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War and refugees

Given the world we live in, where a picture of a kid who is dazed after a bombing is becoming normal, our children are exposed more and more to the topics of war and refugees from war. Even when we live in safe homes, neighborhoods or countries, we must expose our children to these topics. But when is the right time to do it? What is the best way to do it?

sanna_the journeyIn The Journey by Francesca Sanna, we follow the story of a family that is exposed to war. The dad “disappears” and the family has to leave all their belongings behind to start to escape that war. Their journey takes them through many ill-fated experiences, until they get to a country that welcomes them and makes them feel safe.

I shared this story with a couple of 5-year-old children. They were intrigued by the illustrations, which were not explicit, but had colors and objects that suggest something bad has happened. We continued to search for explanations about the meaning of the word war even after we read it for a second time. One of the children kept asking if we were going to have a war and I had to reassure her a couple times that it was not going to happen. The other child tried to find an explanation for the dad’s disappearance from the story, and went back to the illustrations. “No, he went to the beach and is swimming in the ocean” she said, to justify or calm her anxiety over his disappearance. Both went back to the book several times to try to understand something so foreign to them as losing a parent or leaving their homes.

It was not easy to explain these concepts to them. The concept of families that lose their members, of families that leave everything behind (especially their belongings) is quite difficult. But children understand loss at an early age; they might have lost their pets or even grandparents, and might be afraid to lose their blankets or toys.

Literature on empathy tells us that we should expose children early and often to situations and experiences where they could start building that empathy. Maybe we could use this as a basis to try to understand the irrationality of war and refugees. To me it is still a dilemma when and how should we expose children to these concepts, but given the world we live in, it’s becoming the new normal. Eventually we must find a way to explain all of this to them. The question is: how and when?

Any thoughts?

Editor’s note: Armida Lizaraga was interviewed for the New York Times podcast, “Still Processing,” about refugees and the recent travel ban. Her portion of the interview starts at 42:54.)

For more books about refugees, see also Elissa Gershowitz’s booklist here, including The Journey.

Armida Lizarraga About Armida Lizarraga

Armida Lizarraga has worked as an elementary teacher in Spain, Brazil, Peru, and the U.S. She is currently the lead researcher for the Proyecto 3 Regiones in Peru, which seeks to understand teachers' literacy practices and knowledge in K-3 classrooms. She lives in Lima, Peru.



  1. Good questions. A few months ago, I gave this book to my niece — but did so via her parents so that they could decide when to share it with her. At the age of five, she has the capacity to grapple with subjects that may make her sad. She’s a caring person, and I suspect this story would lead her towards that emotional area. To the best of my knowledge, they have yet to share the book with her. (I don’t know, and I wouldn’t wish to pry. The book is a gift, and so confers upon the recipient no obligations.)

    I think the book does offer a great introduction to the radical uncertainty of refugees’ lives. In the “Website” link below, I’ve put a piece I wrote for Public Books, published in March. There, I talk at greater length about The Journey.

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