Words Without Borders: Books for World Refugee Day

By Lynn Ann Lobash, Associate Director, Readers Services and Engagement
June 19, 2019

Words Without Borders: Books for World Refugee Day

A New York Public Library & UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, Staff Picks List Honoring Voices of the Forcibly Displaced on #WorldRefugeeDay

 An unprecedented 68.5 million people around the world have been forced from home. Among them are nearly 25.4 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18. Refugees are people who are fleeing from war, violence, conflict or persecution, leaving behind homes, possessions, jobs and loved ones.

But refugees and the forcibly displaced are more than just numbers and statistics—they are people with hopes, dreams, aspirations, and stories to tell. In honor of World Refugee Day. We hope this staff picks list represents a small sample of personal memoirs that detail the story of flight from around the world. This list also reflects the contributions of diverse writers—who also happen to be refugees or children of forcibly displaced families - to the nonfiction and fiction realms.  The sheer breadth of literary work shows how much refugees have given and continue to give to their communities and the world—including their stories. These are their words. Let us continue to listen to them, cherish them, and protect them.

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu (2007)

Sepha Stephanos, an Ethiopian refugee, reflects on his past and the differences between his prospects and the life he imagined.

Dinaw Mengestu was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. His father was a refugee who fled as a result of the Ethiopian Red Terror in the late 1970s. Mengestu is a recipient of a 5 Under 35 award from the National Book Foundation and a 20 Under 40 award from The New Yorker, as well as a 2012 MacArthur Foundation genius grant and currently lives in New York City.  

Before Night Falls by Reinaldo Arenas (2000)

The Cuban-born novelist describes his poverty-stricken childhood in rural Cuba, his adolescence as a rebel, his suppression as a writer, his imprisonment for his homosexuality, and his flight from his homeland.

Reinaldo Arenas was a Cuban poet, writer,  novelist, and essayist. His writings and openly gay life brought him into conflict with the Cuban government and in 1974 he was sent to prison for "ideological deviation.” In 1980, as part of the Mariel Boatlift, he fled to the United States.

from refugee to Olympian, my story of rescue, hope, and triumph

Butterfly: From Refugee to Olympian, My Story of Rescue, Hope, and Triumph by Yusra Mardini (2018)

An autobiography by Yusra Mardini, who, in the summer of 2015 while fleeing the conflict in Syria with her sister, traveled through Lebanon to Turkey before departing for Greece in an overcrowded dinghy. Realizing the boat she was traveling on had engine problems, she dove into the water and swam for three and a half hours in open water to stop the dinghy from capsizing, saving the lives of 20 people.

Yusra Mardini became a member of the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team. She now lives in Berlin and aims to compete at the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2020. Yusra is a Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.  


Dragonfish by Vu Tran (2015)

Set in the United States and Malaysia, the story centers on a cop from Oregon who can’t let go of the Vietnamese wife who left him two years before. He finds himself chasing the ghosts of her past, one that reaches back to a refugee camp in Malaysia after the fall of Saigon.

Vu Tran was born in Saigon in 1975, five months after the city fell to the North Vietnamese.  In the spring of 1980, Tran, his mother, and his seven-year-old sister escaped Vietnam by boat, spending five days at sea. They ended up in Malaysia and settled in a refugee camp on the island of Pulau Bidong, off the Malaysian coast.  Four months later, Tran’s father sponsored them from America, and in September, they all reunited in Tulsa, Oklahoma. 

A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers

First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers by Loug Ung (2000)

First They Killed My Father chronicles the brutality of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, from the Ung's forced "evacuation" of Phnom Penh in 1975, to her family's subsequent movements from town to town and eventual separation fleeing Pol Pot’s regime.

Loung Ung was only 5 years old when Khmer Rouge soldiers stormed her native city of Phnom Penh.  In 1980, Loung, her older brother Meng and his wife, escaped by boat to Thailand, where they spent five months in a refugee camp before relocating to the United States. In 2017 the Netflix original movie based on her book and directed by Angelina Jolie, actress and UN High Commissioner for Refugees Special Envoy, was released. 

a story of war and what comes after

The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After by Clemantine Wamariya & Elizabeth Weil (2018)

Recounts the author's harrowing experiences as a young child during the Rwanda massacres, which separated her from her parents and forced her and her sister to endure six years as refugees in seven countries before she was granted asylum in America.

Clemantine Wamariya was born in Kigali, Rwanda. President Obama appointed her to the board of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, making her the youngest board member in the organization’s history. The Girl Who Smiled Beads was a New York Times bestseller and long-listed for the Andrew Carnegie Medal of Excellent for nonfiction.

a true story of courage, love and survival

Goodbye Sarajevo: A True Story of Courage, Love and Survival by Atka Reid & Hana Schofield (2012)

A memoir of two girls living through the horrors of the Bosnian war. Hana is just 12 years old when her older sister Atka, 21, puts her on a UN evacuation bus fleeing the besieged city of Sarajevo. Hana is forced to cope as a refugee in Croatia, far away from home and family, while Atka stayed on in Sarajevo looking after her 5 youngest siblings.

