Refuge: A Didactic Story

Last week my sister asked me to write a story to use at her work. She works for an NGO called the Mennonite Central Committee, which works at international development and is quite respected.

The program she’s working in now is really very interesting. It’s called the In Exile, For a While Refugee Simulation Program.

They take young people out on refugee experience simulations, complete with exploding landmines, starvation diets, nasty border guards, and long forced marches in awful weather, to give them a better idea of how to imagine a refugee’s experience: take this one awful day and imagine years of this. From the responses she’s gotten, it seems a powerful tool for building awareness, which is good in my books.

Anyway, I wrote the story a few days ago, and sent it off. My sister wrote to me today and said that she and an expert on refugees loved it and that they “are going to use it in a curriculum to teach youth in Canada (Manitoba specifically) about refugees.”

Now, I am not a propagandist at heart, but I do think that if it serves a good cause, it’s not a bad thing to write something that is didactic: that is to say, purposefully shocking or emotionally manipulative. (After all, we’re manipulated emotionally into being comfortable enough to be complacently ignorant of the world, too…) So anyway, here’s the final draft of the story.


Everything hurts and I am dizzy and I don’t understand the man. I know he’s asking my big sister something important but I don’t even know what language he’s speaking in. He points to a sign but I can’t read it. It’s writing, and I even recognize the letters, but the words don’t make sense.

Everything hurts. My belly is bigger today than it was yesterday, and I think it might mean something but I don’t want to tell anyone. The kids who get big like this get carried, but then they also usually die. That’s how my baby sister died last week. It hurts a lot but I don’t want anyone to know about it.

The man is saying something bad to my sister. I think she understands him, or at least she is answering him, in our language, as if she understands him; but I still don’t know what they are talking about. I haven’t understood anything that’s happened since we left the city. Nothing except the hot sun, the dirty water we’ve been drinking, the guns going off all the time. I can hear bombs at night, when other people sleep and I lie there trying to do like them.

Elder sister is going away. Being taken away. I don’t know where. I try to follow her, but someone hits me in the face. Hard.

The whole world is quiet for a little while.

When I wake up it smells horrible, like I am inside a toilet. It must be a hospital, I think, before I open my eyes.

I’m right. There are people all around me. They are sick, dying. Their bellies are big, bigger than mine, bigger than my sister’s was. There are a few of people with mosquito netting over them, and one man across the tent is shaking and making awful sounds. He’s going to die soon. I know because I’ve seen it before. I slap a fly that’s crawling on my face, and sit up. The fly is dead, right there on my fingertips. People die just like that, like flies. And I know that if I stay in the hospital I will die too.

There’s a doctor here. A white woman. I think maybe American. She is blonde and beautiful and I think she looks like God. Maybe she can give me medicine. She is trying to help the shaking man, but everyone knows what he is going to do. He is going to die.

I am lucky. The doctor sees me awake, talks to me. Not in English, I don’t speak English. So she tries my language, and I cannot believe she can speak it. She must really be God. She gives me medicine and tells me always to boil my water before I drink it. She gives me a tiny packet of dry corn meal and says I only need to mix it with water to eat it.

It is so much food, I think it could fill the palm of my whole hand. I haven’t eaten this much in one day since last week. I want to give some to my sister. I say this, and she looks around carefully and gives me another packet for her.

And I can’t stop crying and thanking her. I can’t even talk, because I am crying so hard. She puts her hand on my shoulder and rubs softly. So kind. It makes me cry more. I can hear bombs exploding somewhere. But I am not scared anymore.

She really is God. I believe it now.

Except the shaking man died, while she was giving me that medicine. I saw that happen, and the doctor didn’t. Maybe that is how the world went crazy, because God got too busy?

It’s better not to try understand, I think. Eating is more important.

My sister and I get some water from one of the Red Cross people, and boil it a long time. It hurts to see it boiling because it means it will be less water. But the doctor said always boil the water. When we mix the water and the meal, it softens and turns into a paste, so much that one packet fills my whole hand! If I eat all of that I will get sick. So we share it, eating it quickly. She eats it out of the palm of my hand. She looks like an animal. I know I look like an animal too, when I eat. I eat it quickly. I know we are not really animals. But we look like it now.

