12 Excellent Books to Understand the Refugee Experience

Madrid, August 2016/Photo © Kristin Fritz

The global community is currently in the midst of a refugee crisis unlike anything seen since WWII. The Syrian Civil War has displaced millions, forcing nearly five million civilians to flee the war-torn country and leaving millions more adrift within its border. The United States has generally been at the forefront of refugee resettlement. However, as with so many issues since the inauguration of Donald Trump, our nation’s refugee program has been thrown into disarray. The president’s executive order halting immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries for ninety days while also halting refugee resettlement for 120 days and refugees from Syria indefinitely is largely a solution seeking a problem. Since the Refugee Act of 1980 created the current system of Refugee vetting, no refugee has been implicated in a single fatal terrorist attack.

The refugee experience is a well-documented and often heartbreaking one. Given the ongoing crisis and the prevalence of refugees as part of an ongoing national conversation – and the need for more compassion and empathy than ever – we’ve pulled together twelve books touching on the refugee experience to offer you more insight and understanding.

  • The cover of the book The Girl Who Smiled Beads

    The Girl Who Smiled Beads

    A Story of War and What Comes After

    Clemantine Wamariya was only six when she and her fifteen-year-old sister, Claire, fled the Rwandan massacre in hopes of finding safety elsewhere. They spent six years migrating through African countries, starving, imprisoned, and abused. When Clemantine was twelve, she and her sister were finally granted refugee status in Chicago. From there, the sisters’ paths diverged. Clemantine was taken in by a loving family, graduated from Yale, and achieved great success. But no matter how high she climbed in life, Clemantine could never forget the hardships she endured as a young girl. In The Girl Who Smiled Beads, the label of “victim” is looked at in a different light, and resilience is given a whole new meaning.

  • The cover of the book Sea Prayer

    Sea Prayer

    From the #1 New York Times-bestselling author of The Kite Runnerand A Thousand Splendid Suns, Sea Prayer is a remarkable response to the current refugee crisis happening in our world today. It’s a compact, illustrated book written in the form of a letter from a father to his son as they embark on a dangerous journey to escape war-torn Syria and seek a better life elsewhere. Inspired by the haunting image of young Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy whose body washed upon the beach in Turkey in September 2015, Hosseini’s story is a must-read for all people around the world.

  • The cover of the book Say You're One of Them

    Say You're One of Them

    This collection of short stories from Nigerian author Uwem Akpan highlights the very human toll of the various conflicts that have affected African refugees. The stories give voice to perils ranging from the selling of children in Gabon to the Muslim-Christian conflict in Ethiopia and the Rwandan Genocide.

  • The cover of the book A Long Way Gone

    A Long Way Gone

    In this gripping and powerful memoir, Ishmael Beah recounts his experiences first fleeing as a refugee and eventually being forcefully enlisted as a child soldier in Sierra Leone at the age of thirteen. An estimated 300,000 children have been forced to take up arms and commit unspeakable violence in conflicts around the world. Beah’s firsthand account of his experience is a mesmerizing and heartbreaking story of lost humanity regained.

  • The cover of the book Girl at War

    Girl at War

    A Novel

    Sara Novic’s powerful debut novel illustrates the lasting emotional toll of war on those forced to suffer through it. Moving between scenes of young Ana Juric in Zagreb in 1991 at the start of the Yugoslav War and an older Ana in New York in 2001, still haunted by the experiences that defined so much of her childhood, Girl at War is a shattering look at the way war changes the life of the individual.

  • The cover of the book We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families

    We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families

    Following the Rwandan Genocide, journalist Philip Gourevitch traveled to Rwanda and began conducting interviews with survivors with the hope of making sense of the horror that took place. This book is a collection of those stories, a sober examination of tragic and brutal oppression as seen through the eyes of those who survived.

  • The cover of the book The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

    The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

    A Novel

    The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, the Pulitzer Prize winner from Michael Chabon, centers on two cousins: Joe Kavalier, a Czech refugee and artist fleeing Prague, and Sammy Clay, a Brooklyn-born writer. The at-times-rollicking-yet-profound novel follows the meteoric rise Kavalier and Clay in the world of the Golden Age comic book boom. It is at turns surprising, heartfelt, and thrilling.

  • The cover of the book Sweetness in the Belly

    Sweetness in the Belly

    Sweetness in the Belly tells the story of Lilly, orphaned at the age of eight in Morocco after the murder of her British parents. Taken in and raised in a Sufi shrine, Lilly eventually makes her way to Ethiopia before being forced to flee to London as a refugee. It is a poignant examination of an outside search for home.

  • The cover of the book What Is the What

    What Is the What

    Dave Eggers’s 2006 novel charts the true story of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese refugee who at the age of seven fled Sudan to escape the second Sudanese Civil War. Deng, along with thousands of other children, trekked hundreds of miles on foot finding refuge in Ethiopia and eventually the United States as one of the “Lost Boys of Sudan.”

  • The cover of the book All the Light We Cannot See

    All the Light We Cannot See

    This Pulitzer Prize winner from author Anthony Doerr tells the story of the interlocking fates of a blind French girl named Marie-Laure and orphaned German boy named Werner in the midst of World War II. Marie-Laure and her family seek refuge along the northern coast of France following the German occupation of Paris; Werner is forced into a brutal academy for the Nazi elite. Doerr deftly interweaves the lives of his two protagonists in a poignant examination of the human condition.

  • The cover of the book City of Thorns

    City of Thorns

    British writer Ben Rawlence weaves the stories of several inhabitants of the infamous Kenyan refugee settlement of Dadaab – the largest refugee camp in the world. These stories sketch the trials of life within the camp against the broader sociopolitical backdrop that leaves many of inhabitants in virtual limbo.

  • The cover of the book Exit West

    Exit West

    A Novel

    One of the most anticipated books of 2017, Mohsin Hamed’s novel of the strife created by the Syrian Civil War is told through the lens of the love affair of young Nadia and Saeed. The pair find one another as their country teeters toward violent conflict and explosive unrest climbs to a terrifying fever pitch, forcing the couple to flee for survival. Timely and harrowing, Exit West arrives at bookseller on March 7.