The Classroom Bookshelf
Inside The Classroom Bookshelf

Children as Refugees: The Syrian Crisis

“What they left to be here, in the cold country,

where winter lasts forever, 
haunts them in the dark–
golden hue of souk in sunlight,
gentle calling through streets that said, brother,
sit with me a minute, on the small stool
with the steaming glass of tea. Sit with me.
We belong together.”
by Naomi Shihab Nye, from the poem “Arabs in Finland”

Every so often, national or world events prompt us to deviate from our typical pattern here on The Classroom Bookshelf. Last September, we began our year with an entry that focused on racial inequity in the United States and the events that unfolded in Ferguson, Missouri in August of 2014. This week, we are moved by the plight of refugees from Syria, and the need for the world to take action.

As teacher educators, we have been thinking about the ways in which we talk about this crisis with our students. We imagine that you, too, are thinking about how you can talk about this moment in history in your classrooms. We hope that these resources help. The digital texts provided are specifically focused on the ongoing civil war in Syria and the associated human rights catastrophe. The book resources tell stories, some contemporary, some historical, some fiction, some nonfiction, about refugee crises over the past fifty years.
You may be asking, “But what can I do? How do I fit it in?” We know that you’re crunched for time, even at, or perhaps especially during, the start of the school year. Try to carve out one afternoon that you and your team devote to teaching about this or other crises, using some of the books and digital resources below. Or, you can simply read aloud one or several of the books included here. Even older students enjoy being read aloud to, and we know that such rich language experiences always further students’ understanding of genre, theme, and characterization, and further their knowledge of the world.
Taking just fifteen minutes a day to read a picture book, or one chapter from the novels or nonfiction texts will provide your students with a pathway into the experiences of refugees. These stories can establish a personal context through which your students can better understand what Syrian children and their families are currently experiencing as they make their exodus and travel across our globe in search of peace and security. Perhaps, it will prompt your students to action, raising money and awareness in your own school community.



Picture Books


My Name is Sangoel
Written by Karen Lynn Williams , Illustrated by Catherine Stock
Published by Eerdsmans Books for Young Readers,  2009  
This picture book tells the story of Sangoel, a Sudanese refugee whose family finds a new home in America.


The Best Ei-ed Ever
Written by Asma Mobin-Uddin, Illustrated by Laura Jacobsen
Published by Boyds Mill Press, 2007
This picture book offers young readers a simple snapshot of kindness. Aneesa notices two poorly dressed girls at her mosque at the celebration of Eid al-Adha, and learns about their lives as refugees recently arrived in America.


Four Feet, Two Sandals
Written by Karen Lynn Williams, Illustrated by Douglas Chayka
Published by Eerdsmans Books for Young Readers, 2007
This book tells the story of two Afghani girls who befriend one another in a refugee camp in Pakistan after the United States’s invasion of Afghanistan in autumn of 2001.


The Whispering Cloth: A Refugee’s Story
Written by Peggy Dietz Shea, Illustrated by Anita Riggio
Published by Boyd’s Mill Press, 1996
Mai’s grandmother teaches her how create a pa’ndau, a Hmong story cloth, while they live in a refugee camp in Thailand. In learning how to create the story cloth, Mai learns how to tell her own story of horror and dislocation before she and her grandmother make their journey to a new home.


A Path of Stars
Written and Illustrated by Ann Sibley O’Brien
Published by Charlesbridge, 2012
Protagonist Dara learns of her grandmother’s childhood in Cambodia before the invasion of the Khmer Rouge in the early 1970s forced her to relocate to Maine, leaving behind a dear brother.


How I Learned Geography
Written and Illustrated by Uri Shulevitz
Published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2009
Shulevitz draws on his own refugee experience as a Pole living in Turkestan after the German invasion in World War II to create a fictional tale of a boy and his mother living in a refugee camp.


Chapter Books
A Long Walk to Water
Written by Linda Sue Park
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010
This is a historical novel about the “Lost Boys” of Sudan. It is a braided narrative, with one story set in the present, the other in 1985.  