My sister is asleep. Her legs look like dry old sticks someone dragged from the bush for a fire. Her dress is dirty and her face is old. She is fifteen but she looks like a grandmother. She is sitting next to a man who we can’t believe lived long enough to get to the camp. He has no left leg. He stepped on a mine in the ground near the road.

Someone actually found some old sticks, so they made a fire, a very small one, on the ground. I walk over there slowly and sit beside it. The older boys are telling stories about where we are going when we leave this camp. They say we will go to Germany, or China, or Canada, or go live in the sky. They tell me stories about places where there is always food, and people can eat so much they become fat. They say there are places where everyone is clean and nobody has guns and there isn’t a war and the President isn’t a soldier.

They say that in that place, people like us can go and live and they say that all we need to do is learn English and take some job that nobody likes, and we will never hear a gun again. We will be able to walk without the ground exploding under us and tearing off our legs. They say we will be clean and eat everyday.

I stop sitting by the fire, and go to sit by my sister. She is beginning to get a big belly, too, but I think it isn’t because she is sick. I remember when the border guards took her away, the first time, months ago. How she wouldn’t talk after. I wonder if they did something to her to make her sick.

We are all going to be sick. I suddenly feel that in my stomach: we’re not going to live in Germany or in outer space, we’re not going to learn English or work jobs or walk on grass. We’re just going to get sick and die. I think that’s what this camp is for. To make us sick and kill us. So that there are no more people like us. Nobody needs to make a house for us. Nobody needs to waste good meal on us or give us their water.

The older boys are liars, I decide. It’s just too unbelievable, and I am not a little boy anymore. I am twelve. I know they are trying to tell us nice stories, happy stories. But I am not a little boy. I know better.

I can’t believe there is a place like that in this world.

8 thoughts on “Refuge: A Didactic Story

  1. Ouch. Don’t think it could have been put better (worse?) than that. I wouldn’t change a thing, my friend. Keep making a difference.

  2. I don’t think this is propagandistic (word?) at all. You’ve given details to set a clear scene, enough to give a sense of the horror, maybe a bit of romanticization, and have left enough clues for kids to realize there’s something more going on. The important thing is there is lots of fodder for questions here, questions to ask, question to research.

    Also (and this might not be relevant to your purposes since I’ve never heard you talk about writing children’s fiction, but anyway) it reads likes a children’s novel, or story, at least, and if kids are supposed to be reading it, you almost have a responsibility to romanticize a little. A children’s writer I heard at a talk (I think maybe it was Kit Pearson), said something about whether she believes there’s anything writers-for-children shouldn’t write. She said something like ‘Don’t burden the child with the despair of the adult; it’s not fair.’

    I’ve taken this to mean lots of things, but I think it applies in this case to explain the romanticizing thing. Insofar as it’s possible to romanticize life in a refugee camp, you have put in a little bit of relief from the horror (I’m thinking of the doctor scene – now, that *is* a little propagandistic, but it’s tempered by the possibility that some kid will say “hey, but what the hell? Are we supposed to think that the Americans are like god?” … and all the ensuing fascinating debate that could arise from that. Also, that the man died while the doctor wasn’t looking – lovely, devastating and simple. Something that a kid would understand.)

    Where was I going with this? Oh yeah. If you’re going to write for the children/YA set, you have a responsibility not to leave your readers with despair. Most kids do not know despair, they are hopeful people and should be encouraged to continue to be so. I think that’s why they say it’s important for a child protagonist to always be empowered in a book.

    YOur child protagonist is heavy on the despair, but manages to find little flashes of hope in his horrible experience. He’s also growing, learning, but still encountering things he doesn’t understand, and maybe doesn’t understand that he doesn’t understand. I think this is hard balance to strike, but it’s something that makes kid lit interesting to adults as well as to kids.

