a poignant look at the precariousness of refugee life

by Rukhsana Khan, illustrated by Ronald Himler – Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2004
ages 8 and up / diversity, picture bookspowerful lives, s.o.s.e.

The reality of life in a refugee camp is no longer hidden—it permeates news cycles and images— and writings are readily available and plentiful. It's generally understood that a refugee's life is one of fear, heightened emotions, constant change. Still, the individual humanity of the refugees themselves remains hidden, a consequence of the generalisations imposed by distance perhaps.

It's difficult to understand individual fears, or the impact of any one person’s singular life circumstances, but we can listen to stories—true stories when they’re willingly and generously shared—representative stories when they are unflinchingly and perceptively crafted.

The Roses in my Carpets is a representative story. It's about a boy who has fled Afghanistan and is living in a refugee camp with his mother and his sister, Maha. 

The boy is safe in the refugee camp but remains haunted by the life he fled—bomb dropping jets fill his dreams, and memories of his father invade his work.

Always, he carries a sense of the precariousness of his 'safe' life—safety does not mean security. His family remains desperately poor and food is scarce:

I eat slowly breaking the bread into pieces, making it last. Maha wolfs down her share, then eyes mine.

“No,” says Mother sternly. But when her back is turned, I give Maha a few bites. I will pull my sash a little tighter.

Work and creativity provide some relief. The boy is a carpet weaver and, with plans to provide for his family, he practices his craft and weaves the story of his life:

White for the shroud we wrapped my father’s body in. Black is for the night that cloaks us from enemy eyes. Green is the color of life. Blue is the sky. One day it will be free of jets. … Red is my favourite. Red is the colour of the blood of martyrs. But it is also the color of roses. I have never grown flowers. Every bit of land must yield food. So I make sure there are plenty of roses in my carpets.”

The promise of being able to provide for his family through carpet weaving offers some hope. But that hope does not protect his family.

Maha is badly injured when she is hit by a truck—and the boy once again confronts an unjust and unknowable world. He races to the hospital where he comforts his mother and talks to the doctor.

With the doctor’s reassurance that Maha will be able to walk again: “Not soon, but one day": 

"Relief washes over me like a cool rain. I run home to tell my mother. She looks old. She weeps for joy.”

And that night the boy dreams of running with his mother and sister:

While running, we find a space, the size of a carpet, where the bombs cannot touch us. Within that space there are roses.”

This is a powerful story that uncovers the individual humanity of one refugee family:

There's a realistic grittiness to the story—although there is a lot of love in the boy’s life, there is little joy, and barely enough hope to sustain him. The depth of the love in the boy’s family will echo the experience of most children, and the fragility of his life will be a stark contrast. It’s the combination of contrast and connection that make this story so very affecting and poignant.

The boy’s faith is shown as a sustaining force in his life. He is Muslim and prays at the call of the muezzin—and again when he is terrified for his sister. Simple faith like this, removed from politics, is a powerful force and one that is frequently absent from children’s books. Seeing the way faith operates in other people’s lives is particularly important for children whose own lives are not faith based. Respect for faith you do not share, whether it’s a particular genre of faith or faith in general, can be greatly enhanced through personal contact with the faithful. This story reaches out and invites the reader into the boy’s world of both faith and fear in a very personal way.

In spite of the pervasive sense of despair, there is an air of triumph in the boy’s persistence and hope for the future. Life as a refugee is simply not filled with charming childhood moments, and refugee children are essentially hot-housed into maturity. That’s certainly the case in this story. The boy is clearly young, yet he shoulders the responsibility of liaising with the doctors, and of caring for his family. He is clearly exhausted by life, and full of sorrow for the life he has lost and especially for his father. And still, he clings to dreams and to his family. He works and plans at the same time. It’s an inspiring example of maintaining hope.

The complexity of the boy’s life is respectfully acknowledged. There is, for example, a moment in his dream when he says "My mother and sister weigh me down", expressing chillingly the heaviness of his responsibilities. There’s the dangers of walking on streets where drivers act "as if demons pursue them" too. These small moments are integral to the story. They’re important because they dispel the life myth of low-tech = simple = carefree.

The ever-present question of how best to aid refugees is highlighted as the boy ponders what it is to be sponsored child. He’s grateful, certainly, and prays for his sponsor who “is paying for Maha’s operation and doesn’t know it.” He is also torn; he believes that his father “would never have taken aid from a sponsor.” His gratitude and the dishonour he feels co-exist like an internal tug-of-war. The boy is able to go to school and learn a craft because of his sponsor but looks forward to the day when he will be able to ‘hold [his] head high for the sake of [his] father.” The story begs for some careful reflection by readers, especially adult readers. 

A couple of small reading hints:

There's help online with pronunciations! When I first read this book aloud—12 years ago—I stopped a Muslim couple in a shopping centre to ask how to pronounce ‘muezzin’ and ‘Zuhr’. They were bemused but happy to help. I’d been giving it my best shot until I spotted them, and wasn’t too far off. Here’s muezzin and here’s Zuhr.

For 6 to 8-year-olds, I’d recommend a fairly quick, not too ponderous, reading. I think many 6-year-olds would benefit from the reading, but you’d need to decide whether it’s appropriate for your child individually. (I read it to Max when he was quite young—maybe 5 —and he was enthralled. He was a fairly sensitive but not at all anxious child so it worked for him.)

This is a wonderful and personal introduction to a boy who represents so many children in refugee camps. He's brave, resourceful and motivated by love of family—qualities we wish for all children, albeit in vastly improved circumstances.

P.S. Here's a video of the author, Rukhsana Khan, reading the book—she reads it beautifully of course, but her introduction is great too. 

Amazon  -  Book Depository

Book Depository has free postage anywhere in the world and great pricing, but Amazon might be cheaper for North American readers.

Names in this book – Maha