World Refugee Day: 10 Books That Illustrate The Refugee Experience

Carrying Knowledge Up a Palm Tree is one of the books that highlights refugee crisis
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By the end of 2019, the number of displaced individuals worldwide had reached 79.5 million. These statistics were publicized by the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR. Sadly, that figure will be almost double today. World Refugee Day helps us to remember people that have been forced out of their homes for one reason or the other. Also, it gives us the opportunity to call on governments to take action.

Truly understanding the struggles of refugees is probably the only way to get more people involved. One way you can throw yourself into the refugee experience is through stories.

Many authors have written memoirs or fictional stories about refugees that are interesting to read. Some novels are so vivid that they can transport you into the character and allow you to live their experience. Some people are actually refugees without knowing it. Keep reading to find out.

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Types of Refugees

Refugees are people searching for solace. There are myriads of reasons that will make someone flee their home to search for refuge elsewhere. These reasons categorize them into four different types of refugees.

#1. Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs)

These are people who left their birthplaces for new places within their own countries. There are large numbers of IDP camps across Africa owing to growing ethnic clashes. Ethiopia and Nigeria currently have the largest number of IDPs on the continent.

#2. Asylum Seekers 

These types of refugees leave their own countries and apply for asylum in other countries. Asylum is a request that offers international protection to refugees. Most Africans that make it through the Mediterranean to Europe apply for asylum.

#3. Stateless Persons 

Stateless people do not identify with a nationality. Often, these are people that have lost their nationality for various legal or administrative reasons. Consequently, they become refugees in any state they reside in.

#4. Returnees 

Returnees are mostly immigrants or expatriates who return to their home country after being away for a while. Today, lots of Africans in the diaspora are tracing their African roots. Unfortunately many can’t trace their family line and live as refugees.

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The Theme For World Refugee Day 2021

The world celebrates World Refugee Day on June 20th every year. This celebration was first held on June 20th, 2001. Primarily, this was to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Subsequently, it became an annual event.

Last year’s theme was “Every Action Counts.” to highlight the anti-racism protests and the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The aim of the theme is usually to highlight the current plight of refugees. This year’s World Refugee Day theme is “Together We Heal, Learn, and Shine”.

This year’s theme calls for the inclusivity of refugees in health, education, and sporting activities. Unfortunately, refugees have been secluded in refugee camps for a very long time. In these situations, they often lack access to basic amenities. The UNHCR is pleading with all stakeholders to change this narrative. You can assist refugees by donating to various support programs.

Several events and activities take place during the World Refugee Day celebrations. For example, government officials, well-wishers, and nonprofits often organize cleanups of refugee camps, feeding, and so on. All these activities are geared towards showing refugees empathy.

The Theme For World Refugee Day 2022

The theme for World Refugee Day 2022 is ‘Seeking safety is a Human Right’. The UNHCR emphasizes that regardless of where they are coming from, people fleeing from war should be welcomed. This is likely in response to the refugee crisis resulting from the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

According to UNHCR, whenever situations force people to flee, we should welcome them with open arms regardless of their means of transportation. This is particularly important because it appears as though refugees that arrive by plane get preferential treatment that those that arrive by boat or foot.

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Creating Awareness of the Refugee Crisis using Books

Many people who come from relatively peaceful regions have a difficult time understanding the plight of refugees. Also, media reports often focus on the conflict and not on the experience of the people. Therefore, trying to understand the refugee crisis from media reports is often difficult.

Authors go the extra mile to simulate the refugee experience for readers. They do this by interviewing refugees or writing about their personal experiences. Reading through these novels makes it easier to imagine their pain and frustrations. In this regard, here are a couple of such books written to emulate the refugee experiences.

10 Books That Illustrate the Refugee Experience

Over the cause of history, different authors have tried to capture the refugee experience in words. While there are so many books out there in this niche, we singled out these ones because of their vivid imagination.

#1 – What Is the What by Dave Eggers

what is the what book
What is the What Book Cover (Image credits: Dave Eggers Amazon)

The novel is based on the life of Valentino Achak Deng, a South Sudanese migrant to the US. Along with several other migrants, he endured a long journey through the desert before reaching their destinations. In the United States, he finds a life full of promise and heartache, and myriad new challenges.

What Is the What” is an astonishing novel that evokes powerful emotions. It illuminates the lives of millions through one extraordinary man. The book is Moving, suspenseful, and unexpectedly funny. In fact, this book is a fictional autobiography that paints a picture of what happened to the Lost Boys of Sudan.

#2 – When the Rain Clouds Gather by Bessie Head

world refugee day books recommendation
When Rain Clouds Gather Book Cover. (Image credits: Bessie Head on Amazon)

A poverty-stricken village in the heart of rural Botswana is a Heaven for exiles. The subsistence-farming method and old ways of life are challenged by a political refugee from South Africa. This is after the refugee joins forces with an English agricultural expert.

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The refugee finds himself in the middle of a tussle for power and plans for development. The writer herself was a refugee who fled South Africa during the apartheid and settled in Botswana.

Therefore, this book explores the plight of refugees from a somewhat personal perspective. Thus, it would be an excellent addition to your reading list for World Refugee Day.

#3 – Carrying Knowledge Up a Palm Tree: Poetry by Taban Lo Liyong

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Taban Lo Liyong, author of Carrying Knowledge Up a Palm Tree (Photo credit: Taste of South Sudan)

This book is an anthology of poems. It was written by Sudanese-born prolific writer and literary scholar Taban lo Liyong. In the anthology, Liyong focuses on wide-ranging contemporary issues and subjects. Liyong draws on his wealth of experience to write the book.