  3. Hey ‘Jonker’, Your story – very well written….the uncertainty and fear coupled with the tendency to ‘side-track’ the frightenning aspects; which is a very common reaction; the ‘mental state’ you portrayed-the acceptance of death
    and how it can come to any and all…spot on. Agree with you, it is a good contribution, and to a great cause too…we are impressed. Well done.
    You may have written it for the ‘younger public’, but I can assure you the impact on many of the Canadian (and USA) Adult Population would be worthy of note too!! As I said, “impressive piece” …Annie sent us a copy too and her accompanying e-mail was bubbling over with praise…from both herself and
    a number of her fellow MCC workers….Love Mum and Dad

  4. I can see why this story works – it’s clean , to-the-point, and it makes a strong impact when it lands. In short, it’s perfect for the young adult age group. I’m teaching a course in Young Adult Literature in the fall and, with your permission,would like to use this piece. Let me know.

  5. Hey Gordon,
    Well, I have a hard time agreeing with the comment that someone made earlier about not burdening our kids with the horror of our world. I guess, considering my job, I would have to disagree with that comment. Maybe in an ideal world, we wouldn’t have to worry about the innocence and burdening of our children, but that certainly insn’t our world — we teach our kids from the time that they are very very small not to trust anyone (when children are likely naturally trusting), and not to ever trust strangers. It is something that we do all the time.
    And anyway, judging from the reactions of the people that have been participants in my program (youth and their youth group leaders), young people can take a whole lot more in than we tend to give them credit for — it is ALWAYS the youth group leaders that find the refugee Simulation program that I run harder than the youth actually do. They just can’t seem to take as much as the kids can. IT isn’t that the youth don’t FEEL, but just that the youth group leaders seem to find it harder to handle.
    I think that the story is a wonderful way of teaching kids about the realities that other people face in the world every day — it raises all kinds of questions, about God, about injustice, about different realities and the reasons for it, only to name a few. It is offered in a way that will hold the kids’ attention — they will listen, and they will think about it. I am very excited to use this story in my program — this will be something interesting to talk about with the youth. Thank you so so so so much. This is awesome.

  6. Well, Annie, I think there’s a finer balance possible, somewhere between the position you take and the one you think Helen is taking. (I’m not sure how close to correct you actually are, mind you.)

    I think there is a difference between burdening children with the horror of the world, and teaching them about the fact the world is full of horror. I do however think that kids are, as you say, more resilient than we give them credit for, and probably far more resilient than many adults.

    These days I am finally reading a book out of which Dad used to tell me stories during those long drives alone from Prince Albert to Saskatoon back on the Sundays when I had saxophone lessons with Rick Harris. It’s H. Rider Haggards _King Solomon’s Mines_, which tells the adventures of Alan Quatermaine… someone who reminds me a bit of Dad, actually. But anyway, the book is in that classic genre of “adventure stories for boys”, and so in the introduction, Bruno Bettelheim’s _The Uses of Enchantment_ is mentioned. That book apparently claims that harsh, difficult adventures are just the thing for your people to read about; that through reading such texts, they learn to master their own pains and fears and disappointments. I don’t know how true that is, but it makes seom sense to me. The thing is, as Bettleheim notes, the narrator (who is usually the protagonist, one and the same person) usually ends up on top of things by the end, despite setbacks and failures. This is supposed to be essential to the story.

    However, it’s far from reality in so many cases that I cannot, in good conscience, end this particular story this way. Suffice it to say I understand both points of view. Thanks for the comments, everyone. And more are still welcome if anyone wishes to submit some.

  7. Actually, I think Annie (?) and I are making the same point. I didn’t say there’s anything wrong with teaching children about the horror that exists in the world. The quotation about not burdening the child with the despair of the adult doesn’t mean “shelter kids from reality.” I think it means that if you are going to go there in children’s lit, don’t strand the readers with a sense of hopelessness and powerlessness. Help them develop the insight to be able to understand and maybe therefore to handle the horrors that are out there; don’t just scare them.

    I think your story succeeds because it does show horror, but from a child’s perspective, in a way that children can understand. Of course kids know fear, and pain. But they probably know it in a different way from the way adults do. As Annie said, your story raises all kinds of big questions, questions which many kids might never have asked before.

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