I thought I’d share some thoughts for World Refugee Day which is this month on the 20th of June. Perhaps I’ll start by confessing that the word refugee was not uttered in the home I grew up in.
The definition of refugee according to the Oxford dictionary is – “a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.”
This is the story of my picture book, Shoham’s Bangle. This is the story of my family, who were part of the 120,000 Jews who fled Iraq in 1951 to avoid Jewish persecution. (Note the photo of this post is part of Shoham’s Bangle’s author note, and is of my grandparents and their five children, including my father, which was taken in 1951 in Baghdad before they left.)
Why is it that when I refer to my family as Iraqi Jewish refugees I feel a sharp tug in my chest?
Even now I can see my grandmother shaking her head at me, my father frowning annoyed. I can imagine them declaring, “We are not refugees.” To which I reply, “But you were. All the signs were there growing up.”
It is a longer article to write about the signs of growing up in a home of people who were refugees, but what I will say here is that I can reconcile the word refugee with my family when I accompany it by the word – RESILIENCE. Yes in capitals. Because World Refugee Day is not only about recognizing refugees for their traumatic experiences but also honoring and applauding their stunning resilience to move to new countries, learn new cultures and languages (hopefully without losing their own), and to build new homes.
This is Why We Don’t Look Back, is the title of my poetry chapbook published online by Harbor Review, because this is what my grandparents, father, uncles and aunts stood for – not looking back. Rather they looked forward, in many ways numbing their past and pain, as they were determined to build new, successful, secure lives for themselves and their children. So we their children would not know the word refugee.
The truth is I am still grappling with why it’s so important for me to look back. Writing Shoham’s Bangle was part of my journey of learning and processing my family’s Iraqi Jewish history and experiences, what it meant for them to have been refugees. What it means to not only survive but thrive after losing everything.
The word refugee is an important word – it carries for me story, it carries for me determination and hard work, the way forward – what to teach my children – resilience.
This is why it was important for me that Shoham kept her Iraqi bangle. So that she remembers where she comes from, but also to give her strength in rebuilding her new life in a foreign land. Like Shoham, I will keep jangling my grandmother’s bangle on my wrist whilst researching my roots and writing my family’s story, because it’s my transitional object from my Jewish Babylonian roots, my meaning, my strength.
For more background info about my research and writing here’s the link for a Zoom talk I was honored recently to do for the Sephardi Community UK called Searching for the Iraqi Jewish Voice.
If you missed my discussion on Heidi Rabinowitz’s fabulous Jewish kid lit podcast The Book of Life you can listen here.
My next event will be in-person in Florida on the 18th of June, come for a fun family reading of Shoham’s Bangle, 1pm at Suniland, Pinecrest Florida at Books & Books.
Here are some wonderful, recent articles which mention Shoham’s Bangle in the context of children’s literature and diverse Jewish voices.
Honoring Jewish American Heritage Month!, Writers’ Rumpus, Danna Zeiger
Beyond Tradition: Recent Jewish-themed Books Show Diversity of Characters and Genres, School Library Journal, Marlaina Cockcroft
Meanwhile have a wonderful, blessed June full of blooms and books!