Benjamin Zephaniah's Refugee Boy

Benjamin Zephaniah's Refugee Boy

by Lemn Sissay

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An eye for an eye. It's very simple. You choose your homeland like a hyena picking and choosing where he steals his next meal from. Scavenger. Yes you grovel to the feet of Mengistu and when his people spit at you and kick you from the bowl you scuttle across the border. Scavenger.

As a violent civil war rages back home, teenager Alem and his father are in a


An eye for an eye. It's very simple. You choose your homeland like a hyena picking and choosing where he steals his next meal from. Scavenger. Yes you grovel to the feet of Mengistu and when his people spit at you and kick you from the bowl you scuttle across the border. Scavenger.

As a violent civil war rages back home, teenager Alem and his father are in a B&B in Berkshire. It's his best holiday ever. The next morning his father is gone and has left a note explaining that he and his mother want to protect Alem from the war. This strange grey country of England is now his home. On his own, and in the hands of the social services and the Refugee Council, he lives from letter to letter, waiting to hear something from his father. Then Alem meets car-obsessed Mustapha, the lovely 'out of your league' Ruth and dangerous Sweeney - three unexpected allies who spur him on as Alem fights to be seen as more than just the Refugee Boy.

Based on the novel by Benjamin Zephaniah, Refugee Boy is an urgent story of a courageous African boy sent to England to escape the violent civil war, a story about arriving, belonging and finding 'home'.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Zephaniah, a London-based performance poet, sends a strong political message in his realistic account of a young refugee's struggles. With both of his parents' homelands at war, 14-year-old Alem is persecuted because of the family's mixed nationality; his Ethiopian father and Eritrean mother decide that their son will be safest abroad. As the novel opens, Alem's father brings him to London "on holiday" and then abandons him, leaving only a letter to explain his reasoning. While Alem's parents fight for the unification of Ethiopia and Eritrea thousands of miles away, Alem must mount a battle for political asylum. After being moved from an institution to a more welcoming foster home, Alem musters an army of friends and compassionate social workers who help him combat a cold and impersonal system. Rather than delving deeply into his protagonist's emotions, the author adopts a relatively objective stance. Readers see Alem's reactions from the outside, not as an internal process, as the government initially refuses to grant him asylum and later, when both of his parents are killed (his mother in Africa, his father in London). While audience members may feel distanced from the young hero, they will be outraged by the injustice he confronts and moved by the tragedies he endures. Ages 10-up. (July) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Children's Literature
Life changes drastically for 14-year-old Alem Kelo when his father abandons him in England to shield him from controversy ravaging their homeland in Africa. Alem, son of an Eritrean mother and Ethiopian father, struggles as a refugee. As the intriguing plot unfolds Alem is wisked from the hotel where he was abandoned, to a "safe" house, which is not "safe" at all, for troubled youth. Later he flourishes in a wonderful foster home. Setbacks occur when enemies in Africa kill his mother and when a judge refuses to give him asylum. Happily, he is reunited with his father and offered a glimmer of hope through efforts of new friends who wage a well-organized protest against the treatment of refugees. Hope is short-lived, however, when an unknown assailant harboring a grudge against refugees shoots his father to death. This book brings to light the plight of refugees everywhere with the depiction of Alem, a well-rounded character, facing unbearable struggles and still persevering. The easy-to-read book is written in a calming manner even in the wake of its adversity. The book would be a great asset to students learning about diversity and how they should handle similar situations. 2001, Bloomsbury,
— Betty Hicks