He borrows greatly from his intellectual background the developments around him. Liyong mostly bases his poetry on developments that unfolded on the African continent in the last half-century.

Humor and riddle are used in the poetry to depict situations and circumstances in Africa. This book would be an exceptional read for you during World Refugee Day.

#4 – Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder

Strength In What Remains book
Strength In What Remains Book Cover. (Image source: Tracy Kidder on Amazon)

Tracy Kidder gives us the story of one man’s inspiring American journey. It also includes stories of the ordinary people who helped him. As such, it provides a brilliant testament to the power of second chances.

Deo arrives in the United States from Burundi in search of a new life. Prior, he had survived a civil war and genocide. He landed at JFK airport with two hundred dollars, no English, and no contacts.

Consequently, he ekes out a precarious existence delivering groceries and living in Central Park. By reading dictionaries in bookstores, he learned English. Then, Deo begins to meet strangers who will eventually change his life. They changed his life by pointing him in the right direction. Deo’s story is a true testament to second chances for refugees.

#5 – When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson & Omar Mohamed

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When Stars Are Scattered Book Cover. (Image credits: Victoria Jamieson on Amazon)

This is the true story of Somalian refugee Omar Mohamed. Omar fled to the Dadaab refugee camp at age 4 with his little brother when his father was killed. Separated from their mother, the boys are adopted and forced to live with strangers. The book packs gentle humor, heartbreak, and hope.

Omar portrays a childhood spent waiting and a young man who can create a sense of family and home in the most difficult of settings. This is one of those books that will stick with you for a long time.

It will make you truly think about what is important in life. Also, it is a perfect read for children between 9-12 years who do not have much sense of refugee situations.

#6 – Tears of the Desert: A Memoir of Survival in Darfur by Halima Bashir & Damien Lewis

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Tears of the Desert: A Memoir of Survival in Darfur Book Cover. (Image credits: Halima Bashir on Amazon)

This book is the first memoir ever written by a woman caught up in the war in Darfur. It is a survivor’s tale of a country in conflict, a resilient people, an uncompromising spirit, and a young woman who refused to be silenced. In her village, Bashir was the first-ever female doctor.

At one point, Janjaweed, a militia group, raided Bashir’s village and raped over 40 girls and women. Bashir, who had to take care of the raped girls, decided to speak out.

However, she faced backlash in her attempt. This book highlights one of the major issues facing women in violent and politically unstable countries—sexual abuse.

#7 – City of Saints & Thieves by Natalie C. Anderson 

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City of Saints & Thieves Book Cover. (Image credits: Natalie C. Anderson on Amazon)

Tina and her mother arrived in Kenya looking for the chance to build a new life and home. This was after fleeing the Congo as refugees. Her mother found work in the city. These premises were owned by Roland Greyhill.

Roland was one of the city’s most respected business leaders. One day, Tina’s mother is found dead in her boss’s study. Upon her mother’s death, Tina was left homeless.

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Consequently, Tina is forced into the streets and ends up in a robbery gang. She later unearths the truth about her mother’s murder and holds onto it as the story expands. This book explores a lot of themes including inclusivity. It would be a perfect book to help you understand the World Refugee Day celebration.

#8 – Dream Country by Shannon Gibney

 Shannon Gibney books
Dream Country Book Cover. (Image credits: Shannon Gibney on Amazon)

In Dream Country, Shannon Gibney spins a riveting tale. This is the story of the horrific spiral of death and exile connecting America and Africa. She writes about how one determined young dreamer tries to break free and gain control of his destiny.

This young man, Kollie, grapples with not being “black enough” to fit in with the American black students. Again, he is much conscious of the racism and xenophobia he faces as an immigrant. Within the story, the author does a great job of explaining tough concepts of slavery, racism, and war to kids.

#9 – A Long Way Gone: Memoirs Of A Boy Soldier By Ishmael Beah

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A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier Book Cover. (Image source: Beah)

Beah, the protagonist, has had the experience of an IDP as well as a migrant to the US. In the book, Beah tells a riveting story that revolves around how he fled attacking rebels at the age of twelve and wandered a land rendered unrecognizable by violence.

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By thirteen, he’d been picked up by the government army, and he found that he was capable of truly terrible acts. Stories of child soldiers in war-stricken countries are rampant in Africa. This is why most refugees flee their mother countries to reform and shape their future.

Beah’s memoir is an amalgamation of incidents in the formative years of children that affect them in adulthood. This book will help you understand what violence can do to victims.

#10 – City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp by Ben Rawlence 

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City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp Book Cover. (Image credits: Ben Rawlence on Amazon)

In City of Thorns, Rawlence interweaves the stories of nine individuals to show what life is like in the camp. Additionally, he sketches the wider political forces that keep the refugees trapped there. The stories in the book paint a picture of the Dadaab refugee camp in a totally explicit manner.

After reading this book, you will be overwhelmed by various emotions including sadness, tragedy, and resilience. Luckily, all these will help you understand what it’s like to live in a refugee camp.


Events like World Refugee Day are constant reminders of what we can do to eradicate atrocities in our society. Most of these actions, however, require individual effort. Perhaps, the starting point to solving the refugee crisis is understanding their plight.

Nobody plans or prepares to be a refugee. So, there may not be any other way to understand the plight of those in these situations than with these book recommendations. If there is a book you feel deserves to be on the list, feel free to share with us using the comment option below.

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