is an enormous adjustment for all, but especially for young Hà, who must navigate the cruel intolerance of her new schoolmates.


it aint so awful falafel firoozeh dumas It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel, by Firoozeh Dumas

Zomorod Yousefzadeh’s peripatetic upbringing has already spanned great distances—not just in miles, but across cultural, social, and political divides as well. Originally from Iran, her family is finally settling in California in the summer of 1978 when Zomorod renames herself Cindy, after the youngest child in The Brady Bunch. Her American metamorphosis is threatened by the hostage crisis in Iran, which makes being Iranian in the U.S. a matter of survival. Dumas (Funny in Farsi) distills a difficult chapter from recent history into an accessible coming-of-age novel infused with resonating contemporary issues, including bullying, multi-generational challenges, racism, and activism.



last airlift marsha skrypuchLast Airlift: A Vietnamese Orphan’s Rescue from Warby Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

One Step at a Time: A Vietnamese Child Finds Her Way, by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

Over two volumes, award-winning Canadian author Skrypuch introduces readers to Son Thi Ahn Tuyet, following her from her last days in a Saigon orphanage to the new life she finds in Canada with the Morris family. Just learning to feel safe is a challenge, as memories of war and tragedy haunt Tuyet’s dreams. Beyond the expected challenges of adapting to a new language, culture, parents and siblings, Tuyet undergoes multiple operations that will someday allow her to walk. Step by step, Skrypuch shows with forthright clarity how Tuyet becomes her own best hero.


a long walk to water linda sue park A Long Walk to Water, by Linda Sue Park

Since Newbery Medalist Park published Water on November 2010, borders shifted (again) and the world recognized the birth of the Republic of South Sudan on July 9, 2011, making the book almost an anachronism—its map is no longer accurate, and country names will need updating. Park’s dual narrative intertwines 11-year-old Nya’s titular “long walk to water” on which her family relies for survival, and 11-year-old Salva Dut’s decade-long odyssey as one of the Lost Boys of Sudan. The two children are enemies merely by chance of being born into warring tribes, yet despite their violent inheritance, Nya and Salva’s lives will intersect in a life-saving effort of cooperation and peace.



lost girl found leah basoffLost Girl Found, by Leah Bassoff and Laura DeLuca

Poni’s fiercely supportive mother is determined that her daughter will have a different future than her 12-year-old best friend, who endured child marriage only to die in childbirth. But when war destroys her family and their home, Poni’s road to survival takes her to a Kenyan refugee camp. With tenacity and courage, she becomes the titular lost girl found. In 1999, when the U.S. State Department allowed the resettlement of young Sudanese refugees, nearly 4,000 Lost Boys arrived in America, but only 89 girls. Co-authors Bassoff and DeLuca give voice to the overlooked Lost Girls. Their hope: “that more girls will get to tell their stories.”

never fall down patricia mccormick Never Fall Down, by Patricia McCormick

McCormick’s 2012 National Book Award-finalist presents the horrifying experiences of Cambodian activist/humanitarian Arn Chorn-Pond’s childhood survival during the decimation of his native country by the Khmer Rouge, which claimed the lives of almost a quarter of Cambodia’s population. Arn loses most of his family, his friends, his hopes, his beliefs. He’s forced to commit indescribable acts as a child soldier, numbing his heart and mind in order to live to the next day. Miraculously, he reclaims his humanity to become an outspoken champion of the world.




stormy seas mary beth leatherdale Stormy Seas: Stories of Young Boat Refugees, by Mary Beth Leatherdale, illustrated by Eleanor Shakespeare

The first line speaks volumes: “If you’re reading this, you—like me—have probably won the lottery. Not the giant-check, instant-millionaire kind of lottery. The other lottery win. . . [t]hat random, lucky break that means you were born in or immigrated to a relatively peaceful and prosperous place in the world.” Sixty-five million are less lucky: they’re today’s refugees fleeing their homes, most recently Syrian refugees crossing the Mediterranean. But boat refugees are not new news; that history covers a half-millenia, from French Huguenots who fled to England in 1630, to Irish Catholics who sailed to North America in 1770, to Mormon Danes U.S.-bound in 1850, to Sri Lankans and Indians arriving in Canada in 1987, and so many more. Through interviews, and enhanced with additional contextual research, Leatherdale gives voice to five children—Ruth from Germany, Phu from Vietnam, José from Cuba, Najeeba from Afghanistan, Mohamed from the Ivory Coast—who further illuminate their experiences with current updates.


