This Sunday Pope Francis will celebrate a mass in honor of the 104th World Day of Migrants and Refugees. This is in no way a political post, but it seems more important than ever to help students think critically about Catholic social teaching in an increasingly hostile political environment. In light of recent comments about people arriving in the United States from seemingly “undesirable” nations (not my point of view), I believe it is integral to my job as a Catholic educator to offer a Christ centered Catholic alternative to rhetoric that belittles migrants and refugees from any country.
So here are a selection of middle grade and YA books about migrants and refugees that you could use to spark meaningful discussion about the challenges faced by these groups and the Catholic call to solidarity.
- Refugee by Alan Gratz. This beautifully written YA book follows 3 separate refugee families- Josef and his family are fleeing Nazi Germany on the ill-fated St. Louis bound for Cuba, Isabel and her family are fleeing Cuba during the 1994 raft exodus, and Mahmoud and his family are fleeing Syria during the Civil War in 2015. The stories all come together in the end in a piece of masterful story telling. There’s also a lot of great conversation to be had about religion- each of the main characters is a different religion. (Josef is Jewish, Isabel is Catholic, Mahmoud is Muslim.) Boys especially enjoy the fast pace of this book.
- The Red Umbrella by Christina Diaz Gonzalez. This book follows a pair of siblings who are sent away from Cuba through Operation Pedro Pan directly after the Communist Revolution. While there are some violent scenes, the book accurately depicts the distrust and betrayal between neighbors in a communist regime. There is also a great opportunity to talk about Catholic Charities’ role in helping families maintain educational and religious freedom for their children.
- 90 Miles to Havana by Enrique Flores-Galbis. This is another book that follows siblings (this time 3 boys) separated from their families by Operation Pedro Pan. This story deals more thoroughly with the reality of living in refugee camps and the choices one has to make when there is little to no adult supervision. Julian, the narrator, learns to stand up for what’s right and put others’ needs before his own.
- The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney. This gorgeous novel is told completely in verse and illustrations. The narrator is Amira, a twelve year old girl in Darfur, Sudan in 2003. After the Janjaweed kill her father and destroy their village, Amira and her family (including her disabled four year old sister) flee on foot to safety in a refugee camp. This book also explores the realities of life in a camp and also education for girls. Students really love the illustrations.
- Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai. This is another novel told in verse. Ha, the narrator is a twelve year old girl in Saigon just after the Americans have pulled out of the Vietnam War. Her father is missing, most likely dead, and her mother makes the difficult decision to take her four children to America just as the South is invaded by the North.
- Tasting the Sky by Ibtisam Barakat. This book takes place at several different times in Ramallah. It follows the stories of several different Palestinian families living through the 6 Day War in 1967 and the generations of violence that have followed. The initial scenes of the book are a tiny bit hard for students to follow, but once they get into the action, reading goes a bit smoother. There are a lot of great connections to religion class and the history of the Holy Land.
- Esperanza Rising by Pamela Munoz Ryan. Esperanza has all she wants and needs in her comfortable life in Mexico. But she and her mother have to flee to California during the Great Depression and live with other Mexican farm workers. This book has always been one of my favorites, and because I work in a farming community, there are plenty of real life connections my students can make with this book.
Three other resources that I have found especially helpful in providing a Catholic counterpoint to news stories about refugees and migrants being belittled and turned away are the CRS website, the United States Catholic Bishops website and the Share the Journey website. There are articles, videos and even ways you can get involved to help. All of these websites are aligned with Pope Francis’s teachings and his campaign for migrants and refugees.
Please take the time to share other resources/books that would help provide background or a Catholic point of view on the state of refugees in our world.