Wars leave indelible marks on people, particularly children, and books on refugee experiences can help others empathise with their struggle.
We are all immigrants in some sense, as constant migration across world history has moved our ancestors from one place to another.
But being a refugee is a far different, and a far more harrowing experience than being a migrant. In the former, people are forced out of their homelands while in the latter people voluntarily move from one country to another.
For children, whose vivid emotions are not bogged down by typical adult anxieties and drudgery, moving from one place to another under war conditions in countries like Syria still leaves deep psychological scars that linger for the rest of their lives.
The growing children’s literature on refugee lives from Francesca Sanna’s The Journey to Wendy Meddour’s Lubna and Pebble aims to capture meaning in children’s feelings, ranging from hope and kindness to desperation and loneliness. It can also help others who were born and grew up in safe countries to empathise with refugee boys’ and girls’ painful experiences.
Almost every author of refugee children’s stories is either a refugee or people, who have visited refugee camps, witnessing people’s difficulties, like Hiba Noor Khan, the author of The Little War Cat, which was published in September.
“The seed for the story was planted in me when I visited Syrian refugee camps in Turkey in 2013. When I was there, I met many families. You had young children who were very traumatised. Whenever they hear a loud voice, they would end up crying and they would hide,” Khan says.
Under constant bombardment, many Syrian boys and girls have developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), identifying any loud voices with possible airstrikes and other attacks. For these children, “even the most normal things are sources of terror,” Khan tells TRT World.
Since the beginning of the civil war in 2011, under the Bashar al Assad regime’s constant airstrikes and artillery shelling, many villages and towns have been destroyed. As a result, millions of Syrian refugees moved to neighbouring Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon seeking a safe haven.
Why writing on refugee children
Khan, 28, was born into a Pakistani-British family, and has worked for various refugee organisations in the UK, meeting all kinds of people from different countries like Congo, Afghanistan and Syria. Her experience in those organisations have shown her the extent to which refugee children are traumatised after perilous journeys from their home countries to hosting countries.
Over half of the world’s refugee population are children.
While refugee children find “physical safety” in countries like the UK, humans need more than that, Khan says. “Just being physically away from the war is not enough. They need to be welcomed and have opportunities. That’s not what we are seeing in the UK. Our government is making life very very difficult for asylum seekers and refugees,” she observes.
Both the elite and media in the UK use refugees as “financial and political scapegoats”, demonising them, she says. “I was seeing the effects of that on people I was working with. A lot of bullying, harassment, abuse and stigmatisation.”
As a result, while refugees are running away from hot wars, they end up living in cold war conditions across Europe from the UK to France and other countries, where children of refugee families are growing up under a form of cultural isolation, Khan observes.
“I just thought like the next generation really really needs to have empathy. They need to have compassion. They need to have understanding of these people and not listen to everything they hear and see in the media,” she says
“So I decided to write something for children,” to help develop more understanding on refugee lives, she says.
The power of kindness
Her book’s plot was inspired by the Cat Man of Aleppo, Mohammad Aljaleel, who sheltered more than a hundred cats at his home while the brutal civil war raged across Syria. The number of Aljaleel’s cats increased in parallel to the war’s death toll as more people were escaping from the Syrian war, leaving their cats behind.
Khan was profoundly affected by Aljalel’s compassion, which “reminds” her of the general attitude of the Prophet Mohammed “in the way he loved and valued all lives from smallest life like an ant to a cat and to a human.”
In Khan’s story, an Aleppian cat develops trauma after her city faces destruction due to the conflict. Through illustrations, the book shows how the cat is scared, goes hungry and hides in the war-torn city. But good fortune means she meets a decent human being, a man just like the Cat Man of Aleppo who is “different from soldiers with big boots and loud noises.”
The cat follows the man and ends up in the cat sanctuary. “The cat wants to play, wants to eat and wants to be normal. But she can’t because she is scared and traumatised,” Khan says. But the kind man understands her trauma and comforts her which is what she desperately needs, the story recounts. Then, because her fears reduce, the cat is able to return to normal, the story explains.
“It shows the impact kindness can have in the context of trauma,” Khan says. Kindness spreads exponentially and as a result, one act of kindness leads to another, she says.
Khan’s story moves with the cat meeting a small boy hidden under a table. The cat speaks to him, but the boy, who was also traumatised by the war, could not hear her voice, and is unresponsive. “He is just in his own world of fear and heartbreak,” Khan says.
Then, the cat does the same thing the kind man did to her to the boy. The cat comforts him and shows kindness to him and illustrations of the book show how the boy’s mental state also improves with time. The story ends with one last act of kindness, in which the boy starts to come back to his normal self.
Khan believes that when other children and even adults read her book or other books on the stories of refugee children, they will feel the power of kindness, developing empathy for Syrian boys and girls living in camps or other countries away from their homelands.
Refugee children’s stories could explain to others that displaced people need not only “physical safety” but also “emotional safety” like the little war cat and the small boy in Khan's book.
She also thinks reading those stories are so formative and important for children’s understanding of the world because they have much more capacity for kindness than adults.
“The hearts of our children are a very precious resource,” she concludes.