Life as a Refugee: Children’s Books

By Robin Jacobson.  

“You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” Exod. 23:9.

Can reading books and stories help children develop empathy – to care about other people, especially those who are different from them? Recent scientific studies suggest the answer is “yes.” Tellingly, so does Jewish tradition. Even the youngest Jewish children learn the Exodus story of Hebrew slavery in Egypt. According to Rabbi Shai Held, the Torah emphasizes our slave history to make us more empathetic: “[T]he Torah seeks to transform us into people who see those who are vulnerable and exposed rather than looking past them.”

In that same spirit, several excellent new children’s books about child refugees (some Jewish) help young readers identify with refugees, who today number in the millions. The three books described below (all for ages 9-12) can also serve as a springboard for parents looking for ways to discuss the global refugee crisis with their children and relate it to events in Jewish history.

Refugee by Alan Gratz

This gripping book weaves together the stories of three young refugees and their families who seek escape from different countries in different historical periods (Germany, 1939; Cuba, 1994; and Syria, 2015). Joseph is a Jewish boy on board the MS St. Louis, the ill-fated ocean liner that left Germany bound for Cuba. Isabel is a Christian girl fleeing Cuba’s repression and food shortages in a homemade, rickety boat heading for Miami. Mahmoud is a Muslim boy from war-torn Aleppo, Syria; he is on an arduous, dangerous journey across Europe towards Germany. Despite their different backgrounds, the three young people have much in common: fright, grief over the loss of their homes, and pressure to grow up quickly.

Lucky Broken Girl by Ruth Behar

Based on the author’s own life, this novel tells the story of Ruthie Mizrahi, a Jewish girl who emigrates with her family in the 1960s from Cuba to Queens, New York. Like many immigrants, Ruthie’s family struggles to learn English and attain financial stability. Then disaster strikes – Ruthie is injured in a horrific car accident. Doctors wrap her in a body cast and confine her to bed for many months. Despite the bleakness of her situation, Ruthie blossoms during her confinement. She develops a love of art and literature, makes friends with her artist-neighbor from Mexico, and tries to be patient with her mother, who is homesick for Cuba and depressed about being housebound with an invalid daughter.

The War I Finally Won by Kimberly Bradley

This book is a sequel to Bradley’s The War that Saved My Life but can be read as a stand-alone novel. The story is set in England during World War II. Ada, a plucky 11-year-old orphan, is the primary character. She and her younger brother live in an English seaside village with their guardian, a kind woman named Susan.

The story’s refugee is Ruth, a teenage German Jewish girl placed in Susan’s household. The British government is holding Ruth’s parents in an internment camp as resident aliens. Ada and others suspect Ruth and her parents of being Nazi spies. They are unconvinced by Ruth’s protests that her Jewish family is even more anti-Nazi than the British. Ada’s suspicions of Ruth resemble widespread fears today that refugees may be secret terrorists, even if the refugees are themselves fleeing terrorism. Like Refugee and Lucky Broken Girl, this book immerses young readers in a refugee’s experience, encouraging empathy and blurring the distinction between “us” and “them.”