Refugee Boy by Benjamin Zephaniah

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Refugee Boy by Benjamin Zephaniah

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Category: Teens
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: Refugee Boy is an angry book, although it is not one without hope. It's a very personal perspective on one of today's big issues and its central character is tremendously engaging. One for the zealous enthusiasms of all teen readers.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 224 Date: August 2001
Publisher: Bloomsbury
ISBN: 0747550867

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Alem is beginning the holiday of a lifetime. With his much-respected, much-beloved father he arrives in England ready to see the sights. He's bright, interested, excited, but above all he feels very privileged to be alone with his father on a trip of this magnitude. They make their way from Heathrow to nearby Datchet and a quiet, friendly, family hotel which will be their base while they're away. On their first full day they get the train into London and explore. Alem is blown away by the crowds, by the glamour, by the traffic. But above all he loves that juxtaposition of old and new so peculiar to London. Alem would like to be an architect when he grows up and he spends his day dreaming of what he'd build where and how he'd incorporate old, traditional themes into his modern designs. After sharing a happy meal the two holidaymakers return to the hotel for a much-needed nights sleep. With barely time to wonder why it is his father keeps insisting so strongly that he must speak in English and not his native tongue, Alem sinks into bed a happy child.

But in the morning Alem's father is gone and Alem is alone.

Alem Kelo is an African child, his father Ethiopian, his mother Eritrean. Because of the wars between those two countries and the hatred between their peoples, Alem and his family are not welcome in either country. They have been bullied, attacked, driven from several homes. Both his parents work for peace through a groundroots pacifist organisation but it's taking a long, long time to break down the barriers. They fear for their own safety but more than that, they fear for Alem's safety. And so his father brought him to Britain so that he could leave him there, trusting in Blighty's capacity to care for war refugees, especially children. And largely, yes, Alem does receive care from Britain. The hotel owner contacts the Refugee Council and Social Services who arrange for Alem to be taken into care, first in a children's home and later with a wonderfully kind and supportive foster family. And as you can imagine, Alem needs all the support he can get. He's barely a teenager, English is his second language, he misses his parents dreadfully and has to live in fear of what will happen to them, so far away. And he has to bear the bureaucratic impersonality of the process built around seeking asylum here. It's not an easy status to obtain and eventually, after months and months of wrangling, Alem's application is rejected. Yes, rejected. With no outright war existing between Ethiopia and Eritrea it is considered that Alem is safe to return home, despite the evidence of bullying and attacks, despite having been driven from several homes, despite the fact that a desperate father brought his only son halfway across the world and left him there.

Alem has much to bear but he bears it all with calmness and composure. He's a quiet, studious, obedient child and he does his best to live up to the expectations of the parents from whom he's separated. But eventually, we all have a breaking point, don't we?

Oh. I love Benjamin Zephaniah, and I loved this book. You might know the author of Refugee Boy better as a performance poet, writing and talking and performing about the things that matter to him: freedom; racism; the search for peace. He's a wonderful poet, so alive, so direct, so blunt, so bright. With Refugee Boy and his earlier novel, Face, he's proving that he's also a wonderful writer for children. There is so much here in this book for almost anyone reading, and Zephaniah's position on the issues explored are plainly nailed to the mast. Yet it's not pure polemic or even preachy at all in a way that I've found, for example, in the work of Beverley Naidoo, another widely acclaimed children's author writing about similar subjects. It's too emotionally engaging for that. In Alem we find a brave, serious boy with an immense capacity to keep faith with everything his parents taught him and to make himself face forwards, to try his best no matter what situations are thrown at him.

Fascinating also are the contrasts between adolescents. Adolescence really is something peculiar to the rich west. In the developing world and in countries torn apart by war there is no room for adolescence and precious little room for childhood for that matter. Alem watches with fascination the laziness, the indolence, the self-preoccupation of his new classmates. He can't help but wonder why they're not spending their time preparing for adult life in a way that he can recognise. Alem has to realise many things: that not all people in Britain welcome him, or care about his story, or believe it even, that many people in this fabulously rich nation resent being asked to share even the smallest proportion of their wealth. There is a scene talking about the food vouchers which refugees are issued to feed themselves now, here, in the UK, and I defy you to read it and not to cringe.

But y'know, polemic aside, Refugee Boy is a fantastic story on a personal level, telling of individual courage, of the capacity of the young to overcome and, despite the frighteningly sad things which happen, it is a story of hope, and of looking forward and of the value and potential of friendship and community. It's beautifully, vividly written and a very personal perspective on one of today's big issues. But more than that, much, much more than that, it's the story of Alem, a person well worth reading about. There are many Alems, I'm sure. Perhaps you too should give them a name and read their story.

Teenaged readers interested in social issues may also be interested in The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night Time by Mark Haddon.

Booklists.jpg Refugee Boy by Benjamin Zephaniah is in the Top Ten Children's Books About Weighty Subjects.

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Buy Refugee Boy by Benjamin Zephaniah at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Refugee Boy by Benjamin Zephaniah at


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bee.1903.sophie said:

I have also read it and it was good!!

moizanbusn said:

This book blew me away with its compelling story.

whodaman101 said:

amazing 10/10

nidhia said:

i think the book is absolutley amazing and mind blowing lol i jus red it 2day yano