Atka Reid was born in Sarajevo in 1970. During the war, she worked as a reporter for a local radio station and as an interpreter for the foreign press. She would later relocate to New Zealand. Hana Schofield was born in Sarajevo in 1979. She spent two years living as a refugee in Croatia during the siege of Sarajevo. She lives in Auckland.

Half of a yellow sun

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013)

Set during a pivotal moment in modern African history: Biafra's impassioned struggle to establish an independent republic in southeastern Nigeria during the late 1960s and details how the conflict upended the lives of five central characters.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was born in Nigeria. Her parents were forced to flee during the Nigeria-Biafra war. She has received numerous awards and distinctions, including the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction (2007) and a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (2008). 


The house of the mosque

The House of the Mosqueby Kader Abdolah (2011)

Chronicles the Iranian Revolution as told through the eyes of one family.

Kader Abdolah (a pen name) fled his homeland in 1985 and arrived in the Netherlands as a political refugee in 1988. He has written and published four books. In 1997, he received the Dutch Media Prize for his collected columns.

The house of the spirits

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende (1982)

A sweeping family saga that spans from the early 20th century to 1973. When the daughter of a proud patriarch named Esteban embarks on a forbidden love affair in defiance of her father, the result is an unexpected gift to him,  a granddaughter, who will lead her family and her country into a revolutionary future.

Isabel Allende was born in Peru and raised in Chile, She fled Venezuela after the coup. Isabel won worldwide acclaim in 1982 with the publication of her debut novel, which began as a letter to her dying grandfather. Since then, she has authored more than twenty-three bestselling and critically acclaimed books. 

a Hmong family memoir

The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir by Kao Kalia Yang (2008)

The Latehomecomer presents Kao Kalia Yang’s journey from a refugee camp to America and the hardships and joys of her family's struggle to adapt in a strange culture while holding on to the traditions passed down from her beloved grandmother.

Kao Kalia Yang was born in Ban Vinai Refugee Camp in 1980, she and her family came to Minnesota in the summer of 1987. She is an author, film-maker, and teacher. 

a twelve-year-old refugee's harrowing escape from Afghanistan and his extraordinary journey across half the world

The Lightless Sky: A Twelve-Year-Old's Refugee Harrowing Escape From Afghanistan and His Extraordinary Journey Across Half the World by Gulwali Passarlay (2017)

At the age of 12, Passarlay fled the war in Afghanistan across eight countries, from the mountains of eastern Afghanistan through Iran and Europe to Britain over the course of twelve months. His story includes enduring imprisonment, hunger, cruelty, brutality, loneliness, and terror, and nearly drowning crossing the Mediterranean Sea before reaching and being granted asylum in the United Kingdom.

Gulwali Passarlay is an Afghan refugee currently residing in the UK. Gulwali was chosen to help carry the Olympic Torch in the 2012 London Games. 

memoirs of a boy soldier

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldierby Ishmael Beah (2007)

In a heart-wrenching, candid autobiography, Beah offers a first-hand account of the violent civil war that wracked his native Sierra Leone. Forced to flee and separated from his family, he spent months wandering with a group of other boys until, at the age of 12, he was forced into becoming a child soldier.

Ishmael Beah was born in Sierra Leone, West Africa.  With the help of UNICEF, he was finally removed from the army and placed in a rehabilitation home and years later permanently relocated to the United States. He was appointed UNICEF’s first Advocate for Children Affected by War. 


Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955)

Traces the moral disintegration of a man whose obsessive desire to possess his step-daughter destroys the lives of those around him.

Vladimir Nabokov was born in Russia in 1899.  He and his family were forced to flee from the Bolshevik revolution going first to Germany, then fleeing to France to escape Nazism. He would later emigrate to the United States just before World War II where he would live for 20 years before relocating to Switzerland. 



Maps by Nuruddin Farah (1986)

Adopted as an orphaned infant, Askar grows weary of his village life and moves to the capital to live with his Aunt and Uncle and becomes involved in the political upheaval in Mogadishu, Somalia. But as the life of his adopted parent is threatened, Askar must confront harsh realities.

Nuruddin Farah was born in Baidoa, in then Somaliland.  In 1963 his family was forced to flee as a result of border conflicts. He would go on to write several books and in the mid-1970s, after finding out that the government planned to imprison him over the contents of his last book, he would not return to Somalia for 22 years. He was a nominee for the Nobel Prize in Literature. 

Music of Ghosts

Music of Ghosts by Vaddey Ratner (2017)

Teera was forced to flee Cambodia as a child. Decades later she returns to find a society still in turmoil, where survivors of violence live side by side with those who committed heinous acts of violence.

