14 Books About Refugees Trying to Reach Europe

Sally Hayden, author of "My Fourth Time, We Drowned," recommends stories about African and Middle Eastern asylum-seekers

Refugees on a boat crossing the Mediterranean sea, heading from Turkish coast to the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos, 29 January 2016.

Today, the world is divided between those who can easily travel and those who cannot, separated by the simple luck of where they happened to be born. Yet many of the unlucky dare to try, setting out on epic journeys out of desperation or necessity, even when the odds are stacked against them.

My Fourth Time, We Drowned by Sally Hayden

My non-fiction book, My Fourth Time, We Drowned, is based on years of communication with refugees who were caught on the Mediterranean sea and locked up indefinitely in Libyan migrant detention centers for trying to reach Europe.

While writing it, I read widely—history, poetry, journalism and novels—in an attempt to learn more about how these stories have been told and understood throughout time. In reality, I was also grappling with a bigger question: why do we still have so little empathy and understanding, and why do we continue to inflict horrors on people who are simply trying to reach safety?

The Naked Don’t Fear the Water: An Underground Journey with Afghan Refugees by Matthieu Aikins

Matthieu Aikins goes “undercover” as an Afghan refugee named Habib to accompany his friend Omar, former translator for the US forces in Afghanistan, on his asylum seeking journey to Europe. This work of non-fiction takes place right as the so-called “European migrant crisis” is winding down due to increasingly restrictive policies aimed at stopping movement from the Middle East to Europe.

This book is a love story, between Omar and his landlord’s daughter Laila, as well as a mediation on what it means to be a journalist from the rich world, with a passport that opens borders, while colleagues are unable to access the same privileges. Aikins is always conscious that he does not have to be on this route, unlike those he is accompanying. The book includes descriptions of life in Kabul before the Taliban takeover, limbo in Moira camp on Lesbos, time spent with activists in Athens, and firsthand experience of various other parts of the journey.

The Pianist From Syria by Aeham Ahmad

This war memoir by a pianist who grew up as a Palestinian refugee in the Syrian refugee camp Yarmouk is even more horrifying and haunting for how beautifully it is written. Ahmad became famous around the world when a video of him playing the piano in the midst of rubble, after his besieged camp was bombed by the Syrian regime, was posted on social media. Despite the outpouring of sympathy and support, his efforts to use music to transcend language and call for help still ended with him fleeing home and having to start life anew in Europe. 

He details his early musical education, which was already harder for him as a second-generation refugee, and the role it played for him throughout his struggles:

“I’m a pianist, not a political activist. My revolution is music. My language is music. Music was going to be my form of protest, even if no one heard me.”

What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad

A young Syrian boy is the only survivor of a shipwreck caused when an overloaded boat from the Middle East sinks under the weight of its passengers. He finds himself on a hostile European island, where a young girl is the only one who wants to help him. This novel is full of rich, all-too-realistic characters who challenge a reader to question their own privilege, asking where they themselves stand when it comes to helping those most in need, and who is perishing as a result of that.

The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby

In 2013, at least 368 people died in a shipwreck that shocked the Italian government into briefly launching a massive search and rescue mission to patrol for other boats making a similar journey.

This short book retells what happened from the perspective of Italians who witnessed the incident: particularly, Carmine Menna, an optician who worked on the southern island of Lampedusa, the closest point to Africa in Italy. Menna was on a boating holiday with friends when they came across dozens of people drowning in the water. They did what they could to rescue as many people as possible, but they could not save everyone.

Kirby, an award-winning BBC journalist, said she wrote this book after noticing “compassion fatigue” among European audiences, making them switch off from the situation on Europe’s borders. To combat that, she decided to focus on the stories of “ordinary Italians” and their response to what was happening on their southern shores.

Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih

Unlike the others, this classic novel by one of Sudan’s most famous writers was published in the ’60s. It does not include a refugee journey as such, but it looks at migration, the aftermath of colonialism in Sudan, and the treatment of Africans who made it to the U.K. at that time.

Both the unnamed narrator, and the man he most closely observes, have travelled from villages in Sudan (a ‘’land of despair and poetry”) to the U.K. and back again. With a similar underlying message to David Diop’s multi-award-winning At Night All Blood Is Black, it also looks at the exoticization of Africans in the West, and how people can be forced to adopt a culture that was not designed for them and does not favor them.

City of Sparrows by Eva Nour

City of Sparrows was written by a journalist using a pseudonym about the story of the man she is in a relationship with. “A cat has seven souls in Arabic. In English, cats have nine lives. You probably have both nine lives and seven souls, because otherwise I don’t know how you’ve made it this far,” she says to him.

