‘In the Sea there are Crocodiles’: The Children’s Book Show and stories about refugee and migrant children

This year the Children’s Book Show is collaborating with The Discovery Museum, The Migration Museum Project and Seven Stories, exploring children’s literature, including poetry, on the themes of migration and refugees.

So here is a question…How many stories can you recall about refugees and migrant children? It could be The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier, or Shadow by Michael Morpurgo, Azzi Inbetween by Sarah Garland or the famous When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by the incomparable Judith Kerr… These are some of the books mentioned by the 140 children, including refugees and migrants themselves, when Nicolette Jones asked the same questions as part of her interview with Fabio Geda about his beautiful and moving book In the Sea there are Crocodiles – the true story of 10 year-old Afghan Enaiatollah Akbari.

Most of the young audience were UK-born, and probably some generations removed from their own family migrations, but the varied recent origins of some of the children in the Newcastle City Library on 4th October was staggering: Iran, Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, Pakistan, Romania…and they were complemented by specially invited adults and young children from local refugee centres as part of Newcastle’s status as one of the UK’s Cities of Sanctuary https://newcastle.cityofsanctuary.org/.  The entire audience was rapt as Samuel John enacted elements of Enaiatollah’s story and Fabio and Nicolette Jones discussed the issues behind the novel.

The dangers faced by Enaiatollah 17 years ago are just as relevant now. As a Hazara child, Enaiatollah was threatened with slavery by the Taliban at the age of 10 and had to flee to Pakistan and then across the Middle East to Turkey and finally on to Italy until he found a place he could call home. How he survived when others didn’t is partly due to luck but also, as Fabio explained, Enaiat had courage and a moral core that spoke to those he met along the way. This is a real story – no narrative tricks or twists: Enaiatollah’s journey had sufficient dangers of its own, this book doesn’t need to construct tension. There are no easy ‘good news’ stories within it; some of the children survive and some do not…Although there are elements of humour, the book is mainly about times of fear and danger. When listening to Fabio tell the story you think of your own children and others you know – Years 6 and 7 – and you have to remind yourself how young and alone Enaiatollah was throughout his journey to safety.

When Fabio met Enaiatollah and listened to his story, he realised how he could help him to share his experiences so that we, the readers, could learn about his life. Fabio feels strongly that stories are important and useful and that he, through telling stories such as that of Enaiatollah, can try leave the world a better place.

I urge you to read this book. It reminds us that refugees are driven to make desperate decisions in times of danger that we can hardly comprehend and that part of their soul is always tied to their homeland. Many of us are the children, grand-children or great-grandchildren of refugees or migrants who learned to make a new life in a strange and frightening country. Reading this book brings to life the journeys these people have made across the ages looking for a place of safety and helps us to empathise with those, particularly the children, who are making these same journeys today.

What has happened to Enaiatollah? He is now 27, living and studying in Turin, hoping to help his home country of Afghanistan from Europe. But he can’t go back. His family are trapped in Pakistan and, although he has settled in Italy he may never see his mother and siblings again. A real-life ending then – messy, ambiguous, not yet done…

Thank you to the Children’s Book Show for inviting the Federation of Children’s Book Groups to this event.  

Julia Miller, Federation of Children’s Book Groups, National Executive

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