Vaddey Ratner  Ratner was only five years old when the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975. After four years, having endured forced labor, starvation, and near execution, she and her mother escaped to Missouri, United States. 


Nightby Elie Wiesel (1958)

A first-hand account of the unimaginable atrocities he and his father experienced at the hands of the Nazis in German concentration camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald in 1944–1945.  This is the first book of his three-part series detailing the horrors of the Holocaust.

Elie Wiesel was born in 1928 in the town of Sighet, now part of Romania. Liberated from Buchenwald in 1945, he was taken to Paris where he studied at the Sorbonne and worked as a journalist. He would eventually come to the United States where he would live until his death in 2016. [i]  In 1986 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

The origins of totalitarianism. New ed. with added prefaces

The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt

The book is one of Arendt’s first major works and looks at the rise of totalitarian governments, namely Nazism in Germany and Stalinism in Russia.

Johanna "Hannah" Cohn Arendt was an American philosopher, political theorist, and author. Her many books and articles have had a lasting influence on political theory and political thought. In 1933 Arendt fled Germany to escape Nazism, eventually settling in Paris where she helped other Jewish refugees.  Once the Vichy regime took over in France, she was interned as an “enemy alien,” but managed to escape to  New York in 1941.

a memoir

The Pianist from Syria: A Memoirby Aeham Ahmad (2019)

During the height of the conflict in Syria, Ahmad turns to his piano to bring himself and those around him comfort, playing it in the street until it becomes too dangerous for him to stay. The story recounts his escape from war-torn Syria, drawing on first-person perspectives and is a gripping portrait of his search for a peaceful life for him and his family.

Aeham Ahmad was born in Damascus, Syria in 1988. He was forced to flee from the conflict via Turkey, Greece, Serbia, Croatia, and Austria until he resettled permanently in Germany. 


The Refugees

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen (2017)

The Refugees is a collection of eight stories, mostly set in Vietnamese communities in California, that tell the stories of Vietnamese refugee experiences in the United States.  The topics the writers explore -- relationships, grief, the desire for fulfillment -- speak to the human experience and the experiences of refugees in America.

Viet Thanh Nguyen escaped from Vietnam with his family after the fall of Saigon, fleeing to Pennsylvania when he was only four years old. 

Sea Prayer

Sea Prayer by Khaled Hosseini (2018)

Sea Prayer is written in the form of a father's letter to his young son on the eve of a dangerous journey.  It was written to commemorate the death of Alan Kurdi, a young Syrian boy who drowned in September 2015 trying to reach Greece.

Khaled Hosseini is a former refugee from Kabul, Afghanistan whose family sought and were granted political asylum in the United States, and in September 1980 moved to San Jose, California. His books have been published in over seventy countries and sold more than 40 million copies worldwide. In 2006 Khaled was appointed a Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.

a memoir of survival in Darfur

Tears of the Desert: A Memoir of Survival in Darfurby Halima Bashir (2009)

A first-person account from Sudanese doctor who lived through the horrors of Sudan’s civil war and Janjaweed militias attacking her village. Halima spoke out about the treatment of female prisoners and her personal struggle for survival. The secret police would eventually come for her and although she finally escaped, the nightmare would follow.

Halima Bashir, a pseudonym adopted to protect her identity, grew up in Darfur in Western Sudan and became the first formal doctor in her village. She would eventually seek asylum in the United Kingdom after she was imprisoned and persecuted for speaking out over the atrocities she witnessed in Sudan.

a tribesman's memoir of Darfur

The Translator: A Tribesman's Memoir of Darfur by Daoud Hari (2009)

Recounts the author's life during the violent conflict in Sudan. He would eventually flee the violence seeking refuge in Chad and becoming a translator and guide working with a range of news organizations and the United Nations.

Daoud Hari was born in the Darfur region of Sudan. After escaping an attack on his village, where his village was burned to the ground, he eventually found safety across the border in refugee camps in Chad and soon began serving as a translator for major news organizations as well as the United Nations and other aid groups. He now lives in the United States.


This list is not exhaustive by any means! Tweet your personal picks to us @Refugees @NYPL using the hashtag #WorldRefugeeDay #WithRefugees

Want a few more suggestions? Check out this list of 16 books about refugees for kids and adults.


[i] In the aftermath of World War I ( 1914 - 1918)  millions of people fled their homelands in search of refuge. Governments responded by drawing up a set of international agreements to provide travel documents for these people who were, effectively, the first refugees of the 20th century. Their numbers increased dramatically during and after World War II (1939-1945), as millions more were forcibly displaced, deported and/or resettled, most Jewish refugees. In July 1951, a diplomatic conference in Geneva adopted the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (‘1951 Convention’), UNHCR.

About UNHCR: UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is a global organization dedicated to saving lives, protecting rights and building a better future for refugees, forcibly displaced communities and stateless people. We work to ensure that everybody has the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge, having fled violence, persecution, war or disaster at home. We help to save lives and build better futures for millions forced from home.