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Children’s Authors Take On the Refugee Crisis

“I wanted to make individual refugees visible and turn statistics into names and faces that kids could relate to,” Mr. Gratz said.

The wave of children’s books about Muslim asylum seekers is arriving amid the worst refugee crisis the world has seen since World War II, as millions of civilians — many of them children — flee the wars and insurgencies in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. The Syrian civil war alone has uprooted more than two million children, according to Unicef.


Mr. Gratz signing copies of “Refugee.”

Jeremy M. Lange for The New York Times

“It’s really important to engage children with the world as it is, and the world right now is a very complicated place,” said Zareen Jaffery, executive editor of Salaam Reads, a Muslim-themed children’s imprint at Simon & Schuster.

Some of these new novels explore perilous journeys, as refugees entrust their lives to smugglers and navigate war zones controlled by rebel groups and extremists. In “Escape From Aleppo,” a middle-grade novel by N. H. Senzai, a Syrian girl named Nadia flees her country for Turkey after civil war breaks out after the failed democratic uprising.

Others focus on the discrimination and sense of displacement faced by Muslim asylum seekers. “The Lines We Cross,” a young adult novel by Randa Abdel-Fattah released by Scholastic in May, centers on a teenage Muslim refugee from Afghanistan who is accosted by Islamophobes and nationalists in Australia, where her family runs a restaurant. The girl, Mina, develops a crush on a boy whose parents are anti-immigration, anti-Muslim activists. “In a political environment where there’s such a demonization of refugees, I wanted readers to understand what their lives are like,” said Ms. Abdel-Fattah, who lives in Sydney.

Mr. Gratz said that he expected a book like “Refugee,” an unflinching and sympathetic look at people whose lives are upended by war and oppression, might repel some readers. “There certainly will be people who will assume that I wrote it to push an agenda,” he said.

“Refugee,” which Scholastic released on July 25 with a first printing of more than 200,000 copies, originally began as a novel about the St. Louis, a German ocean liner carrying nearly 1,000 Jews fleeing Hitler during World War II. The ship was turned away from Cuba and the United States and returned to Europe, where many of the passengers died in the war. Mr. Gratz saw disturbing parallels between the historical episode he was researching and the current plight of Syrian refugees, and decided to weave together the stories of three children: a Jewish boy whose family tries to escape Nazi Germany on the St. Louis; a Cuban girl who leaves Havana in a raft during that island’s food shortages in 1994, and Mahmoud, the Syrian boy whose family escapes to Europe.

When he finished the novel this year, Mr. Gratz added an author’s note that addresses President Trump’s travel ban, and says that the United States has accepted less than 1 percent of the roughly five million refugees who have fled Syria.

“When I began writing this book as a response to the Syrian refugee crisis, I had no idea how timely it would be when it finally came out,” he said.

Teachers and librarians have embraced these titles as a way to explain the refugee crisis to children, and Mr. Gratz has been invited to speak at more than 40 schools around the country.


James Nieves/The New York Times

Mollee Holloman, an elementary school librarian in Manteo, N.C., who helped organize a recent book signing for Mr. Gratz that drew around 80 children, said she hoped “Refugee” would give children more empathy for those displaced by war. “He’s giving us the perspective of a child, and that helps these students see outside the world they’re living in,” Ms. Holloman said.

In Canada, where more than 33,000 Syrians resettled in 2016, picture books featuring Syrian refugee characters are being used in some public schools to explain the crisis and give students perspective on what some arriving Syrian students might have been through.

The Canadian children’s book author Margriet Ruurs has spoken to thousands of students at schools around the world about her book “Stepping Stones,” which follows a family fleeing a war in an unnamed country and features images by the Syrian artist Nizar Ali Badr, who uses small stones to create human figures.

For a reading last fall at a British Columbia library, Ms. Ruurs was joined by Serina Khaldi, a 9-year-old girl from Aleppo whose family recently settled in Salt Spring Island, where Ms. Ruurs lives. “Stepping Stones” has text in both English and Arabic, and Serina read the story in Arabic. “My daughter is very shy, but she was excited,” said Samer Khaldi, Serina’s father.

Carrie Gelson, an elementary school teacher in Vancouver, has used “Stepping Stones” and other picture books about Muslim refugees in social studies. She told the class, “You meet these students in your class and it’s important that you know their stories.” One of the picture books she read aloud was “My Beautiful Birds,” Ms. Del Rizzo’s story about a Syrian boy living in a refugee camp in Jordan.

Ms. Gelson was eager to share “My Beautiful Birds” with one student in particular: Nour Alahmad Almahmoud, a 12-year-old Syrian girl whose family came to Canada from a refugee camp in Jordan in late 2015. When Nour first read the book this spring, she was overwhelmed and ran outside in tears.

“I cried because it’s like this book makes me remember everything,” Nour said in an interview over Skype. “I felt like this family in the book is my family.”

She asked to take the copy home for the weekend to show her parents and siblings. Ms. Gelson told her the book was hers to keep.

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