March 25


Ten Refugee Stories by Jenny Siebring deGroot

Reaching out in friendship to new arrivals is the best way to learn about the hopes and fears of individuals and families leaving or fleeing their homelands. However, picture books, especially ones based on true experiences, are a great way to engage children and adults as well.  Below are my ten best picks from among a longer list.


Adrift At Sea: A Vietnamese Boys Story of Survival by Marsha Forchuk Skyrpuch with Tuan Ho is likely the first picture book written by and about the refugees or boat people as they became known, fleeing Vietnam after the takeover of Saigon in 1975.  Tuan Ho was 5 years old when his father left under the cover night, escaping to Canada.   A year later, in 1981, Tuan Ho, along with his mother and two sisters embarked on their own terrifying and risky journey.   This beautifully illustrated picture book tells the story of Tuan’s days at sea and their eventual rescue by American sailors.  End pages include photographs and information that round out the story and tell of Tuan’s life in with his family in Toronto.


Reviewed in a Nerdy Book post on January 5, 2017, Stepping Stones: a Refugee Family’s Journey  makes the top ten list for refugee stories. Margriet Ruurs partnered with Syrian sculptor, Nizar Ali Badr to create this poetic story.  The text is dual language in English and Arabic and the stone sculpture illustrations tell the steps of one family’s story to a place of peace.


Hamzat’s Journey by Anthony Robinson is one of three in series that includes Gervelie’s Journey and Mohammed’s Journey. Hamzat was born in Grazny, Chechnya.  War waged between Checan fighers and Russians in the 90’s and early 2000’s.  Life carried on as normally as possible for Hamzat’s family but then Hamzat stepped on a landmine and lost a leg.  Because of this war trauma injury Hamzat’s family was able to apply to Great Britain for refugee status and was granted travel in 2004. The story is told from Hamzat’s perspective. “Being unlucky has been lucky in the end.”


War comes nearer and nearer to Azzi’s village and home.  A dead- of- night- phone- call to Azzi’s father sets the wheels in motions to flee that very night. They take little with them but worst of all Grandma must stay behind.  Traveling by car and by boat they finally arrive in their new country.  Seasons pass and one day mother tells Azzi a surprise is waiting for her at home! Azzi In Between, written and illustrated by Sarah Garland in graphic novel style, is not placed in a specific geographic location and so tells the story of many places.


Sangoel’s father was killed in the war in Sudan.  Sangoel flees with his mother and little sister in the middle of the night.  Grandfather is too frail to join them.  He hugs his grandson good bye and says “You will always be Sangoel.  Even in America.”  After many days a ‘skyboat’ lands them in their new strange home, where football is soccer and Sangoel fears he has even lost his own name.  But with a little artistic ingenuity Sangoel keeps the name that connects him to his father and grandfather.  My Name is Sangoel by Karen Lynn Winters and Khadra Mohammed is a story that reaches across a variety of conversations including the importance of one’s name.


The Lotus Seed by Sherry Garland and illustrated by Tatsuro Kiuchi is a story of memory and longing.  The narrative follows a Vietnamese family who are forced to flee their homeland.  A lotus seed carries the hope and memory of the family through marriage and children, war and resettlement.  But a new generation do not know the ancient story, have never seen a lotus bloom and so the seed is carelessly tossed into the mud on the edge of the garden.  Grandmother’s grief at the loss of the seed turns to joy when a lotus blooms unexpectedly.


A Whispering Cloth by Pegi Deitz Shea tells the story of the Hmong people, a people without a homeland. The story takes place in Ban Vinai, a camp that closed in 1995 leaving thousands of people destitute and forcing settlement elsewhere.  Young Mai only knows life in the camp.  She spends hours listening to the women reminisce about their lives in Laos and before then China.  Mai misses her mother and father.  Mai begs grandmother to teach her to embroider in the traditional storytelling way that will garner a high price from the traders allowing her to buy passage to America.  When Mai finally embroiders her story into a worthy pa’ndau, the cloth whispers back to her that it is not for sale.


Four Feet, Two Sandals, written by Karen Lynn Winters and Khadra Mohammed tells the story of  Lena, who lives in a refugee camp.  When a relief truck arrives with clothing Lena manages to snatch a single blue and yellow sandal.  Looking for the matching sandal she spots it on another girl’s foot. The girls meet the following day and Lena is offered the sandal.  “Wait!” says Lena.  Their four feet share the two sandals until one day Lena’s family receives notice they are leaving for America.  The girls decide that one sandal might be what it takes to remember until they meet again.


Mary Hoffman in The Colour of Home uses colour to frame this refugee story.  To Hassam his new home appears grey and bleak.  In his new school the teacher tries her best to make him feel at home and the children are friendly.  When Hassam joins the class in painting, his picture is vibrant showing a small farm and animals and people.  But Hassam then paints through his picture with black strokes. Through a translator Hassam tells his teacher about his painting and his family’s story of fleeing Somalia. “We left all the colours in Somalia” he tells her.  His teacher gently invites him to see colour again.


Robert Munsch wrote From Far Away with Saoussan Askar .  Saoussan was born in Beirut, Lebanon in 1991 fleeing to Canada when she was five.  By then she had experienced the fearful results of war.  She is welcomed into  her new school by a teacher who is kind and loving but so many things are strange and even frightening.  By the time Saoussan is in grade three she reads well and will not stop talking. She even suggests to her mother that her name might be changed to Susan.  From Far Away was published over 20 years yet continues to be timely and true.



Jenny Siebring deGroot is an assistant principal for teacher and curriculum support and a teacher librarian at Langley Christian Elementary School.  She loves the privilege of searching out new books and celebrating the timeless stories from the past and placing them in the outstretched hands of children and teachers.  In welcoming refugees her family’s life has been enriched by new friends from Iraq, Iran, Burma, Myanmar, Syria and Egypt.