From Yesterday to Today: 7 Inspiring Stories About the Immigrant and Refugee Experience

Immigrants and refugees have long been part of our cultural tapestry, though it hasn’t been until more recent years that their stories have begun to appear with more authenticity in children’s literature. Below are seven inspiring stories, both historical and contemporary, that speak to the experiences of immigrants and refugees.

Refugee, by Alan Gratz
Three child refugees. Three generations. Three countries. First is Joseph Landau, fleeing Berlin in 1938. Then Isabel Fernandez, headed towards the safe shores of Miami after leaving her home in Cuba in 1994.  And finally, Mahmoud Bishara, a Syrian refugee in 2015 whose family is forced to leave after his apartment building is bombed. While their stories are all different, and their origins spread across the globe, their fear of the past and hopes for the future are starkly similar. Told in alternating narratives, the three children take the reader deep into the refugee experience, showing not only the tragedy that surrounds them, but the kindness that comes in small moments and gestures. Though their physical journeys eventually come to an end, their three lives are intertwined across generations in a conclusion that is beautifully haunting.

A Long Walk to Water: Based on a True Story, by Linda Sue Park
In 1985, 11-year-old Salva is a refugee, his village attacked by soldiers, forcing Salva to flee from his school, across the desert, swamp and forest to Ethiopia, where he resettles in a refugee camp.  There he stays, for 6 years, until Ethiopian forces violently evacuate the camp, chasing the refugees back into Sudan. In his resilience, Salva becomes a leader of what is known as The Lost Boys of Sudan, homeless and orphaned boys who again cross the desert to Sudan. Years later, in 2008, 11-year-old Sudanese Nya travels the same Sudan landscape every day, twice a day, walking two hours each way to the pond for water. Salva and Nya’s story intersect in 2008 in the most extraordinary way.

Inside Out and Back Again, by Thanhha Lai
At the end of the Vietnam War, 10-year-old Ha and her family are forced to flee Saigon, the only home she’s ever known. Landing first in Florida, Ha’s mother decides to settle in Alabama, where she hopes her children will have the life they were robbed of in Saigon. Though she is now physically safe, the transition is hard, and Ha struggles with a new language, new customs, and a longing for the life she left behind. The story is told in free-verse, through Ha’s perspective, which allows the reader a deeper emotional connection, as they view the world through Ha’s eyes.

My Family Divided: One Girl’s Journey of Home, Loss, and Hope, by Diane Guerrero with Erica Moroz
Today, Diane Guerrero is a successful television actress, most recently on Orange is the New Black.  But once upon a time, she was a young girl living in Boston, the daughter of immigrants who had come to the country before Diane was born, determined to provide a better life for their children. While money was tight, and Diane struggled a bit in school, she had a loving home, good friends, and ultimately found her place in a performing arts school that would start her on her path towards acting. Then came the day, when Diane was 14, that her undocumented parents were arrested while she was in school, detained, and deported. As her family is torn apart, their worst fears realized, Diane is taken in by friends, left to deal with a trauma that would shape her life both personally and professionally.

Illegal, by Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin
This unique book shares the story of today’s undocumented immigrants in graphic novel form. Ebo is alone. First his sister left, seeking out a life in Europe that offers more than their life in Ghana. Now his brother, Kwame, has disappeared on what Ebo assumes is the same journey. Determined not to be left behind, and to find his family again, Ebo tracks down his brother, and the boys journey together on a trip that takes them across the Sahara to Tripoli, then across the Mediterranean. Those who survive the physical exhaustion, illness, human traffickers, storms, and handmade rafts may reach the safety of refugee centers. But the journey doesn’t end there.

Shooting Kabul, by N.H. Senzai
In the summer of 2001, 12-year-old Fadi illegally flees Afghanistan with his parents and younger sister, Mariam. But chaos at a checkpoint separates Mariam and Fadi, despite his best efforts to hold on to her. As the truck speeds away to safety, Mariam is left behind, and Fadi and his family are left to adjust to life in the United States without her. As the family struggles to learn Mariam’s whereabouts, the events of September 11 shatter the family’s life once again.  When a photography contest with a grand prize trip to India arises, Fadi sees his opportunity to return to Afghanistan to find his sister. Photography is Fadi’s passion, his true talent. But is he talented enough to save his family?

The Distance Between Us: Young Readers Edition, by Reyna Grande
Reyna’s father left when she was very young, making the illegal journey across the Mexican border into “El Otro Lado” to make money for a better life. Two years later, he calls for Reyna’s mother to join him, leaving Reyna and her siblings to live with their grandmother in their small Mexican town. Life with their grandmother leaves Reyna dreaming of her mother’s return, but when she does come back, it doesn’t bring the joy Reyna hopes for. When her father calls for Reyna and her siblings to join him, Reyna once again is forced to readjust, this time in the United States, and yet, she still doesn’t find the long-awaited peace she’s hoped for.  Rewritten for younger readers, Reyna Grande’s memoir is a raw, gritty description of the search for the American dream.

What books would you add to this list?

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