As Human as They (We) Are - Honoring World Refugee Day with Young Adult Texts
Bryan Ripley Crandall, Ger Duany, Abdi Nor Iftin
“I am here to have freedom, peace, and opportunities like every other American, and most importantly to be accepted as an American, not as an immigrant or refugee” - Abdi Nor Iftin.
who been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Most likely, they cannot return home or are afraid to do so. War and ethnic, tribal and religious violence are leading causes of refugees fleeing their countries. (www.unrefugees.org)
Over the past 3 years, 79.5 million individuals have been forcibly displaced from home nations - 26 million of these individuals are refugees. Half are under the age of 18, and the numbers increase every day.
There are numerous misconceptions about refugees, as they are often portrayed as powerless, hopeless burdens driven by handouts and charity. This depiction is false. Throughout history, displaced individuals have demonstrated strength, hard work, and devotion to democratic ideals, especially in the United States. Lazarus’s “The New Colossus” (1883), in fact, was bronzed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty in 1903 to name ‘Huddled masses yearning to breathe free’ as part of our democratic heritage. Immigrant populations, including refugees who relocate to Western societies, have always given back more than they take. A willingness for hard work is innate, as former political refugees such as Isaac Newton, Freddy Mercury, Albert Einstein, Gloria Estefan, Sigmund Freud, Madeleine Albright, Thado Mbeki, Iman Mohamad Abdulmajid, and Malala Yousafzi have demonstrated, globally, throughout history.
To know elsewhere, is to know here. Through reading refugee stories and narratives, young people gain knowledge on what it means to be a better human being: What are their responsibilities to others? What responsibilities do they have to the histories they are taught and will one day tell for themselves? What responsibilities do they have to their own education and actions? How might they advocate for, and with, individuals who aren’t born with the privileges to ask such questions?
Ger states there’s an obligation to educate young people, as his story and journey are not only about struggle, experience, and luck, but a way to share self-doubt, worry, and human transformation. In Sudan, he learned to repeat the phrase, “As within, so without,” a reminder of his responsibility to others within a larger community. He often shares, “I owe it to life to bring more of me into the world. There’s an obligation to give back and be more for others.”
Similarly, Abdi recently had his memoir adapted for teen readers so Western youth could read honest stories about the world, rather than fictional and fantastical speculations on what life could be about (e.g., The Hunger Games, Scythe, etc.). Human conflict and extreme violence are an every day reality in many parts of the world and not not just a form of entertainment. He wanted to share a memoir not commonly available to adolescents. “I see it as my responsibility to make young people feel comfortable around others who are not from the same background,” he says. “Teens, no matter where they are born, what skin color they have, or what faith or cultural background they come from, deserve to know they have more things in common with others than differences.” This includes a lifetime of facing adversity, contending with difficult challenges, and overcoming day-to-day struggles.
Right now, there’s an unprecedented level of human instability, a catalyst for major mobility around the planet (both by choice and by force). For this reason, we feel World Refugee Day 2021 is more urgent than ever. At a time when we put these words to page for an audience of teachers, readers, scholars, librarians, and YAL-enthusiasts (a privileged space, indeed), we recognize fellow human beings are escaping from armed conflicts, poverty, food insecurity, persecution, and human rights violations, and others are responding to the adverse effects of climate change and disease (such as Covid-19).
World Refugee Day 2021, then, must be a call to our government and stakeholders to take bold actions. In the United States, we must encourage congress to restore American traditions of welcoming the most vulnerable populations into the country, which includes raising the admission cap for refugees. Human togetherness triumphs over individualism, isolation, and ignorance. The collective of many united for a common good is better panacea for that which ills us. It has taken many across the United States: teachers, doctors, scientists, parents, nurses, politicians, families, laborers, etc. to counter this difficult year. We are strong when we focus on commonalities and weaker when we fixate on differences. As Abdi shares,
We are, always, as human as they (we) are.
We invite parents, teachers, students, scholars, and lovers of young adult literature to include refugee narratives in their libraries to help counter the misconceptions of refugees as powerless, weak individuals. As Ger notes, “refugee stories bond us and help us to make human connections….to witness the ways human beings triumph over extreme circumstances…and most importantly, relate us with a larger meaning to life.” Hence, a respect for June 20th, 2021 - World Refugee Day - is a location to honor refugees everywhere, and to applaud individuals and organizations who work with support and respect for all humanity.
Iftin, A. N. (2020). Call Me American: The Extraordinary True Story of a Young Somali Immigrant. New York: Random House Children’s Books.
Abdi Nor Iftin published Call Me American - a Memoir on his birthday in 2018 (coincidentally, World Refugee Day). Two years later, Delacorte Press, an Imprint of Random House Children’s Books, adapted his memoir for young adult readers with Max Alexander. As a child, Abdi Nor Iftin cheered on American soldiers when they arrived to war-torn Mogadishu, Somalia, when warlords and fighting fractions created divisions across their nation. As a fan of American action films, Abdi saw these men and women as heroic and working to bring a better world to his country. Yet, cheering on the Western world, wearing American styles and dancing to American music, became extremely dangerous when the radical Islamist group al-Shabaab came to power in 2006. His language skills and passion for democracy had to go underground, but eventually found audiences through secret radio dispatches. He was forced to flee from Somalia to Kenya, before winning entrance to migrate to the United States - a reminder of exactly why the idea of democracy in America still allures many looking for a better life.
