Published for Refugee Week 2020 as part of the PopChange Library of New Narratives — a curated collection from popular culture offering new perspectives on migration and displacement.
Author Onjali Q. Raúf reminds us of the surprising refugee themes in some of our favourite young people’s books.
When it comes to shifting a narrative, it is children who forge the epicentre of any movement. The books, the TV shows, the images, the adverts, the words that we are exposed to as children, forge our lifelong norms, our unconscious and conscious biases, and our understanding of what is acceptable and what isn’t in the wider world. No one is born racist or sexist or elitist or classist or suspicious of difference: those ‘ists’ and those fears are taught through what is on offer for our consumption as children, and the standpoints we are taught to take in relation to them.
Which is why, as a children’s author, I am constantly asking children and adults alike to revisit the stories they know and love best, so that they can recognise the refugee tales placed right in front of them, yet which all too often go unlabelled as such. By (re)examining beloved characters and creations sitting on the shelves of our children’s bookshelves, the negative, dehumanising, and often outright racist portrayals of refugees can be gradually dismantled, and the figure of the to-be-feared ‘other’, demolished.
Here are some of the characters and creations I welcome young and old readers to revisit:
Superman stands up for what’s right. Did you also know he’s a refugee? This #WorldRefugeeDay, be like Superman and stand up for what’s right. #StandWithRefugees and @theIRC. pic.twitter.com/Qn9wY4rDGp— DC (@DCComics) June 20, 2018
The flying icon who was flung to planet Earth as a baby by his parents so that he would survive the annihilation of his own race of peoples. Bringing with him skills and powers that only he possesses, Superman really is the embodiment of all refugees who, once gifted a home, go above and beyond to enhance their new worlds. A good place to start might be Action Comics #987, published in 2016, seeing Superman fly around the world on a mission for social justice, including protecting undocumented migrants. (find it online)
A perpetual travelling Time Lord, the Doctor in the house is also the very last of a people destroyed in a terrible inter-galactic Time War (not unlike Superman). Having lived for over 1,000 years travelling through space and time in the infamous TARDIS, Dr. Who’s very name mirrors her/his role as the perpetual outsider and question mark, wandering the galaxies trying to help, reveal, run from and fight the cruel, harsh and unjust figures encountered, and finding a home nowhere (as yet). My nephew recommends Combat Magicks as it features some of the major characters trying to survive during war. (find it online)
The boy wizard, whose creation changed the landscape and prowess of modern children’s literature, is a character we witness becoming a refugee with each turning of the page. From being hidden away in the home of abusive relations as a child, to literally having to go on the run and make himself invisible to escape death at the hands of Lord Voldemort, Harry’s fictional trials mirror those of many refugees around the world fleeing dictatorships and endless persecution. I recommend the last one: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, where Harry, Ron and Hermione are literally trying to make themselves invisible to survive. (find it online)
The Chronicles of Narnia
Whether it’s the Pevensie children being sent away from home as evacuees in the first place prior to their finding that infamous wardrobe in the The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, or the Telmarines forcing the Narnians into hiding and exile in Prince Caspian, C.S. Lewis’ tales all weave in war and persecution alongside epic efforts to regain and rebuild homelands. The chronicles are stories of the refugee experience told from a wealth of imaginary lands and angles, offering rich explanations for why someone may need to risk their life to find a new place to call home. (find it online)
You cannot mention the very best of imaginings in children’s literature and the word ‘refugee’, without conjuring up the small bear from South America, sitting in Paddington Station with his red hat, blue coat and a note which instructs anyone lucky enough to find him to ‘Please Look After This Bear’. Inarguably one of the cutest refugee characters ever invented, Paddington is the perfect launching pad to getting young minds thinking about what it means to have to land somewhere wholly new, and the challenges of having to adapt just as fast as you can, to a strange and unfamiliar reality. (find it online)
PopChange recommends Onjali Raúf’s The Boy at the Back of the Class, an adventure story focused on Ahmet, a young Syrian refugee who arrives in England without his parents and meets new friends who help him hatch a plan. It’s an emotional story showing how kindness and care for others can open us up to new friendships and experiences (as well as the power of young people to remind us how it’s done). Onjali is one of the featured artists photographed by Pal Hansen for Refugee Week 2020. (find the book online)