Posted on December 11, 2019 at 6:00 am
As winter descends upon us, for many of us, our thoughts wander toward cozy gatherings with those we love. Most of us enjoy beautifully decorated trees, glowing firelight, delicious feasts, and traditional treats. December beckons us to gather together and reflect, to share with and nurture our family and friends.
I would like to encourage everyone to think not just of those closest to us but also of our entire human family—all of humanity.
There are those whose lives are filled with uncertainty, who have been displaced, are struggling with food insecurity, or are fleeing violence.
December is Human Rights Month. What better time of year could there be to reflect on the joyousness and charity we can generate for others and the endless capacity for generosity that our species can embody?
December 2019 is the 71st anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Created by the United Nations Human Rights Commission, this document consists of 30 articles outlining the basic inalienable rights possessed by every human being, everywhere. It was passed on December 10, 1948. It immediately became the most universal human rights document ever created. Today it is the most translated document in the world—translated into over 500 languages.
Basic rights like access to food, education, and a safe place to call home seem obvious to many of us. Yet during World War II, the assumption that this was a universal belief was proven wrong.
The Nazi dictatorship under Adolf Hitler freely violated such basic rights, often with little legal consequences. After the war ended, the United Nations decided to create a legal framework to ensure that such egregious abuses would be a thing of that past. “Never again” was the refrain heard around the world. Thus the UDHR was born.
Unfortunately, even today, many children have been exposed to the stark existence one can lead when basic human rights aren’t met.
To this day, the tenants of human rights can inspire and empower us to help others. For some truly beautiful, touching, and uplifting introductions to the UDHR—at any age—I suggest two titles.
Every Human Has Rights: A Photographic Declaration for Kids, created by the United Nations with a foreword by Mary Robinson, explores the articles of the declaration through photographs and poetry written by refugees.
We Are All Born Free: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Pictures, created by Amnesty International, uses the artwork of 30 world renowned artists—some themselves refugees—to bring each Article of the UDHR to life.
Please allow me a moment to go over some differences in terms people might use when discussing human rights. Immigrants are people who move to a new country to take up permanent residence. Refugees are people who flee to foreign countries to escape danger or persecution happening within their country.
Exploring the world of refugees through their own firsthand accounts can really expand our grasp of what displacement means. As of 2017, there are over 25 million refugees across the globe, with vastly diverse experiences and backgrounds.
Here are some picture books to provide a look into their worlds and perspectives.
Refuge, by Anne Booth and beautifully illustrated by Sam Usher’s watercolors, retells perhaps the most famous story of refugees—this time from the charming perspective of Mary and Joseph’s donkey.
No Water, No Bread, by Luis Amavisca Guridi, is deceptively simple in its artwork and concept, revealing how easily assumptions can inhibit our humanity and how easily new perspectives can overthrow old paradigms. Often young people lead the way in breaking down these barriers, as this book beautifully depicts.
Mustafa, by Marie-Louise Gay, demonstrates that language need not be a barrier to true friendship.
Lubna and Pebble, by Wendy Meddour, examines our capacity to give each other comfort even in the direst circumstances and with little or no resources. Sometimes all we need is someone, or something, in whom we can confide. This tale is a reminder that, though we may feel overwhelmed or invisible, there is likely someone, or something, who sees us.
Three Balls of Wool (Can Change the World), by Cristina Henriqueta and Yara Kono, tells a delicately complex story, examining the ways in which freedom can be a state of body as well as mind. The book’s effectively simple color scheme illustrates an exiled Portuguese family struggling to maintain their individuality and humanity under a repressive government.
Where Are You From? helps us think about how complicated the answer to this question can be. Written by Yamile Saied Méndez and illustrated by Jaime Kim, both of whom immigrated to the USA, they posit an answer that is resonant and timely.
Spectacularly Beautiful, by Lucas Lisa, illuminates ways that educators are empowered to help, support, and be inspired by students dealing with displacement and other human rights issues.
