Running away from home

18th November 1994 at 00:00
ONE DAY WE HAD TO RUN! REFUGEE CHILDREN TELL THEIR STORIES IN WORDS AND PAINTINGS, By Sybella Wilkes, 0 237 51489 3.

Evans, in association with UNCHR and Save the Children Pounds 12.99 Michael Storm looks at a collection of stories and paintings by refugee children forced to learn about life in a new country.

The author describes the origins of this book with disarming candour. Asking Sudanese refugee children about their experiences, she encountered a tense and uncooperative silence. The children were scared. Scared to talk in case they said anything that their elders disapproved of: scared to resurrect their personal experiences of disintegrating families, destruction, death. She swiftly recognised her questions as crassly insensitive.

The project must have been near to abandonment when a Somali child in a Kenyan refugee camp said: "Why are you asking so many questions?" The author explained that she wanted to tell their stories to other children in the world. The magic word "story" unlocked the floodgates. Stories were possibly the only things the children possessed, and four traditional tales surface in this collection. But the story mode (not overseen by powerful adults, not merely responses to a foreigner's probings) liberated their own personal narratives.

Three deeply moving stories form the core of this unique book, providing a child's-eye view of the refugee experience: "We do not want to go a place without friends. I have a friend called Beruke Meles who is also an orphan. I will go any place with him. I cook for Beruke and he cooks for me. We only want to learn now. Firstly, I want to learn, and secondly, if I can do it, I want to do the doctor's work. If I cannot learn that way, I will do something so that I can live in my own country." We see the refugee child trying to make sense of the wider world: "Then the United Nations, he came, he saw the people, he went to Geneva to find food, and he came back."

This child's-eye view is sustained by 16 striking paintings by young refugees. One of the most memorable shows a refugee camp being photographed by westerners: "In my village, people would come and take photographs of us and ask us about our terrible life. Then they would go away. Don't ask me why I am a refugee. I don't know. That is all ask the big people why."

Aid agencies have long been a major source of "Third World" materials but their publishing budgets are necessarily minimal. Here we see what can be achieved when dedicated field observation is linked to modern book-production of the highest quality. Room is found for background material on the causes of refugee migrations from the Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia, with a postscript on Rwanda, where the author is now working.

There is nothing impossibly remote about this topic. These are refugee children from the Horn of Africa in many British cities, and their teachers will acknowledge the need for sensitivity. But studies of human migrations at any level would be immensely enhanced by this poignant book,which should be in every school library.

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