10 Recommended Readings to Understand the Experiences of Refugees, Immigrants, and Defectors

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Graphics by Preethi Nair
Graphics by Preethi Nair

by Rozella Marie

Where do we come from? How many of us really know?

I have always been curious about my family's history and how we came to Borneo. My ancestors were travellers who left their homelands and arrived from different parts of the world to escape the torturous war and captivity, to gain safety and freedom, and to create a better life for themselves and their children.

As an odd-looking, mixed-race kid with an Anglo-Burmese mother and a father who has Chinese-Dusun and Javanese ancestry, I always felt like an outsider who did not belong. I never knew why until I began to understand that I am the product of refugees and immigrants, and the history and pain of being an outcast runs through my veins.

When I read and hear about the injustice that so many people around the world still face today and how inhumanely people are treated, it breaks my heart because the stories are similar to what my family has experienced and what some of them are still going through.

As one of the privileged children of this generation of my family, I make it a point to educate myself on the ongoing plight so that I never forget where I came from and how much was sacrificed so that I could be here.

Here are some recommended books that I would urge everyone to read in order to understand the experiences of refugees, immigrants and defectors.


1. Where the Wind Leads: A Refugee Family's Miraculous Story of Loss, Rescue, and Redemption by Vinh Chung with Tim Downs

Where the Wind Leads is the true story of Vinh Chung and his refugee family who fled Vietnam in 1979 after his family lost everything from their rice mill empire and sank into poverty during the communist takeover.

The Chungs joined the legendary "Boat People" and sailed across the South China Sea to America for a chance at a better life, knowing their children would have no future under the new Vietnamese government. In doing so, they braved pirate attacks on a lawless sea where an estimated two hundred thousand of their countrymen had already perished at the hands of vicious pirates and raging seas.

Although life in America opened up new dreams and opportunities, including a degree from Harvard Medical School, Vinh struggled against poverty, discrimination, and the language barrier. This memoir is a tribute to his parents' sacrifice and a testament to his family's courage and faith to carry on.

2. First, They Erased Our Name: a Rohingya Speaks by Habiburahman with Sophie Ansel

In this moving memoir, Habiburahman speaks out to expose the truth behind the humanitarian crisis of ethnic cleansing facing the Rohingya people of Burma.

In 1982, when Habiburahman was three years old, the country's military leader declared that the Rohingya were not among the 135 recognised ethnic groups that made up the eight "national races."

Since then, millions of Rohingya have been forced to flee their homes due to extreme prejudice and persecution. Habiburahman himself was left stateless as a child in his own country, where he was subjected to violence throughout his life until he fled the country in 2000.

3. The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen, a refugee himself, brings together 17 prominent writers from around the world to shed light on their experiences and explore what it means to leave home and find a place of refuge.

These writers include recipients of the MacArthur Genius Grant, finalists for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, filmmakers, speakers, lawyers, professors, and contributors to The New Yorker-and they are all refugees originally from Mexico, Bosnia, Iran, Afghanistan, Soviet Ukraine, Hungary, Chile, Ethiopia, and other countries.

As different as their lives are, their stories have many themes in common. These essays explore topics such as the line between "official" refugee and "illegal" immigrant, life in a refugee camp as a child, and border crossing.

4. The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story About War and What Comes After by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil

Clemantine Wamariya was six years old when she and her fifteen-year-old sister Claire were displaced along with millions of people in Rwanda in 1994.

The two siblings spent the next six years wandering through seven African countries in search of safety, not knowing if their parents were still alive. They hid under beds, foraged for food, survived and fled refugee camps, and witnessed unimaginable atrocities before being granted asylum in the United States.

This memoir shows the true cost and consequences of what has been lost forever through war, what can be restored, and the conviction that despite the scars, it is possible to learn to love ourselves again.

5. The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story by Hyeonseo Lee

As a child growing up in North Korea, Hyeonseo Lee was one of millions trapped in a ruthless and secretive dictatorship. At the age of 17, she decided to leave North Korea.

She lived in China for twelve years before returning to the North Korean border on a daring mission to bring her mother and brother to South Korea - one of the most difficult and dangerous journeys imaginable.

This book provides a glimpse into her fearsome struggle to escape capture and repatriation and lead her family to freedom, as well as the determination with which she rebuilt her life.


1. What Is the What by Dave Eggers

This novel is based on the real life story of Valentino Achak Deng, with author Dave Eggers approximating Achak's voice and using the events of his life as a basis. Although some passages have been fictionalised, the world in which Achak lived is not so different from the world described in the pages of this book.

Forced to leave his village in Sudan at the age of seven, Achak was pursued by militias and government bombers and forced to trek across the deserts of three countries to find freedom in the United States. When he is finally resettled, he finds a life filled with promise, but also heartbreak and countless new challenges.

What Is The What was written with the desire to help others understand the atrocities committed by many successive governments of Sudan before and during the civil war. However, it should not be taken as the definitive history of the Sudanese civil war, the Sudanese people, and the so-called "Lost Boys.”

2. A Land of Permanent Goodbyes by Atia Abawi

Atia Abawi is an award-winning journalist and author who lives in the Middle East and has witnessed firsthand the refugee crisis in war-torn Syria.

This fictional story, narrated by Destiny herself, is about Tareq and his family who leave their homeland and travel as refugees from Syria to Turkey to Greece, where they face countless dangers at every turn in order to survive.

A Land of Permanent Goodbyes evokes empathy and compassion for the harrowing plight of refugees and shows how religion can be used to create a world where the most basic human rights are violated.

3. The Fire in His Wake by Spencer Wolff

The Fire in His Wake is the debut novel by Spencer Wolff, who worked at the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Rabat, Morocco, in 2009. It tells the story of two men caught up in the refugee crisis: Simon, a young UNHCR worker in Morocco, and Arès, a Congolese locksmith struggling to survive in the wake of ethnic violence.

In search of a better future, Arès embarks on a journey through North Africa with Europe as his destination. He reaches Rabat, where he joins a desperate community of exiles struggling to survive in a hostile country. While Arès risks everything to get to Spain, Simon gradually awakens to an underground world of violence that threatens his comfortable life abroad.

This novel takes the reader from the inner sanctum of UN into the dangerous reality of refugees on the streets and on their risky crossings to Europe.

4. The Stationery Shop of Tehran by Marjan Kamali

This novel is about loss, reconciliation, and the pitfalls of fate. It tells the story of Roya, an idealistic teenager living in Tehran amid the political turmoil of 1953. She finds a literary haven in the friendly stationery shop of Mr. Fakhri, where she meets Bahman.

The romance between Roya and Bahman blossoms, but on the eve of their wedding they are separated by the dramatic events of a coup that changes the course of history.

Sixty years later, a twist of fate reunites Roya and Bahman in the United States, offering them the chance to explore the ghosts of their past and learn the heartbreaking truth about their separation on that fateful day.

5. Sea Prayer by Khaled Hosseini

Sea Prayer is a short picture book written by Khaled Hosseini and illustrated by Dan Williams. It takes the form of a letter from a father to his son on the eve of their journey to leave their home in Syria, which has turned into a deadly war zone. While watching over his sleeping son, the father reflects on the dangerous sea voyage that lies ahead of them.

The author was prompted to write this story in honour of Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy whose body washed up on a Turkish beach in September 2015. In doing so, he hopes to pay tribute to the millions of families who, like Kurdi's, have been torn apart and driven from their homes by war and persecution.