14 books to read on World Refugee Day

June 20 is World Refugee Day. The United Nations created this day to raise awareness about what refugees around the world are facing.

June 20 is World Refugee Day. The United Nations created this day to raise awareness about what refugees around the world are facing.

If you're looking for a book to help you understand what the refugee experience is like, check out one of these titles by Canadian writers.

Angry Queer Somali Boy by Mohamed Abdulkarim Ali

Angry Queer Somali Boy is a memoir by Mohamed Abdulkarim Ali. (Philip Sutherland, University of Regina Press)

Angry Queer Somali Boy is a memoir by Mohamed Abdulkarim Ali, a young man who left Somalia, spent time in the Netherlands and ended up homeless in Canada. Canada was the promised land, but when he didn't fit in and life was more difficult than he expected, Ali turned to drugs and partying before finding his way. 

Angry Queer Somali Boy combines Ali's personal story with the history of and commentary on the places he's called home: Somalia, Europe and Canada. It's his first book.

Mohamed Abdulkarim Ali has been through a lot since he was born almost 35 years ago in Mogadishu, Somalia. A ruinous civil war; migrating to the Netherlands and then to Canada, a Muslim in a strange land; a fractured family; discovering he was gay; homelessness, alcoholism and addiction. You might say that anyone who's lived through all that should write a memoir. That's what he did. It's called Angry Queer Somali Boy: A Complicated Memoir, and it was widely acclaimed as one of the best Canadian books of 2019. 27:06

Night of Power by Anar Ali

Anar Ali is the author of Night of Power. (Viking)

Mansoor Visram, his wife Layla and son Ashif were forced to move to Canada when Idi Amin expelled South Asians from Uganda. In 25 years, Mansoor has risen from working at a used car lot to running a dry cleaner in Calgary. He has big entrepreneurial dreams for him and Ashif, who is chasing his own ambitions at a major corporation in Toronto. Layla, who runs her own home cooking business, sees her son and husband growing distant and feels herself drifting away as well.

Anar Ali is a novelist and screenwriter who lives in Toronto. Her short story collection, Baby Khaki's Wings, was a finalist for the Commonwealth Writer's Prize, the Trillium Book Award and the Danuta Gleed Literary Prize.

Intolerable by Kamal Al-Solaylee

Kamal Al-Solaylee is the author of Intolerable. (Gary Gould, HarperCollins)

Kamal Al-Solaylee's memoir documents his painful family history and what it was like growing up in the Middle East during political and religious turmoil. Intolerable follows his escape to England and then Canada, in pursuit of education and the desire to build a life for himself as a gay man.

Intolerable was on Canada Reads 2015, when it was defended by actor Kristin Kreuk.

Al-Solaylee is a journalist currently based in Toronto. He is also the author of the nonfiction book Brown.

When Kamal Al-Solaylee travelled to 10 countries to capture the experience of being brown, he concluded that a brown racial identity has been shaped by the cheap labour movement. His book Brown explores what being brown in today's world means to everyone. 19:38

Homes by Abu Bakr al Rabeeah with Winnie Yeung

Teenage refugee Abu Bakr al Rabeeah and his English teacher Winnie Yeung are behind the memoir Homes. (CBC)

Homes is a memoir of Abu Bakr al Rabeeah's childhood in Iraq and Syria. Just before civil war broke out, the al Rabeeah family left Iraq for safety in Homs, Syria. al Rabeeah was 10 years old when the violence began in his new home. He remembers attacks on his mosque and school, car bombings and firebombs. Now a high school student in Edmonton, Alta., al Rabeeah shares his story with writer Winnie Yeung in hopes it will bring greater understanding of Syria.

Homes was defended on Canada Reads 2019 by Simple Plan drummer Chuck Comeau.

