August 25

Some thoughts and books to share about refugees by Daniel Nayeri

If you’re an educator in America in the Fall of 2020, then you’re doing your job on a new, as-yet undiscovered, difficulty level—and I salute you. It has never been harder to be good at the job (and it was never easy to begin with). But here we are, and so when I heard I might be able to contribute something to the Nerdy Book Club, I thought, “here’s a group of teachers and educators whom I might be able to thank directly, and who might be interested in discussing how to teach about refugees.”


First, thank you, long-suffering educators. I hope you will find that even in this diminished capacity, you are changing the lives of your students.


And second, I thought perhaps I’d share a bit about teaching the topic of refugees, as that might be the only thing I could contribute to your efforts. Currently, more than 70 million people are displaced. It’s a difficult topic, especially if you have any students who happen to be refugees in the class at the time. Looking back to my own experience as a refugee from Iran to Oklahoma in the second grade, my teachers chose not to make a moment of teaching the class about me. And I thank God that they didn’t. I only wanted to fade into the furniture back then and would have been mortified to stand in front of the class as some new creature for the class to learn about.


But if you have a chance to read my autobiographical novel, EVERYTHING SAD IS UNTRUE, you will meet a narrator, a few years later, who would have loved to explain it all to his class. If you find yourself in that situation, let’s begin with nomenclature.


Refugee versus migrant: According to the UN Refugee Agency, a refugee is someone fleeing conflict or persecution while an immigrant is someone moving to another country for different reasons, and intends to settle there as a permanent resident.


Migrant and immigrant are slightly different terms as well—though they are often used interchangeably without confusion. A migrant is someone who moves from one place to another, sometimes within a country and sometimes internationally—usually for economic reasons and not necessarily for a permanent stay.


The term emigrant is used for the country one is leaving, while immigrant is used for the country they are entering.


In order to escape that persecution, refugees seek asylum by applying at the embassies of other countries. To be granted asylum by a country is to be given entry and protection.


Often, this process takes a very long time, and so refugees are stateless and housed in refugee camps until they can gather the paperwork and approvals necessary to be given entry into a new home country.


The UNHCR has a wonderful page with more facts and figures, along with some resources for the classroom:


And this wouldn’t be the Nerdy Book Club if we didn’t discuss some great books on the topic. So here goes. I’d love to hear yours in the comments. And I’ll avoid awkwardness by not listing my own book, EVERYTHING SAD IS UNTRUE (A True Story)…even though you should check it out.



Shaun Tan’s THE ARRIVAL was one of the first picture books I came across that handled the topic gently and beautifully. I have always admired it.



Since then, THE RED PENCIL and DREAMERS have been stand-outs for me. I am currently mesmerized by Victo Ngai’s gorgeous art on WISHES (written by Mượn Thị Văn)

I can’t wait to read it.



In the Middle Grade category, I won’t be breaking any news to tell you about A LONG WALK TO WATER and THE NIGHT DIARY, though they’re both lauded for a reason. I’m hoping to get my hands on ESCAPE FROM ALEPPO soon.


On the older side, A LAND OF PERMANENT GOODBYES is worth a look. And even older, perhaps, EXIT WEST by Hamid Mohsin has been the best adult novel I have read on the topic.


How about you? Any brilliant books on the topic that you know? If so, share them in the comments.


Daniel Nayeri was born in Iran and spent some years as a refugee before immigrating to Oklahoma at age eight with his family. He is the author of several books for young readers, including Everything Sad is Untrue (A True Story) and Straw House, Wood House, Brick House, Blow: Four Novellas. He lives with his family in New Jersey.