“The Kids from the (Refugee) home”– a talk about a collaborative children’s book project

Text: Sarah Fichtner & Hoa Mai Trần

Illustrations: Michaela Schultz

I have been looking forward to the book “The Kids from the Refugee home” by Cool Kids & Hoa Mai Trần with illustrations by Michaela Schultz for a long time. It‘s a wonderful read!

On the publisher’s homepage,Viel & Mehr, you can either order a hard-copy of the book, or download a free PDF version in one of the following language pairs: Arabic – German, English – German, Farsi – German, Kurmancî – German and Tigrinya – German.

Much like the projects that we organize with Encounters media workshop, this children’s book,  is also a collaborative work and translation feat on many levels: the stories told among its pages are based on the findings of the Berlin-based research project Alltagserleben von jungen Kindern in Not- und Gemeinschaftsunterkünften (everyday life of young children in emergency and community shelters) that Hoa Mai Tran and I worked on in 2016-2017. Based on some of the experiences gained in the research project, Hoa Mai Tran collected stories of about 80 children between 3 and 21 years of age from three shelters in Berlin, which she – alongside the children in question – developed into this book.

Sarah: Tell us how this project came to life!

Mai: It all started during the course of our research project, when I realized how little of all the experiences we had gathered from the children and families was ultimately going to be published. In addition, I began to think critically of where it was going to be published: in academic journals and textbooks. I started asking myself: who are we actually writing this for? Who will profit from this research? Who is earning money and who gets to hold the stage? What benefit do the children get out of all this? Isn‘t there some other possibility to communicate the results of our research?

At the time we were also looking into what engaged research actually means: what effect does this type of research have on us, what makes it possible, what it means for the children and finally: who is the real focus of attention?! Everyone involved in the project, especially Petra Wagner from the Fachstelle Kinderwelten am Institut für den Situationsansatz (Department of Children’s Worlds at the Institute for the Situational Approach), welcomed the idea of making the research results accessible for the children and families. However, as is so often the case, a lack of time and money prevented these ideas from being realized within the project framework.

And so, Petra and I wrote a joint project proposal for creating a collaborative children’s book as a follow-up to the research project. Back in 2017, Michaela, the illustrator, and I had already begun to discuss and develop several personal stories from the research pool, and had already drafted a preliminary chapter structure and some first illustrations. Since it was our goal to also include children from other shelters, we began to contact other refugee homes as well. In 2018 we received the confirmation for the funding, which was our official go-ahead signal.

Sarah: What was particularly important to you?

Mai: The key objective was to represent the children in a dignified, realistic, but also imaginative and creative manner – one that they can recognize and identify themselves with.

And they do: in fact, in some cases they somewhat over-identify with the characters. For me it was important to both involve and reach a very broad age group of children (3-12 years old), since the stories we collected were told by children of all ages. I wanted to show that young children also have a voice: it‘s up to us to find a way to help them express it, and to be attentive and receptive to it. During our visits to refugee shelters, we listened to and collected the stories of children, painted together, developed the stories further and even included some elements, such as the “children’s revolution”, from our previous research.

For the wish-list at the end of the book, the children collected their own wishes in written form – in the end they gathered over 100 of them! Then, we returned to each shelter, awarded points and thus established a ranking system to determine which wishes were the most important and would be included in the book. This process was very exciting for most of the children. We were also asked why we were doing all this, if none of the wishes were going to be fulfilled. A fair criticism. As lovely as a children‘s book may appear, it is by no means the solution to many of the problems faced by children and their families.

Throughout the entire process, it was incredibly important to me to be open for the children’s interests, rather than focus solely on the book. This meant creating and holding spaces within the project for things that the children really wanted to do – together, as a group. For example, we went on reading tours and visited the diverse children’s book festival kimbuk. Along the way, we also tried out different beds and mattresses in furniture departments, held picnics consisting solely of sweets and salty snacks, and created playlists for long drives.

Sarah: What does collaborative work mean to you?

Mai: For me, collaborative work means: being conscious and aware, making lots of mistakes, often not being able to include many perspectives, but to nonetheless keep trying, again and again.

Sarah: Who do you want to reach with this book?

Mai: Well, everyone – children and grown-ups! I mean, it‘s not a specialized topic. I made the book for the children in the project and for children in similar situations. Many of the children involved felt that it would be good for people who are not affected, to let them learn more about our situation. So, that pretty much covers all people!

Sarah: Yes! I know somebody in Kenya who thinks this book would be a great idea for his hometown, where there is a refugee shelter. So you see, it‘s already making waves!

Mai: Wow, awesome! I would never had expected something like that.

Sarah: Will there be another book of this type?

Mai: Our first plan is to create educational material to accompany the book, for daycare centers, elementary schools, migrant organizations etc. Here I want to ensure that a few blank pages are reserved for the children, where they can make suggestions to their supervisors as to how the book can be used. You know, power-sharing! In my privileged position I have a couple of levers that I can push. In this way I can allow the children to make experiences that they might not have otherwise – that‘s a wonderful thing, and I‘m very grateful for it. That‘s the reason I‘m doing all this.

The children also have other interests – going more in the direction of social media, or an audio recording of the book in different languages. They also really enjoyed the reading tours, especially to places and cities they had never been before, for example to other shelters or elementary schools…

Sarah: …or to libraries! Maybe we could initiate something with Encounters media workshop ? I for my part was completely moved by the stories and illustrations. I laughed, I cried – and if a book can achieve that, it is definitely a success.

Mai: This project transformed me as well. The children transformed me. This is and has been an encounter for life, not just for a book.