10 Books about Refugees

For World Refugee Day, we recommend literature about people displaced from their home countries across the world

Syrian and Iraqi Refugee arrive by boat in Greece
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia

There are more than 25 million refugees in the world—people who have fled their countries to escape religious persecution, war, violence, and other dangers so intense it’s worth giving up your home and often your family to get away. While there are a number of ways for people in stable countries to support the displaced—donating to refugee organizations, supporting politicians who welcome asylum-seekers—it’s also vital to develop understanding of and empathy towards people who are in an impossibly dire situation. For World Refugee Day, here are ten books that delve into the experiences of people displaced from home countries across the world.

Crossing by Pajtim Statovci

Crossing by Pajtim Statovci

In Crossing, Bujar and his friend-cum-lover Agim flee Communist Albania in a small boat across the Adriatic Sea to Italy in hopes of a better life. Finding xenophobia and hostility in Europe, Bujar hides his Albanian origins and invents a new self in every city he moves to. Author Pajtim Statovci fled Kosovo for Finland at 2-years-old during the Yugoslav Wars.

The Ungrateful Refugee: What Immigrants Never Tell You by Dina Nayeri (Pre-Order)

The Ungrateful Refugee: What Immigrants Never Tell You by Dina Nayeri

Dina Nayeri was 9-years-old when her family have to leave Iran because of religious persecution, eventually settling in Oklahoma after a couple of years in Dubai and Rome. In her memoir, Nayeri draws from her childhood and from the accounts of asylum seekers she meets in Greek refugee camps to explore what it means to be a refugee.

The Far Away Brothers by Lauren Markham

The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life by Lauren Markham

The Far Away Brothers recounts the true story of a pair of identical twins, Ernesto and Raúl Flores (as they’re known in the book). Facing violent threats from the MS-13 gang, the siblings flee El Salvador and cross the US-Mexico border with coyotes before finally reuniting with their brother in the Bay Area. Markham met the Flores brothers while working as a program coordinator at Oakland International High School and spent 11 years following them.

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City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp by Ben Rawlence

A little known fact is that Dadaab in Kenya was the world’s largest refugee camp for decades until 2017 when violence and ethnic cleansing forced almost 625,000 Rohingya refugees to flee Myanmar for neighboring Bangladesh. City of Thorns follows the lives of nine displaced people (and their families) in Dadaab refugee camp located near the Somalian border. The refugees live in FEMA-style tents and are not allowed to work or leave the camp (unless they voluntarily return to their home country). They spend their time (months, years, decades) waiting and fantasizing for resettlement when their “real lives” will finally start. There’s a word the residents of Dadaab invented for that longing for resettlement: buufis. City of Thorns is a heartbreaking glimpse into the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of the refugees that the world has forgotten about.

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No Friend But the Mountains by Behrouz Boochani

In 2013, Iranian-Kurdish journalist Behrouz Boochani fled Iran after the office of Werya, the Kurdish magazine he worked for, was raided by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. He made his way to Indonesia and attempted to reach Australia by sea. His boat was intercepted by the Australian Navy and he (and the other 60 asylum seekers) were detained on Christmas Island before being moved to a detention centre on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea. The Australian government had implemented a zero tolerance policy against “illegal boat arrivals” and forced refugees into mandatory detention in offshore detention facilities. As of 2019, he is still detained on Manus Island. Written entirely on Whatsapp, Boochani’s memoir is a searing and heartbreaking account of Australia’s cruel and inhumane immigration policies.

Patriot Number One by Lauren Hilgers

Patriot Number One by Lauren Hilgers

Lauren Hilgers met Zhuang Liehong, an activist leader in Guangdong province, while she was a political reporter stationed in Shanghai. Several years later, they reconnected when Zhuang and his wife sought asylum in the U.S. Hilgers chronicled both Zhuang’s experience as a political dissident and the couple’s attempts to establish themselves in Flushing, Queens—navigating language barriers, supporting themselves, applying for asylum, and attempting to reunite with the child they left behind. The result is a deeply-reported portrait of a man, a family, a neighborhood, and America’s byzantine asylum-seeking process.

The Boat People by Sharon Bala

The Boat People by Sharon Bala

In the aftermath of the Sri Lankan Civil War, the cargo ship MV Sun Sea was intercepted by the Canadian navy near Vancouver. Onboard were about 500 Tamil asylum-seekers fleeing Sri Lanka–two of them a father, Mahindan, and his six-year-old son. Their hope for starting a new life is questioned when they, along with the other Sri Lankans, are thrown into a detention center for suspicion of involvement with the Tamil Tigers. In Sharon Bala’s debut novel, the Canadian government’s equivocations on refugees are exposed through the accounts of Mahindan, his lawyer, and an adjudicator with a substantial amount of power over Mahindan’s fate.

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The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir by Thi Bui

The past and future clash for one family after the fall of Saigon in Thi Bui’s debut graphic memoir. With striking visuals, Bui recounts her family’s journey from South Vietnam to a Malaysian refugee camp and finally the Bay Area. The sacrifices she must make as an immigrant and new mother are uncovered in this family tale that questions what makes a family, especially in times of crisis.

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The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives edited by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Edited by Pulitzer Prize–winner Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Displaced features essays about exile and dislocation by 17 refugee writers from around the world. 10% of the book’s cover price is donated to the International Rescue Committee.

The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil

The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil

In 1994, 6-year-old Clemantine Wamariya and her older sister Claire fled Rwanda and made their way through 7 countries, hoping to find refuge and reunite with their family. The Girl Who Smiled Beads is a powerful memoir about surviving the Rwandan genocide.

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