Lost and Found Cat: The True Story of Kunkush’s Incredible Journey, by Doug Kuntz and Amy Shrodes, tells the nonfiction story of an Iraqi family fleeing with their beloved cat. This title explores the challenges of separation, not just from everything familiar but also from loved ones. The artwork coupled with actual photos of Kunkush (the lost cat) and his family bring this true story vividly to life.
Maddi’s Fridge, by Lois Brandt, explores one of our most basic human rights, the right to food (included in Article 25 of the UDHR). Inspired by the author’s own experiences, this book introduces the concept of food insecurity, which affects 1 out of every 5 children in the USA. With great delicacy and empathy, Maddi’s Fridge follows Sofia as she struggles to navigate the challenging territory of helping her friend Maddi or maintaining her trust by keeping a secret.
For readers who want to read something besides picture books, our collection of titles has some excellent books delving further into human rights and the stories of refugees.
In We Are Displaced, by Malala Yousafzai, the world’s youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize reminds us that refugees are ordinary people struggling to escape extraordinarily horrifying circumstances. Touring refugee camps around the world, Malala shines her light on other inspiring young women who are finding ways to create a better life for themselves in a new world.
Americanized: Rebel Without a Green Card, by Sara Saedi, explores one Iranian American teen’s story of acclimation after her family flees to the USA. With wit and humor, Saedi navigates her way through the pitfalls of her teenage years, U.S. immigration procedures, and her bicultural heritage.
The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees, by Don Brown, is a deeply moving examination of the Syrian refugee crisis, focusing on firsthand accounts collected by the author. As his dedication explains, Brown was inspired to create this book because “Across the world, more than 65 million people have been forced from their homes, half of whom are under eighteen years old. This book is dedicated to them.” This may seem like a high number, but keep in mind that on November 11, 2012, fighting in Aleppo caused 200,000 people to flee in a single 24-hour period. Chaos arrived quickly.
In Illegal, by Eoin Colfer (the Irish author best known for the Artemis Fowl series), we are introduced to the fictional character Ebo, a Ghanaian refugee traveling to Europe to reunite with his siblings and find a better life. Through Ebo’s eyes we take an ocean journey into the unknown, battling the terrors of endless deserts, decaying ships, and corrupt smugglers, all in hopes of a better future. This story may make you wonder what daily horrors you would have to survive to escape through known danger and warzones if that was your only option.
We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria, by Wendy Pearlman, shares interviews from hundreds of Syrian refugees to give insight into what could make so many people flee their entire known world.
The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity, and My Fight Against the Islamic State, by Nadia Murad (another Nobel Peace Prize winner), is a memoir examining the Yazidi Genocide, human resilience in the face of atrocities and war crimes, and the importance of bearing witness to such atrocities. Murad shares with us a love letter to a cultural tradition and family now destroyed and her commitment to fighting the Islamic State.
The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives, by Viet Thanh Nguyen, collects the experiences of various prominent refugee writers, delving deeper into the long-lasting effects of displacement. Fleeing Vietnam at age four, Nguyen himself acknowledges this struggle with his status as a refugee versus immigrant.
Refugees and displaced persons are not a 21st century phenomenon. Two fantastic graphic memoirs that highlight the temporal diaspora of the refugee experience. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi uses the lens of Persian culture to examine the effects the Islamic Revolution had on her childhood and her eventual exile to Paris. The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui is a heart wrenching, beautifully written, and brutally honest account of her family’s experience as “boat people” fleeing Vietnam at the end of the war in 1978.
This is not a traditionally lighthearted reading list, but the ability of these books to inspire and empower can lighten the heart in this darkest season of the year.
Nearly all of these books have suggestions for more actively participating in the support of human rights. International organizations like Amnesty International and the International Rescue Committee are great places to start.
If you would like to work toward supporting human rights directly in your own community, many options exist. You can support your local food bank—Second Harvest does amazing work in Spokane County. And shop at Global Neighborhood Thrift and Kizuri. Consider volunteering at World Relief Spokane, Refugee ConnectionsSpokane, Global Neighborhood, or other nonprofit organizations in the area.
As Mr. Rogers famously said:
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
With kindness and empathy, may we all find ways to be helpers to our fellow humanity this holiday season.