Refugee Realities

Five favourite books to aid with understanding the lives of refugees.

In my work with Open Homes, A Christian ministry that supports refugee claimants, we don’t ask for people’s stories. Refugee claimants already have to tell their stories to so many people: lawyers, Immigration and Refugee Board judges and border officials. Besides, few people want to be defined by one of the worst things that’s ever happened to them. So we don’t ask. Sometimes people share bits of their travels and traumas as we get to know them, but this is (we hope) on their timing and on their terms. But I still want to learn from refugee stories and understand just a bit of what the people I meet may have gone through. So I read. And I listen. Here are some of my current favourite resources about refugee realities, plus a few more that I hope to get to soon.


The Other Face of God: When the Stranger Calls Us Home
Mary Jo Leddy

If you ask me, as if your life depended on it, do you believe in God? I would think twice and answer: Yes, I do believe because I have seen the face of a young woman and her name is Teresita Cedillos.

A friend has called Mary Jo the Henri Nouwen of refugee writing and work in Canada, and I’ve got to say that I agree. This theological reflection is full of poetry, accessible references to philosophers, and, more than anything, the story of how this Catholic nun from Toronto was “faced” by the refugee claimants with whom she worked, and how they summoned her to live more deeply into the call of Christ.


Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition
Christine Pohl

This intermingling of guest and host roles in the person of Jesus is part of what makes the story of hospitality so compelling for Christians. Jesus welcomes and needs welcome; Jesus requires that followers depend on and provide hospitality.

This book transformed the way I see hospitality as part of my faith. It is an accessible but thorough history of Western Christianity’s relationship to hospitality, and the centrality of the practice of homebased hospitality in church history will probably be shocking to you. It was to me!


Homes: A Refugee Story
Abu Bakr Al Rabeeah and Winnie Yeung

It was a relief to be in a place free of the shabiha and snipers, but none of us had ever imagined the solitude we would face. We had traded the raucous, tearing war for a suffocating, quiet safety. No one could tell which was better, which was worse. It was both and neither.

Written by a Syrian-Canadian high school student and his teacher about his experience in Syria, this short novel paints in vivid pictures what it is like to grow up in an embattled city and escape to Canada, where nothing is familiar and new hardships await. Homes was a 2019 selection for CBC radio’s “Canada Reads” as well as a finalist in the Governor General’s Literary Awards.


Little Bee
Chris Cleave

How I would love to be a British pound. A pound is free to travel to safety, and we are free to watch it go. This is the human triumph. This is called globalization. A girl like me gets stopped at immigration, but a pound can leap the turnstiles, and dodge the tackles of those big men with their uniform caps, and jump straight into a waiting airport taxi.

This novel has the beautiful story-telling cadences of Life of Pi, if Pi was a young Nigerian refugee girl who finds herself in immigration detention in Britain. After a chance traumatic encounter on a Nigerian beach, Little Bee finds her way to the home of the wealthy British couple who sacrificed their safety for hers, only to find that they are far from saviour figures.

I ask you right here, please,” Little Bee says, “to agree with me that a scar is never ugly. That is what the scar makers want us to think. But you and I, we must make an agreement to defy them. We must see all scars as beauty. Okay? This will be our secret. Because, take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means ‘I survived.’”


Waking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race
Debby Irving

One of the basic beliefs I adopted was the idea that in America people failed or succeeded based on individual skill and eff ort. Therefore, logic told me, the people who succeeded most must have superior skill and have exerted extra eff ort. […] I assumed white people were in charge because they were more capable.

At first blush, this one might not seem to fit the category of refugee stories. But I’m convinced that in order to do no harm, and perhaps even help a bit, white Christians need to recognize where we assume that the “white way” of doing things is the best way. Canadians are not used to having conversations about racism, but we need to get better at it! This resource needed some translation from an upper-class USA to my context, but it was worth the effort.


  • Danielle Steenwyk-Rowaan

    Danielle Steenwyk-Rowaan is a Host Connector with Open Homes Hamilton, a Christian ministry that supports refugee claimants by offering home-based hospitality in Hamilton, Ontario.

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