Young Adult

baddawai leila abdelrazaqBaddawi, by Leila Abdelrazaq

Palestinian American activist Abdelrazaq prefaces her webcomic-turned-printed book: “I don’t draw Baddawi because this story is unique. I draw it because it is a common story that is not frequently told.” Palestinians, she explains, “make up the largest refugee population in the world, numbering more than five million.” Her father was one of those displaced, born in a Lebanese refugee camp called Baddawi after his family’s Palestinian village was destroyed in 1948. Through her own extended history, Abdelrazaq draws poignant attention to refugees worldwide: “I see Palestinian refugees (and for that matter, refugees in general) portrayed as objects of suffering to be pitied, defined by circumstance, rather than subjects of their own individual narratives to be empathized with.”


bamboo people matali perkinsBamboo People, by Mitali Perkins

Inspired by three years of living in Thailand and visiting refugee camps along the Thai-Burmese border, Perkins follows the lives of two boys on opposite sides of the war they inherited. City-educated Chiko is abducted to be trained as a soldier. Tu Reh finds Chiko when he becomes the sole survivor of a mine blast. Trapped by inhumane conditions, both must learn to rely on their own morals to counter the fighting and hatred, despite the imminent threat to kill or be killed.


children of war deborah ellis Children of War: Voices of Iraqi Refugees
by Deborah Ellis

Canadian anti-war activist and bestselling author Deborah Ellis gives voice to children whose families fled war to often unwelcoming new countries. Despite a civilization that is one of the world’s oldest, its ancient glory buried in the hanging gardens of Babylon, Iraq’s recent history is defined by violence, from the eight-year Iran-Iraq War that began in 1980, to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 which sparked the First Gulf War, to the post-9/11 U.S. invasion in 2003. Sara, 15, speaks for many: “We all miss our homeland. We had friends there, and lives that could have been wonderful.”



cry of the giraffe judie oronCry of the Giraffe, by Judie Oron

The centuries-long history of Jews in Ethiopia does not protect them from derision and abuse from their countrymen. With growing violence compounded by unrelenting religious persecution, Wuditu and her family begin an arduous trek to a refugee camp in the Sudan, following promises that they will be rescued and evacuated to Jerusalem. For Canadian journalist Oron, this little-known history of Ethiopian Jewish refugees is also part of her own personal journey: two of her characters became her daughters.


in the sea there are crocodiles fabio gedaIn the Sea There Are Crocodiles, by Fabio Geda, translated by Howard Curtis

This novel’s protagonist, Afghan-born Enaiatollah Akbariis, is a real person, just ten years old—“I say ten, although I’m not entirely sure when I was born”—when his harrowing odyssey crosses five countries. Italy is where Enaiatollah meets author Geda, “an Italian novelist who works with children under duress,” whom Enaiatollah entrusts to “write his story down, so that people who had suffered similar things could know they were not alone, and so that others might understand them better.”




of beetles and angels mawi asgedomOf Beetles and Angels: A Boy’s Remarkable Journey from a Refugee Camp to Harvard, by Mawi Asgedom

At four, Asgedom fled the civil war cleaving Eritrea and Ethiopia, spending three years in a Sudanese refugee camp. In 1983, assisted by World Relief, his family settled in a Chicago suburb. Their new life wasn’t easy, but guided by his father, Asgedom worked hard—in school and in life—treating all people with equal respect, whether the “lowliest of beetles” or one of “God’s angels.” Encouraged by school administrators, Asgedom went to Harvard on full scholarship, giving the commencement address in 1999 in which he revealed details of his personal story, which became this inspiring bestseller.


kids of kabul deborah ellisKids of Kabul: Living Bravely through a Never-Ending War, by Deborah Ellis

Ellis’s active interest in Afghanistan began in 1996; by giving voice to the Afghan community over the last two decades in numerous books—Women of the Afghan War for adults, and the ever-popular middle grade/young adult Breadwinner quartet (The Breadwinner, Parvana’s Journey, Mud City, My Name is Parvana)—Ellis has raised over a million dollars in book royalties for Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan and Street Kid International. In Kids of Kabul, Ellis introduces 27 girls and boys, ages 11 to 17. All have survived horrors, yet their resilience is remarkable: “At school I have learned that there are better ways to do things than all this war, war, war all the time. It’s the younger generation that will change that. My generation. Me,” says Mustala, 13. Testimony from Sigrullah, 14, attests to the saving power of books: “I am happiest when I am in this library. All of our problems can be solved with these books.”'

About the Author:

Terry Hong created and maintains Smithsonian BookDragon, a book blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. She was the writer wrangler for the film Girl Rising. She taught for Duke University’s Leadership in the Arts in NYC. She co-authored two books, Eastern Standard Time: A Guide to Asian Influence on American Culture from Astro Boy to Zen Buddhism and What Do I Read Next? Multicultural Literature. She reviews extensively for many publications. Follow her on Twitter at @SIBookDragon.

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