This is one of three novels about African immigrants in Great Britain that I have read in the past year. The treatment of political refugees is slightly different there than here in the U.S., but the confusion and suffering shared by immigrants escaping tragedy are the same wherever they seek refuge. The main character in Refugee Boy is Alem, whose father is Ethiopian and whose mother is Eritrean. The family was working for peace between the two factions in the civil war there, but the danger was so great for them they sent Alem to England for his safety. Zephaniah tells how Alem gets connected to the refugee committee, lives in a foster home, adjusts to school in London, and deals with the legal system, which assesses Alem's right to asylum in England. Alem works hard at school, reads all he can, is serious and thoughtful. When he learns of his mother's death, he nearly falls to pieces, but recovers enough to continue on. Then his father comes, also seeking asylum, but they fail to win their case and are directed to return to Ethiopia. Alem's school friends and foster family organize a protest and in the process state clearly why a society needs to protect and welcome political refugees. Zephaniah is a Jamaican who may be similar to one of his characters in this novel: a young man who is especially close to Ethiopia because of his Rastafarian faith. This character preaches peace and understanding from that point of view. The story and the characters are realistic and likeable—they tell the larger story of the struggles of those escaping persecution in their homelands. KLIATT Codes: JS—Recommended for junior and senior high school students. 2001, Bloomsbury, 291p.,
—Claire Rosser
School Library Journal
Gr 6-9-A dust jacket that resembles an airmail envelope complete with stamp cancellation will lure readers to this somewhat disappointing tale. Alem Kelo is caught in the current political disputes raging between Ethiopia and Eritrea. He and his father flee to London where Alem is left alone to seek asylum with British authorities while his father returns to Africa, where he discovers that his wife is missing. The child is caught in the web of the judicial system as his foster care and sanctuary are determined. While the story has all the elements of a gripping tale, it often reads like a first, rough draft. A prelude to the book, titled "Ethiopia," finds soldiers barging into the Kelos' house. Shooting and shouting result, and the family is ordered to leave the country. An almost duplicate scene labeled "Eritrea" follows. In an effort to show that neither country embraces the union of this Ethiopian man and Eritrean woman and its progeny, the question immediately arises, are the soldiers Ethiopian or Eritrean? Throughout the author merely tells, rarely shows. Wording is awkward and often repetitive. The result is the ponderous text of a story about war and refugees that needs to be told; unfortunately, this effort falls short.-Daniel L. Darigan, West Chester University, PA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
"Look at me, look at all the things that I am capable of, and think of all the things you could call me-a student, a lover of literature, a budding architect, a friend, a symbol of hope even, but what am I called? A refugee." This is the fate of the refugee. Not only does he flee desperate circumstances, he is ever a stranger in a strange land, ever an outsider with a single identity: refugee. Alem Kelo's father is Ethiopian, his mother Eritrean, and war is being waged between the two countries. Since his parents' lives are in danger, Alem is brought to England. Alem thinks he is on a brief pleasure trip, but when his father leaves him there without saying goodbye, he is overnight a refugee in a land of refugees: Asians, Africans, Romanians, Kosovars, and Chileans. After a brief stint in a hotel and an awful time in a children's home, Alem is lucky to be placed in a foster home with the Fitzgeralds. There he thrives, goes to school, and gradually becomes active in the refugee movement. Though he faces difficult times in England too, the Fitzgeralds provide a safe place. Sometimes the prose is awkward and overwritten, but the story is compelling. And, somehow, even with so much tragedy in a young boy's life, it doesn't get bogged down. Alem is a survivor. He says, "Circumstances beyond my control brought me here, and all that I can do now is pick myself up and try my best to make something out of what is left of my life. If good can come from bad, I'll make it." Alem is a refugee who transcends his identity as such; he becomes a hero, even a role model and readers will care about him. (Fiction. 10+)

Product Details

Bloomsbury Academic
Publication date:
Modern Plays Series
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Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.00(w) x 7.60(h) x 0.30(d)

Meet the Author

Lemn Sissay is a musician, a stand-up comedian, radio and television producer, a playwright and a poet. He is the author of five poetry collections (Canongate), and one children's book, published by Bloomsbury. Of Ethiopian descent, he was brought up by white parents in the north west of England. His previous plays include Don't Look Down (1993), Chaos by Design (1994), Storm (2002), and Something Dark (2006).

Benjamin Zephaniah is a high-profile international author, well known for his performance poetry with a political edge for adults and ground-breaking performance poetry for children, as well as his novels for young people, including Face, Refugee Boy, Gangsta Rap and Teacher's Dead. He was included in The Times' list of Britain's top 50 post-war writers in 2008.

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