No one knew if we were heading for the heavens or plunging in to the water’s depths. Heaven and hell embraced in the body of our boat. Heaven promised a turning point in our lives, a new future, a new history. Hell, though, displayed our fears: fear of pirates, fear of starvation, fear of poisoning by biscuits soaked in motor oil, fear of running out of water, fear of being unable to stand up, fear of having to urinate in the red pot that passed from hand to hand, fear that the scabies on the baby’s head was contagious, fear of never again setting foot on solid ground, fear of never again seeing the faces of our parents.
— From the novel Ru
She is astounded when she arrives in Quebec. She has never seen snow. She eats almost nothing when invited over for lunch by all her well-intentioned neighbours in Granby because she doesn’t know how to use a fork. It never occurs to anyone to show her.
In 1979 and 1980, Canada accepted some 50,000 Vietnamese boat people – desperate people escaping the war between North and South, and the butchery of the Communists.
Author Kim Thuy’s novel, Ru (2012, translated from the original French by Sheila Fischman and filed in Adult Fiction in the Lennoxville Library), offers the life of one of these refugees. Born in Vietnam, the child escapes brutality and grows up in Granby. The tale is fiction, but informed by Thuy’s history (she also fled Vietnam and came of age in Granby).
Ru’s chapters are one to three pages, each presenting a tiny, perfect story about herself, Nguyen An Tinh (there are accents, but some fonts won’t reproduce them properly) – as well as her family, her friends, and later, her children. It is poetic yet accessible, a truly stunning novel. And, in many ways, a love letter to the country and people who welcomed her.
Canada has accepted many waves of refugees, and there is another on the way. The war in Syria has left thousands of people without homes; Sherbrooke is one of many communities that will welcome Syrian refugees. Quebec immigration minister Kathleen Weill has announced the province would take in a minimum of 7,300 people over the next year or so. About 210 are expected in Sherbrooke.
The world is an unpleasant place. As much as we might wish it to be elsewise, there are always refugees.
The novel Lily’s Crossing (by the award-winning Patricia Reilly Giff, 1997, filed in C-228) is set in the United States during the Second World War. Young Lily is quite the handful, and has a problem with telling the truth. She spends her summers on the beach, sneaking in to the cinema, and constructing fabulous stories in which she is the main character. Until that one summer when Albert arrives, on vacation from his home in Canada.
He is originally a refugee from Austria (via Switzerland, France, and finally, Canada). To get here, he left his baby sister behind. His parents were journalists who publicly opposed the Nazis, and were arrested. As the stormtroopers burst into their home, the children’s mother pushed them out the back, speaking one last sentence to them, in Hungarian.
“It means ‘I love you’,” he said before Lily could ask. “But if they loved us, they would not have done that. They would not have bothered with the newspapers.”
(It’s unclear in the novel, but unlikely that Albert is Jewish since Canada admitted so very few Jews back then. In the now well-known real-life words of a Canadian immigration agent at the time, “None is too many.”)
Lily’s Crossing tells of the children’s growing friendship, and how each deals with their pain. It’s a gently written book that is nonetheless filled with adventures and guilt.
Diamonds In The Shadow (by Caroline B. Cooney, 2007, in Young Adult) is set far more recently, and is a full-fledged thriller. It features a family fleeing Liberia and privately sponsored by a Christian church congregation. They are taken in by the American Finch family, who have a guest room.
Liberia is known for its child soldiers, who lopped off limbs and lives with machetes.
This a book for those who are more cautious about refugees, and stars the skeptical teenaged American Jared, who is annoyed that he must share his bedroom with a stranger.
Jared discovers that the world is even more complex than he imagines. He also learns about blood diamonds, used to fund more death.
Afghanistan is a horror story for children, like 11-year-old Parvana. Under the rule of the Taliban, girls (and woman) are not allowed out in public unless they have both a male chaperone and a valid reason. And no matter what, they are not to speak in public.
Kabul is a city where windows are blackened to ensure that no woman is visible to those outside.
Parvana’s family lives in a bombed out building, but they are alive. Until her father is arrested – leaving mother, two daughters and a toddler to slowly starve to death.
The Breadwinner is the first in a series of bestselling novels by Deborah Ellis (2001, filed in C-224) that focuses on life in hell, rather than its (refugee) aftermath. It begins with Parvana attempting to lie and cheat her way into finding enough food to survive. Ellis presents a carefully researched portrait of life and culture in Kabul, and the characters here are fully rendered. Later books in the series include refugee life.
All are informed by Ellis’ travels, which also led to the non-fiction book Children of War: Voices Of Iraqi Refugees (published in 2009 and filed in C-224, this book is on our shelves thanks to M.K. Tucker and her Adopt-A-Book purchase). It’s filled with short profiles of children and young people, aged 8 to 19. They fled the Iraq war and are in Jordan where, if they’re lucky, they live in tents. Some even have daily access to food and clean water – but not all.
All these books tell great stories (all but one is under 200 pages), and although filed in the children’s section, there is much here for adults, as well.
For the straight up unvarnished reality of the larger Arab world, you’ll want to read CBC television journalist Nahlah Ayed’s A Thousand Farewells: A Reporter’s Journey From Refugee Camp to The Arab Spring (2013, filed in Biography at 920.5, this is a Governor General’s Award finalist).
Ayed was born in Winnipeg, both her parents Palestinian refugees. There were no Arab-Canadians in Winnipeg, and her parents were often lonely for family: “We had no relatives to have over for coffee and gossip, no nosy second cousins to hide from… When one day they heard a man swearing in their mother tongue on the street, they latched on to him for dear life, and he became one of their closest friends.”
Her hard-working parents wanted their children to grow up to be fully Canadian, but not liberal hippies. And they did not want their children to forget their roots; the family moved back to Jordan when Ayed was six years old (“Learning about our culture somehow meant being punted back into the Dark Ages”).
Ayed’s honesty gives true insight into the fear of the loss of family heritage and history that drives many parents (including those with British backgrounds).
There is a brief portrait of her childhood, but the bulk of the book is about Ayed’s time as a foreign correspondent for the CBC (much of it in the Middle East). And that includes refugee camps.
This is a great read about one of our country’s better-known journalists, as well as her take on the politics and culture of the Arab world — a world that is impacting us more and more.
Some refugees have become successful authors: Chilean refugee Isabel Allende fled her country after receiving death threats (her work is filed in the Lennoxville Library in Young Adult, Biography at 863 and at 928.61, plus in English and French fiction, and via interlibrary loan); the children’s works of German-Jewish refugee Judith Kerr are in C-88 (get her adult fiction via interlibrary loan).
Anne Frank fled the Nazis to the Netherlands. That was not far enough, as Germany’s invasion of its neighbours led to her eventual arrest. She died in a concentration camp. Find her memoirs in the Lennoxville Library at C-226.
The 19th century French icon Victor Hugo was forced to flee France several times (his political beliefs were unpopular) (find his works in Audio and French Fiction, as well as via interlibrary loan).
Other refugees and authors whose works are available via interlibrary loan: Ismail Kadare (Albania, a Booker Prize winner); Loung Ung (Cambodia); Guillermo Cabrera Infante (Cuba); Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (Germany); Nobel Literature Prize winner Thomas Mann (Germany); Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú (Guatemala); Nobel Literature Prize winner Elias Canetti (Bulgaria).
Bambi was written by the refugee Felix Salten (who fled the Nazis) (interlibrary loan).
— Eleanor Brown, November 27, 2015