Canada Reads contenders Winnie Yeung & Abu Bakr Al Rabeeah talk to Shelagh Rogers about their book, HOMES: A Refugee Story. (CANADA READS SELECTION) 15:32

The Boat People by Sharon Bala

Sharon Bala is the author of The Boat People. (Peter Power/CBC, McClelland & Stewart)

In this debut novel, a ship carrying 500 Tamil refugees reaches the shores of British Columbia. A man named Mahindan and his six-year-old son have survived a harrowing journey and hope to start a new life in Canada. But Mahindan is immediately taken to a detention facility and left to wait there as politicians, journalists and the public squabble over his fate — and those who travelled alongside him.

The Boat People was defended by Mozhdah Jamalzadah on Canada Reads 2018.

Sharon Bala is a novelist and short story writer. Born in Dubai, she currently lives in St. John's. The Boat People is her first novel.

Sharon Bala on her debut novel, which is in the running for Canada Reads 2018, and gives an inside look at what it's like to be an asylum seeker in Canada. 14:46

The Free World by David Bezmozgis

David Bezmozgis is the author of The Free World. (David Francp/HarperCollins Canada)

In the summer of 1978, Soviet Jews have escaped Russia and are waiting in Italy to be given visas so they can travel to their new home in North America. Over the course of six months, The Free World follows a single family in purgatory as they await their fate and try to pass the time as they don't know what will happen next — or when.

The Free World was shortlisted for the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

David Bezmozgis is also the author of the novel The Betrayers and the short story collection Immigrant City, both of which were also shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Breaking the Ocean by Annahid Dashtgard

Breaking the Ocean is a memoir by Annahid Dashtgard. (Darius Bashar, House of Anansi Press)

Annahid Dashtgard's comfortable life in Iran as part of a mixed-race family was turned upside down in 1979 when the Iranian Revolution happened. Her family fled to small-town Alberta, where they experienced racism and she was bullied. Dashtgard chose to overcome her past by becoming a political activist and leader.

Dashtgard is the co-founder of the consulting company Anima Leadership, which explores inclusion and representation. Her book, Breaking the Oceanis both a memoir and a guide to facing discrimination, racism and trauma in society.

We Have Always Been Here by Samra Habib

Samra Habib is the author of We Have Always Been Here. (CBC)

Samra Habib's memoir We Have Always Been Here is an exploration of the ways we disguise and minimize ourselves for the sake of survival. As a child, Habib hid her faith from Islamic extremists in Pakistan and later, as a refugee in Canada, endured racist bullying and the threat of an arranged marriage. In travelling the world and exploring art and sexuality, Habib searches for the truth of her identity. 

We Have Always Been Here will be defended by Amanda Brugel on Canada Reads 2020.

Habib is a journalist, photographer and activist based in Toronto. CBC Books named Habib a writer to watch in 2019We Have Always Been Here is her first book.

Amanda Brugel & Samra Habib on Canada Reads 2020

CBC Books

1 year ago
Actor Amanda Brugel will be defending Samra Habib's memoir We Have Always Been Here on Canada Reads 2020. Ahead of the debates, the first-time author spoke about why she wrote this very personal book. 5:40

I, Who Did Not Die by Zahed Haftlang & Najah Aboud, with Meredith May

Meredith May tells the story of Zahed Haftlang and Najah Aboud in I, Who Did Not Die. (Courtesy of Meredith May/Simon & Schuster Canada)

I, Who Did Not Die tells the remarkable true story of an Iranian child soldier, Zahed Haftlang, who showed mercy to an injured enemy soldier, Najah Aboud, and secretly took care of him in the midst of battle. Years later, after surviving prisoner of war camps, the two would cross paths again at a Vancouver medical centre. Despite the violence and hardships Haftlang and Aboud faced, they managed to find hope in their new home and chance reunion in Canada.

May is a American journalist with the San Francisco Chronicle. She is also the author of the memoir The Honey Bus.

When Najah Aboud got wounded during the Iran-Iraq war, he crawled into a bunker to die. He was found by Iranian medic, Zahed Haftlang who made a decision to save his enemy's life. Years later they would be reunited halfway across the world. 54:00

The Illegal by Lawrence Hill

Lawrence Hill is a Canadian novelist, essayist and memoirist. (Wikimedia Commons/HarperCollins)

Lawrence Hill's The Illegal is a compelling story that examines the plight of refugees who risk everything to start over in a country that doesn't want them. After his father is killed by a dictator's thugs, runner Keita Ali flees his homeland and goes into hiding in a country known as Freedom State, where he is deemed illegal and he must go underground to save his own life.

