June 20th marks the annual observance of World Refugee Day.
According to the United Nations, World Refugee Day “commemorate[s] the strength, courage and perseverance of millions of refugees. This year, World Refugee Day also marks a key moment for the public to show support for families forced to flee.”
For the fifth year in a row, the number of refugees around the world has reached a record high. Nearly 69 million people have fled their homes escaping violence, war, and persecution.
It’s more important than ever to bear witness to these stories, and to try and place ourselves in their shoes. Here are twelve unforgettable reads that offer insight into the refugee experience. After all, books are powerful tools for creating meaningful change.
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Fiction)
This 2017 Man Booker Prize nominee, uses Magical Realism to tell the story of a young couple who meet and fall in love in the midst of an escalating, violent civil war. The couple discover a series of magical doors that allow them to flee the violence, but at a price. With only each other to hold onto, they step through to a new and unfamiliar country.
A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah (Nonfiction)
In A Long Way Gone, Ishmael Beah recounts his childhood experiences during the Sierra Leone civil war. At the age of twelve, Beah was driven from his home before being recruited by the government’s army as a child soldier. Here, he tells his gut-wrenching story in straightforward and honest prose that is impossible to forget.
Little Bee by Chris Cleave (Fiction)
Chris Cleave’s bestselling novel about friendship and courage, brings the refugee experience into a new and haunting light. A London widow, and a young Nigerian teen just released from a refugee detention center, form an unlikely bond years after their lives became unexpectedly and horifically intertwined on a beach in Nigeria.
The Good Braider by Terry Farish (Fiction)
This Young Adult novel is about Viola, a young Sudanese girl whose family flees their conflict-ridden country, traveling first to Cairo and then to Portland, Maine. Told in lyrical free verse, The Good Braider beautifully describes the struggle to find a sense of belonging when you’re stuck between two cultures.
We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families by Philip Gourevitch (Nonfiction)
Philip Gourevitch has compiled vivid and haunting stories from the Rawandan genocide. He paints a detailed picture of the horrors experienced by individuals and the country as a whole, and addresses how survivors faced the unimaginable task of rebuilding their lives after these devastating events.
Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys (Fiction)
Salt to the Sea is an historical novel based on the largest maritime disaster in history: the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff during WWII. This German military transport ship was carrying thousands of civilian refugees – an estimated 9,000 of whom lost their lives – when it was torpedoed by a Soviet submarine. Ruta Sepetys novel follows four young adults who find themselves caught up in this tragedy as they attempt to escape the encroaching carnage of the war.
City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp by Ben Rawlence (Nonfiction)
Located in the isolated northern desert of Kenya, the Dadaab refugee camp is home to half a million displaced residents. City of Thorns sheds light on the lives of nine of these residents, as Rawlence employs his engaging journalism to tell the story of this city unto itself.
Across a Hundred Mountains by Reyna Grande (Fiction)
Across a Hundred Mountains focuses on two young women of Mexican heritage who flee difficult situations and tragedies in search of a better life. It’s an emotional novel about love, loss, and family.
The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives edited by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Nonfiction)
This is a compelling collection of essays by refugee writers from around the world. They use their powerful voices to brilliantly and movingly capture the refugee experience. The Displaced is an impactful and timely read that shouldn’t be ignored.
The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil (Nonfiction)
At the age of six, Clemantine and her sister escaped the massacre in Rawanda and spent the next six years moving from one African country to another, before receiving asylum in the United States. The Girl Who Smiled Beads depicts the horrors of war and displacement, as well as how those who survive pick up the pieces and embark on a new life.
The New Odyssey: The Story of Europe’s Refugee Crisis by Patrick Kingsley (Nonfiction)
The New Odyssey is an in-depth look at the largest refugee crisis since the end of WWII. As the migration correspondent at The Guardian, Patrick Kingsley met with hundreds of refugees across seventeen countries, as they embarked on perilous journeys in search of a better life in Europe. He brings his insider knowledge and compassionate reporting to tell their stories and describe their methods of migration.
Girl at War by Sara Nović (Fiction)
Sara Nović’s novel follows Ana, a young girl who escapes war-torn Croatia for the United States, and her experience going from child soldier to college student. Ten years after the war, Ana returns home in search of much-needed closure. Girl at War is a gripping story of learning to live with childhood trauma.
Have you read any of these? Can you think of other books that capture the refugee experience?