Upheaval: Reading about Refugees

Reading is important.  Not only does a reader find friends within the pages of a book, new and old, he or she gains a wealth of new information.  Reading also deepens our understanding of ourselves and each other. We gain greater insight into the plight of others through the pages of a book.

We experience true empathy for the characters in books which translates to people in the real world.  While scientists disagree on this point slightly, what they do agree on is readers of fiction have the tools for great and deep empathy.  Being able to imagine yourself in place of another is important, especially as we are likely to experience more world-wide crises like the Syrian and Venezuelan conflicts.

We wanted to present a broad picture of refugees across the world, which means our selection reflects the conflicts and milieus from across time and the earth.  It was difficult to pick a few books to recommend to you because there are so many.  The UNHCR put together a fifteen-page list of their recommendations.

The Pen is mightier …

Exit West by Moshin Hamid

Shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2017, this novel is a brilliant narrative about survival and open doors.  Two people meet in a Middle Eastern city gripped by civil war.  Nadia and Saeed fall in love.  Throughout the city, doors start to appear, magical doors which, once opened, can lead to anywhere and there is no going back.  Desperate to survive, Nadia and Saeed take the chance and walk through an open door.  The Guardian says “[t]here are no descriptions of life-or-death journeys in the backs of lorries or on flimsy dinghies.  No middle passages.  Just the cognitive shock of having been freshly transplanted to tough new terrains.” While the magical realism aspect of the book eliminates the need for perilous journeys in hostile terrains Hamid does not leave out the harsh descriptions of a city gripped by war and fear, “Hamid catalogues the casual devastation of a truck bomb, the sexual molestation that takes place as hundreds of city dwellers throng to take their life savings from a bank, and the supernatural elation of taking a warm shower after weeks on the road” writes Sukhdev Sandhu for The Guardian. 


Monsieur Linh and His Child by Philippe Claudel

We have already recommended this book but it is so good and too important not to mention a second time.  This is a tale of love, loss, and unlikely friendships.  Monsieur Linh has just fled conflict and clutched to his chest is his infant granddaughter.  “All those who knew his name are dead,” Maya Jaggi writes in her review for The Guardian.  Monsieur Linh finds his reason for living, for continuing, and for making a gruelling journey in the face of his granddaughter.  After his arrival in France, and his transition from temporary accommodations Monsieur Linh meets Monsieur Bark on a park bench.  Monsieur Bark is grieving the death of his wife and struggles with a difficult past. They become unlikely friends, even though they cannot speak each other’s language.  Each sensing incommensurable sorrow of the other.


What is the What by Dave Eggers

The book is based on the true story of a Sudanese refugee living in Atlanta, Georgia, Valentino Achak Deng.  While the story and the outline of the facts are true, Eggers has taken some poetic licence and presents this as a work of creative non-fiction.  Achak is one of the “Lost Boys”, a group of some 4,000 boys who were running from the violent destruction of their villages and the slaughter of their families. Eggers tells the story of Achak as a boy “[o]rphaned, starving and having walked 1,000 miles across West Africa when he was eight or nine, under constant threat of random slaughter from militias and wild animals”, Tim Adams writes for The Guardian.  Achak then lived for fifteen years in squatters’ camps in Ethiopia before a charity organization arranged for his immigration to the United States.  At the time the book was written Achak was working to put himself through college.  What Eggers achieves best in this book, perhaps more so than others, is transmitting a sense of the permanence of temporary refugee camps. Achak lived in one camp, Golkur, for ten years.


In the Sea there are Crocodiles by Fabio Geda

This Young Adult book presents the life story of Enaiatollah Akbadi’s journey from Afghanistan to Italy.  The young boy, left by himself in a new country by his mother, undertakes a perilous and fraught journey to find a new home.  The place “You recognise it because you don’t feel like leaving”Enaiat states in his conversations with the author, Fabio Geda. Geda presents a “frank, revealing and clear-eyed testament of the experiences faced by a young asylum-seeker in the contemporary world” according to Diane Samuels at The Guardian. From his work at a hostel in Iran to his payment of people traffickers in Turkey, to a perilous dinghy ride to Greece, and his eventual arrival in Italy the book is crucial to understanding the plight of young asylum seekers in Europe.


Sometimes a picture is worth more …

Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Syria, Turkey, and Iraq By Sarah Glidden

This beautiful example of comic journalism tells the stories of the people whom Glidden and her journalist friends encounter while working in Syria, Turkey, and Iraq.  The book spans the totality of the refugee experience, from the story of the United Nations administrator to the Iraqi refugee deported from the United States.  The art work which accompanies the stories is Glidden’s signature soft watercolours.

Jennifer Cornick - Impact Hub Vienna
Jennifer Cornick Freelance journalist and blogger for various publications in Vienna. When I am not writing, I can generally be found with a book (or anything with words on it - even […]

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