It is an account of survival, torture, and eventual escape from the Syrian city of Homs.

Don’t Tell Me You’re Afraid by Giuseppe Catozzella 

Italian journalist Giuseppe Catozzella reimagines the real story of Samia Yusuf Omar, the young Somali runner who braved war and pressure from Islamic militant group al Shabaab to run in the 2008 Olympics. Her upbringing, her family life, her deep determination and courageous sacrifice, and all the struggles that accompanied that are included here. In an effort to access training, Omar undertook the dangerous journey through Libya to Europe, but tragically drowned on the way.

Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth by Warsan Shire

Somali British poet Warsan Shire’s “Home” reached millions of readers, with its opening line—“no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark”—becoming a rallying cry for people across the rich world who wanted their countries to be more welcoming to refugees. 

In a recent New Yorker interview, Shire said she became frustrated that her work was mostly used to advocate for and mourn the death of Middle Eastern refugees, when she “wrote those words for Black immigrants.”

In this poetry collection, which comes to just 37 pages, she looks at the experiences her people have been through and how that affects them as they continue their lives in new surroundings. In “In Love and in War,” she writes:

“To my daughter I will say

when the men come, set yourself on fire’.”

In “Conversations About Home (at the Deportation Centre),” she writes:

“They ask me how did you get here? Can’t you see it on my body? The Libyan desert red with immigrant bodies, the Gulf of Aden bloated, the city of Rome with no jacket. I hope the journey meant more than miles because all of my children are in the water. I thought the sea was safer than the land. I want to make love, but my hair smells of war and running and running.“

Trading Life by Sean Columb

A law lecturer and expert on international crime, Columb spent years researching the organ trade across Europe and North Africa. This book examines the networks that facilitate and profit from this, while Columb details how migrants who have escaped from their own countries can be encouraged or forced to give up their organs, often as a result of circumstances exacerbated by strict immigration controls. 

Migrant, Refugee, Smuggler, Savior by Peter Tinti and Tuesday Reitano

Human smuggling is a multi-billion dollar industry, and this non-fiction book offers a measured and detailed examination of the smugglers who work along the migration routes towards Europe. Both authors have done extensive research from many different countries across Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. While the situation has shifted from when this was published, this book remains a must-read for anyone who wants to understand how people smuggling and trafficking works; how hardening migration policy affects that; and how human smugglers fit into international criminal networks.

Travelers by Helon Habila

Nigerian author Helon Habila tackles prejudice and racism, hardship and privilege, and other complex questions in this novel, which is really a set of six interlinked short stories, detailing the experiences of refugees and asylum seekers in Europe and those who encounter them. Habila is always surprising; his characters are never facile; and this book will leave an impression lasting long after the final page is finished. 

Mare Nostrum by Khaled Mattawa

This short book of poetry is by a Libyan poet who relocated to the U.S. as a teenager, writing about the Mediterranean Sea that so many try to cross from North Africa to reach Italy. The most powerful poem for me was “Song for Amadou” which heartbreakingly conveys how someone attempting this journey can fall out of touch and you have no idea what has happened to them (something I’ve often experienced in my own reporting); and luck decides where they might end up:

“Have you made it to Sicily, Amadou? Are you deep in the woods of Denmark? Learned a new language, writing your book?…  Are you in paradise now, Amadou? A skeleton bleaching in the sand, a bloated corpse on a sunny beach.”

The Lightless Sky: An Afghan Refugee Boy’s Journey of Escape to A New Life in Britain by Gulwali Passarlay 

Passarlay fled conflict in Afghanistan as a child, embarking on a year-long journey across more than 7,000 miles to reach safety in the U.K. This book details that journey, as well as his continued activism and efforts to speak out for his people. He went on to graduate with a degree in politics, and even carried the Olympic Torch in the U.K. ahead of the 2012 games.

By the Sea by Abdulrazak Gurnah 

The 2021 Nobel Laureate looks at the shared history of two men who have fled their African homeland and are finally trying to make peace with their past.

The Zanzibari refugee narrator—a former antique furniture salesman who claims asylum in a British airport while pretending not to speak English—went from living “by a warm green ocean” to “the half-life of a stranger” in a place where people’s “strangeness disarms” him. “They jeer at me. I think they do,” he says. He then encounters a man, another Zanzibari, who accuses him of stealing property and identity theft. As their backstory is revealed, Gurnah lays bare the alienation felt by those in exile and the psychological burdens that refugees carry when their lives are torn apart in the country they know best.

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