In September of last year, Random House Children’s Books, under Christopher Myer’s Make Me a World Imprint, published Ger Duany’'s memoir, Walk Toward the Rising Sun - From Child Soldier to Ambassador of Peace with Garen Thomas. It is a memoir of immigration, a flight from political conflict, a model of perseverance, and a demonstration of human spirit, hope, optimism, drive, and purpose. Ger Duany’s memoir is the autobiography of young man intended to have a life with cattle and Turkana traditions, who found a world turned upside down after his village was attacked by the North Sudanese military. Death was introduced to him wherever he looked, and he soon found himself as a child-soldier, fighting back with resistance. Yet, the promise for a better world and for a greater humanity was always on his mind, and in the 1990s, he found himself boarding a plane without any family to seek refuge in the United States. American school didn’t make sense to him, nor did Western teenagers, but he did his best to fit in and to find a routine in his a country. He discovered basketball, then acting, which followed with modeling. Still, PTSD came at him as he tried to find meaning. With a childhood disrupted, the loss of family and loved ones, and the enduring racism of the United States, he wrote his memoir to find voice and a way to do more. His memoir models the power of storytelling, and for writing to find one’s self wherever they are within a journey.
As a National Book Award Finalist and New York Times Best Seller, Omar Mohamad and Victoria Jamieson illustrate the lived experiences of Omar and his nonverbal younger brother Hassan and their challenges experienced in Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya. The collaborative graphic-novel highlights the importance of education, maintaining a sense of humor, overcoming heartbreak, and believing in hope. Through the middle-grade storytelling, readers learn a how some individuals overcome devastating circumstance through the power of community and empathy, especially as they fight against trauma and despair. The story offers space for young readers to visualize, learn, and understand the struggles of living as displaced youth.
Published by DC Comics, this graphic novel shares the origin story of Diana Prince and the relocation to Queens, New York, after experiencing life in a refugee camp in Greece. Through Anderson’s depiction of yet another female warrior, and with Delduca’s brilliant illustrations, readers get Wonder Woman in her teenage years before she goes on a full-fledged mission for global justice. Her experience of life as a refugee counters the idyllic, privileged utopia known on the island of Themyscira. In the United States, she sets forward on a mission to help the less fortunate and to fight against any and all who exploit human beings, including those who traffic children. This is Diana Prince as a political activist and humanitarian…a first step before realizing her total powers.
Ger Duany is a survivor of the tragic exodus of an estimated 20,000 Sudanese children, the "Lost boys of Sudan," and has been appointed as UN Goodwill Ambassador. Born in the town of Akobo, Ger was caught up in Sudan's north-south civil war and was forcefully recruited as a child soldier. At the age of 14, he managed to escape to neighbouring Ethiopia and was eventually resettled to the United States from the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya. In 2014, UNHCR helped Ger reunite with his mother and other family members in Kenya's Kakuma refugee camp. He is also a model and actor. To learn more about Ger, his inspiring life story, and his constant work to help refugees around the world, visit GerDuany.com or @GerDuany on Twitter.
Abdi Nor Iftin is a naturally gifted speaker. His story, one of 60 Peabody finalists in 2015, has been featured on various radio and television stations; most recently on CNN. Abdi's stories are personal narratives of his life growing up in a country shredded by a civil war and finished off by islamists with the sheer luck to win a green card to immigrate to the United States in 2014. As a former refugee, a recent immigrant to the US and a Muslim, Abdi has received requests to speak at TEDX events, universities and colleges in Maine. His new book"Call Me American," was released in 2018 and is a finalist for New England's Bookseller's Association book awards. His features on NPR’s This American Life can be found at Abdi and the Golden Ticket and Abdi the American
Bryan Ripley Crandall is Director of Connecticut Writing Project and Associate Professor of English Education at Fairfield University. His dissertation, "A Responsibility to Speak Out”: Perspectives on Writing From Black African-Born Males With Limited and Disrupted Formal Education received a Syracuse University doctoral prize for outstanding research. Crandall’s scholarship has appeared in several journals and books, advocating for best practices for teaching writing in diverse, inclusive settings. In 2018, Crandall received a Divergent Award from the Initiative for Literacy in a Digital age in recognition of his youth programming, including Ubuntu Academy - a literacy lab for immigrant and refugee youth.
Interview with Abi Nor Iftin on the National Writing Project’s The Write Time<https://youtu.be/u5AYWVB7cug>.
Crandall, B. R. (2014). Lost voices in an American high school: Sudanese male English-language learners' perspectives on writing. In C. Compton-Lilly & E. Halverson (Eds.), Time and Space In Literacy Research (pp. 107-121). New York: Routledge.
Crandall, B. R. (2018). “History Should Come First”: Perspectives on Writing of Somali-Born, Refugee-Background Male Youth on Writing in and out of School. In R. F. Shawna Shapiro, Mary Jane Curry (Ed.), Educating Refugee-background Students: Critical Issues and Dynamic Contexts. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.
MacDonald, M. T. (2018). Cultivating a Global Perspective through Refugee Narratives. Creative Commons. Michigan.
Mirra, N. (2018). Educating for Empathy: Literacy Learning and Civic Engagement. Columbia University: Teachers College Press
Muhammad, G. (2020). Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy. New York: Scholastic.
Perry, K. (2008). From storytelling to writing: transforming literacy among Sudanese refugees. Journal of Literacy Research, 40, 317-388. doi:10.1080/10862960802502196
Roxas, K. (2010). Who really wants "The tired, the poor, and the huddled masses" anyway?: Teachers' use of cultural scripts with refugee students in public schools. Multicultural Perspectives, 12(2), 65-73.
Woodson, J. (2018). Harbor Me. New York: Penguin Random House.