The Illegal won Canada Reads 2016, when it was defended by Clara Hughes.

Hill is the internationally bestselling author of The Book of Negroes, which won CBC's Canada Reads in 2009 and was adapted into a six-part miniseries for CBC-TV. His other books include the novels Some Great Thing and Any Known Blood and the memoir Black Berry, Sweet Juice.

Lawrence Hill talks about his new novel, which is in the running for Canada Reads 2016. 15:28

The Boy on the Beach by Tima Kurdi

Tima Kurdi is a spokesperson and the co-founder of the Kurdi Foundation. (Simon & Schuster Canada/Maxine Bulloch)

Tima Kurdi is the aunt of Alan Kurdi, the young Syrian toddler whose body washed up on the Turkish shoreline after he and his family fled the Syrian War. A photo of Alan went viral and Tima, who was living in Canada, became a spokesperson for the Syrian refugee crisis.

In her memoir, The Boy on the Beach, Kurdi shares her own story. She grew up in Damascus and emigrated to Canada at 22, the Syrian war and the death of Alan had a profound effect on her and her family. Kurdi provides the human side of a story that has dominated the news cycle. Kurdi now lives in Coquitlam, B.C.

Carol Off's journey to save a source

The National

4 years ago
Carol Off spent years helping save an Afghan man who risked his life to talk to her 11:15

All We Leave Behind by Carol Off

Carol Off is the host of CBC's As It Happens and author of All We Leave Behind. (CBC)

All We Leave Behind is a memoir that outlines CBC Radio host Carol Off's efforts to help bring an Afghan man and his family to Canada. In 2002, Off and a television crew filmed Asad Aryubwal for a documentary about local warlords. Aryubwal was threatened with violence after speaking out and reached out to Off to help protect his family. She spent years trying to bring them to safety in Canada.

Off is the co-host of CBC Radio's As It Happens. She is also the author of the nonfiction books Bitter Chocolate, The Ghosts of Medak Pocket and The Lion, the Fox and the Eagle.

Mozhdah Jamalzadah talks to Shelagh Rogers about Voice of Rebellion by Roberta Staley. It's the first biography of Mozhdah Jamalzadah's life as a refugee, pop singer and champion of women's rights. 13:57

Voice of Rebellion by Roberta Staley

Voice of Rebellion is a biography by Roberta Staley. (@robertastaley/, Greystone Books)

Mozhdah Jamalzadah, who arrived in Canada as a child refugee and later hosted a groundbreaking television show in Afghanistan, is the subject of Voice of Rebellion by Roberta Staley. Called the "Oprah of Afghanistan," Jamalzadah became known for tackling taboo subjects like divorce and domestic violence on The Mozhdah Show. Despite its success, Jamalzadah also received death threats and was eventually advised to return to Canada for her safety.

In 2018, Jamalzadah defended Sharon Bala's debut novel The Boat People on Canada Reads.

Roberta Staley is a writer and documentary filmmaker.

Author Kim Thúy on Canadian pride

(not applicable)

5 years ago
Canada Reads-winning author Kim Thuy's speaks about the contrast between Canada and Vietnam. 2:34

Ru by Kim Thúy, translated by Sheila Fischman

Kim Thúy is the author of Ru. (Benoit Levac/Vintage Canada)

In vignettes that shift back and forth between past and present, Ru tells the story of a young woman forced to leave her Saigon home during the Vietnam War. In spare, luminous prose, Kim Thúy traces the woman's journey from childhood in an affluent Saigon neighbourhood to youth in a crowded Malaysian refugee camp and then to Quebec, where she struggles to fit in — all aspects of the author's own life story.

Ru won Canada Reads 2015, when it was defended by Cameron Bailey

Thúy currently lives in Montreal. She is also the author of the novels Vi and Man.



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