Stories are important tools for promoting empathy and understanding of others. It is harder to divide the world into "Them" versus "Us," to dehumanize the other, when we understand another group's struggles. For this reason, books like Other Words for Home, by Jasmine Warga, are invaluable for teaching students about the challenges refugees face when moving to a new country.
Other Words for Home is a middle grade novel, written in verse, that tells the story of Jude, a Syrian refugee. Jude faces many challenges throughout the book. She leaves behind her father and brother to seek safety with her mother in the United States. Her new home brings a wash of contradictions. Jude loves American movies and music, but has trouble connecting with her American cousin and communicating in English. She appreciates the safety of her new home, while feeling like she has abandoned something important in leaving Syria. Even as she works hard to adapt to her new life, she faces discrimination and hostility from those who refuse to accept her right to be in America. Jude's experiences reveal the complex challenges faced by refugees and immigrants.
Attitudes towards refugees are becoming more hostile, as evidenced by disturbing events arising in the United States. Canada seems to be on better footing, having resettled more refugees last year than any other country in the world. However, this statistic belies more negative attitudes. In a recent poll for CBC News, fifty-seven percent of respondents thought we should not accept more refugees. Moreover, "56 per cent said that accepting too many immigrants will change Canada" and "24 per cent said too many immigrants are visible minorities." The latter statistics indicate the hostility towards refugees is rooted in racism.
With these sobering statistics in mind, books like Other Words for Home become even more important. I worry for the students in my class who are like Jude, navigating a new home while facing racism and xenophobia. As a teacher, I will act where I can, by helping all my students better understand the challenges faced by refugees and immigrants, particularly as hostile attitudes continue to surface in Canada and abroad. By reading and discussing Jude's story, students can develop better empathy for newcomers to Canada and we can foster more welcoming classroom communities. For this reason, I highly recommend Other Words for Home for read alouds, discussion, book studies and independent reading.
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