Inside Out and Back Again
Written by Thannha Lai
Published by Harper Collins, 2011
This verse historical novel, based on the author’s actual life experiences, depicts the fall of Saigon, in 1975, and the protagonist’s subsequent journey from Vietnam to Alabama.


Written by Skila Brown
Published by Candlewick Press, 2014
This verse historical novel, set in Guatemala in 1981, tells of protagonist Carlos’s efforts to warn others of the violence of civil war.


The Red Pencil
Written by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Shane Evans  
Published by Little Brown, 2014
This verse novel tells the story of twelve-year old Amira, whose life is shattered when she is displaced by an abrupt and violent Janjaweed attack on her village in Darfur in 2004. Amira and her family must embark on a treacherous journey to the refugee camp in Kalma.


The Home of the Brave
Written by Katherine Applegate
Published by Feiwal and Friends, 2007
This contemporary verse novel tells the story of Kek, a Sudanese refugee who finds himself living in Minnesota, and finds comfort in tending to a cow, just as he did back home.


The Breadwinner, Parvana’s Journey, Mud City
Written by Deborah Ellis
Republished by Groundwood Books, 2015  
This trilogy begins with eleven-year-old Parvana, living under the Taliban’s rule in Kabul, Afghanistan in the late 1990s. In the second book, Parvana must flee Kabul as Coalition Forces begin bombing in 2001. The third book tells the story of Parvana’s good friend, Shauzia, orphaned and living in a refugee camp in Pakistan.


Ninety Miles to Havana
Written by Enrique Flores-Galbris
Published by Roaring Brook Press, 2010
This historical novel, set in 1961, tells the story of protagonist Julian’s participation in “Operation Pedro Pan.” Julian’s parents send him to the safety of Miami, and away from the horrors of the Cuban Revolution.


The Day of the Pelican
Written by Katherine Patterson
Published by Clarion Books, 2009
Eleven year old Albanian Meli is living in Kosvo in 1998 when Serbian Police begin attacking Albanians in an effort to cleanse the region of Muslims. Ultimately Meli and her family must flee first to a refugee camp, and then, to America.




Making it Home
Edited by Beverly Naidoo, International Rescue Committee
Published by Puffin Books, 2005
This collection shares the first-person accounts of children and teens forced to flee their home countries due to political and social unrest and violence.


Children Growing Up with War
Written by Jenny Matthews
Published by Candlewick Press, 2014
This photo essay tells the stories of children living around the world in war-torn regions.


Children of War: Voices of Iraqi Refugees
Written by Deborah Ellis
Published by Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press, 2009
In 2007, Ellis interviewed Iraqi children and young adults living with their families in refugee camps in Jordon, to hear first-hand their stories of the violent aftermath of the United States and Coalition Forces invasion of Iraq.


Digital Resources


Al Jazeera Coverage of the Syrian Refugee Crisis


NPR Coverage of the Syrian Refugee Crisis


New York Times Topic: Syria


New York Times Topic: Refugees and Displaced Persons,


The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and Syria


Save the Children and Syrian Crisis


UNICEF and Syria
Mary Ann Cappiello About Mary Ann Cappiello

Mary Ann is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former public school language arts and humanities teacher, she is a passionate advocate for and commentator on children’s books. Mary Ann is the co-author of Teaching with Text Sets (2013) and Teaching to Complexity (2015) and Text Sets in Action: Pathways Through Content Area Literacy (Stenhouse, 2021). She has been a guest on public radio and a consultant to public television. From 2015-2018, Mary Ann was a member of the National Council of Teachers of English's Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction (K-8) Committee, serving two years as chair.


  1. Thanks for this timely post and booklist. I've read Home of the Brave and Inside Out and Back Again. Both are excellent books.

  2. I have read many of these books, and appreciate that you have shared them as a list.
    I hope teachers will make time to include them in classroom discussions, especially
    now that refugees (not migrants, not immigrants) are desperate for safety.