Teaching British Children the Humanity of Refugees

The Waiting Place wants children to stay. It wants them to forget the hours, the days. It doesn’t want them to go to school, to see a doctor. It likes the dust to accumulate, the pretty paint to peel off the doors. It likes strange things: idle teddy bears on the wall. It whispers, No need to bathe. You’ll be gone soon anyway. What’s another day?

The Waiting Place wants you to be a child forever.

This excerpt describes the conditions which await many of the 82.4 million, as of 2020, forcibly displaced people on the planet when they arrive in Europe. It is taken from The Waiting Place, a new book from School of English Lecturer Dina Nayeri, which offers an unflinching look at ten young lives, suspended outside of time as they await processing in Katsikas, a refugee camp outside Ioannina, Greece. Ranging from five to 17 years old, the children represent a small section of a rapidly increasing humanitarian crisis. Estimates for the number of people to be forcibly displaced by 2050, due to climate change alone, ranges from 200 million to 1 billion, which means the individual humanity of refugees – and the potency of their suffering – is increasingly at risk of being forgotten as they become lost in an ever-increasing crowd.

In The Waiting Place, Nayeri offers a reminder of the humanity found in refugee camps across Europe and the wider world. Evoked by the intimate photography of Anna Bosch Miralpeix, the book presents a much-needed reminder of the shortcomings of our current system from the perspective of the individual. More specifically, The Waiting Place offers a compelling argument for why we should change the way we talk to children about home and safety, reflecting the complex associations these words can have for others in our community.

Since its publication earlier this year, the messages from The Waiting Place resonated widely in popular culture. It was a finalist for the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Children’s Nonfiction, one of the most prestigious honours in child and young adult literature. In its review of the book, the Wall Street Journal says that “Ms. Nayeri implores adult readers who have shared the book with children to do more to alleviate the suffering of people around the world who have been cruelly exiled to places not of their choosing.” 

Booklist, the magazine of the American Library Association, praised how “Sparse text combined with Miralpeix’s arresting full-page color photographs intimately capture the kids’ daily lives … this moving look at these young people and their hopes and dreams could lead to greater understanding and empathy for all displaced youth.” An excerpt from its afterword was also featured in British Vogue as part of the cover article for the May 2022 issue.

The precision of Nayeri’s portrait originates partly from personal experience. She explains, “I was a refugee from Iran when I was a child. We landed in Oklahoma when I was 10, after nearly two years of displacement, including time in a camp, and I wasn’t welcomed. The sheer volume of abuse that I got from native-born Western children stayed with me throughout my life. And I think the answer to that is to prepare our children to be welcoming, and loving, and good neighbours, as they naturally are! The book is all about how these 10 real-life children cope in a refugee camp, and it’s written in to show how joyful, fun, and resilient they are, even in The Waiting Place.

“Working with two on-the-ground charities (including Refuge Support, for which I’m a trustee), I want to visit schools and introduce UK children to the children waiting in the camps, and to talk to them about my own life, and how they can welcome newcomers.”

This word cloud is taken from letters written to Dina by students after one of her workshops, showing the messages they took from The Waiting Place.

Thanks to generous funding from the Tay Charitable Trust, St Andrews has purchased 5,800 copies of The Waiting Place for free distribution to schools across the UK. This will ensure that Nayeri’s message can be read by children of all backgrounds, informing them of the experiences of people who could one day become their neighbours and fostering empathy for displaced people from an early age. The book is accompanied by a discussion guide, providing the resources to ensure that the discussion is handled sensitively and at an appropriate level for the students’ age-group. The Trust’s support enables Nayeri to offer schools the opportunity to receive a special live event, during which she will discuss her own experience of being a child refugee, and the stories of children she has met in refugee camps as an adult. The talks will invite children to think about and discuss complex topics such as displacement and the refugee crisis, alongside more fundamental ideas including welcome, empathy, and home.

During one of Dina’s workshops, the students were invited to wave at children in The Waiting Place

Since Nayeri began conducting the events in November, they have been met with a hugely positive reaction from teachers and students alike. In letters written to Nayeri after one event, students thanked her for sharing the book with them, with many of them showing an appreciation for the opportunity to learn more about making people feel welcome. The workshop celebrated diversity not only amongst refugees, but amongst the students themselves, with one reporting back that they had shared their home language of Cantonese with their class. Students showed an enthusiasm for engaging with refugees on a human level, with one 11-year-old reviewer praising the chance to “learn a decent amount about how we can help people feel a bit more welcome”.

Writing after one of the workshops, a teacher involved praised the impact of the event in spreading a positive message on a difficult-to-understand topic. “All the teachers were impressed how you were not defined by your trauma but have used it to make a difference. […] Your message of being ‘kind and curious’ to refugee children, echoed through the school. […] The children were so excited about taking your lovely book home. We made them promise that they would share your story with their family. A massive success!! Thank you!”

These workshops are scheduled to continue through the remainder of the year, giving many more students the opportunity to benefit from the message of The Waiting Place. Nayeri’s new publication builds upon the successes of her existing work; her previous book, The Ungrateful Refugee, was a finalist a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Kirkus Prize. Her work has been published in more than 20 countries and in The O. Henry Prize Stories, The Best American Short Stories, the New York Times, and many other publications.

The impact of Nayeri’s outreach is best described in her own words. The following quote, taken from The Waiting Place, shows the value of her work. “I want luckier children to read about young refugees’ battles with the Waiting Place. […] I want these lucky readers to know that somewhere, their own future neighbours and friends are fighting this battle. When these friends finally arrive in America or England or France or Germany, they will be ragged and tired and sad. They will need strong arms to lean on for a while. And they will need friends to listen and to understand what it was like to confront the Waiting Place.”

A map of Dina’s journey to Scotland, beginning with her move from Iran to the US as a refugee

The “Welcome Oath” taken by students as part of the Welcome Place workshop