Refugees, stories and empathy

World Refugee Day is 20 June, and what better way to open up discussion about the plight of the more than 65 million displaced people worldwide than through books and stories.

Boat refugees being rescued1975 Fall of Saigon — South Vietnamese refugees by manhhai. CC BY-NC 2.0

A Vietnamese boy in the late 1970s...

In the late 1970s in a rural New Zealand town, I listened wide-eyed as a solemn Vietnamese boy told me of his family’s escape from the turmoil of post-war Vietnam. In broken English, he spoke of relatives disappearing from homes, of his terror as pirates attacked the overcrowded boat on a dark and seemingly never-ending sea. His stories shrunk my town and ignited a ferocious desire to explore the world. As I had a few years to bide before I could embark on my overseas adventures, I began learning everything possible from books and National Geographic magazines about other countries and cultures. But I didn’t limit myself to non-fiction. The exploration bug included most fiction genres and many trips to the school and public library.

I often wonder what path my life would have taken if I hadn’t volunteered to help Huy learn English. He opened the door to a world far removed from my suburban life on an island at the bottom of the world. Reading allowed me to experience lives in exotic and far away countries and universes, in pasts and possible futures. I learnt that regardless of where we lived, how we looked or what language we spoke, we humans shared complex and wondrous internal lives and that my awkward adolescent feelings did not make me weird!

Cultural diversity and empathy

New Zealand has an increasingly diverse population — the 2013 census showed the number of New Zealanders born overseas had reached over a million. The principle of cultural diversity, one of 8 in the New Zealand Curriculum, calls for “schools and teachers to affirm students’ different cultural identities, and incorporate their cultural contexts into teaching and learning programmes.”

The mirrors and windows in our collections give children access to diverse books that allow them to see themselves and experience the lives of others, and help them develop empathy and an understanding of people from other cultures.

Knowing what books to share with or direct students to requires a commitment to reading — a lot! Building an inclusive collection includes links to sites with lists of diverse books, which are useful for keeping up with titles.

Books about refugees

World Refugee Day is 20 June, with that in mind, here are a few, fairly recent gems in the Services to Schools collection.

Refugees and Migrants by Ceri Roberts and Hanane Kai is a well-researched and beautifully illustrated non-fiction picture book, which sensitively outlines who migrants and refugees are. One of its many strengths is conveying in simple, but powerful terms why it’s so important to make new migrant and refugee children in school feel welcome.

For older children, Zana Fraillon’s The Bone Sparrow, which was shortlisted for this year’s Carnegie medal, offers an unflinching look at the life of Subhi in an Australian detention camp.

One of the books on the issue of refugees that has made the most impression on me is Flight, Nadia Wheatley’s award-winning sophisticated picture book, which is beautifully illustrated by Armin Greder.

In an interview with Reading Time, Wheatley explains the genesis of the idea for Flight and its effective narrative shift:

As the idea took shape, I knew that what I wanted to do was to write the story of the Flight into Egypt in a way that initially lulls readers into thinking that it is set 2000 years ago; then suddenly, by introducing a bombardment and tanks, the story would become something that could be happening on the evening television news. Simultaneously, there needed to be a shift in the back story of the characters and the peril that they are fleeing. After all, if the Holy Family were to be depicted as contemporary refugees, then I needed to think afresh about their cultural identity.

Books about refugees in your inquiry loan this term

Check to see if your school is placing an inquiry loan this term, and request some books on refugees and migrants.

Reading engagement loan in term 3

Think about the type of books you think could help your students develop empathy and an understanding of people from other cultures. These could then form a focus area for a reading engagement loan e.g. good read-alouds for ESOL students, or to develop empathy among students.

Find out more

Use our Topic Explorer set on refugees. Its resources have been selected to support this topic and inspire inquiry learning.

The Empathy Lab offers a resource bank of up-to-date research and reading about empathy.

2013 Census ethnic group profiles provide information on various ethnic groups in New Zealand.

The Make Foundation has published a number of books in collaboration with schools to “encourage a deeper understanding of the refugee experience and promote empathy through stories from those who have lived that experience.”

By Jo Buchan

Jo is the Senior Specialist (Developing Readers) for Services to Schools.

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