September 23, 2017

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Stormy Seas: Stories of Young Boat Refugees

Stormy Seas: Stories of Young Boat RefugeesMary Beth Leatherdale is the author of is Stormy Seas: Stories of Young Boat Refugees (Spring 2017). A writer, editor and consultant in children’s publishing for over twenty-five years, Leatherdale’s interest in Indigenous issues developed early while attending Howard Harwich Moravian Public School (now called the Naahi Ridge Public School) with students from the Delaware Nation at Moraviantown, an Indian reserve located in Chatham-Kent, Ontario.

Leatherdale has worked with Indigenous author Lisa Charleyboy to develop two books on Native youth and culture. Dreaming in Indian: Contemporary Native American Voices (2014) and Urban Tribes: Native Americans in the City (2015). She has won multiple awards including American Indians in Children’s Literature Best Book of 2014, 2015 USBBY Outstanding International Books Award, and Center for the Study of Multicultural Literature Book of the Year Award.

Was there a particular event or story that inspired you to write Stormy Seas?

In the fall of 2015, hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants were risking their lives crossing the Mediterranean Sea to seek asylum in Europe. I was meeting with Rick Wilks, the publisher of Annick Press, and he proposed working together on a photo-based book for youth that would illuminate current events by exploring boat refugees from different periods in history. It became clear that the book needed to go beyond the anonymous images that we often see on the news: the emotional core of the book had to be actual boat refugees talking about their journeys.

How did you find the contributors for the stories? 

I started looking for stories very close to home — doing research about my own family, soliciting my friends, and reaching out to friends of friends who were refugees themselves, or who worked with them. Many people did not want to relive their experiences in interviews or had personal reasons for not wanting to share their story publically in a book. From there I started trying NGOs and other aid agencies. Although these agencies are under-resourced and overextended, many were extremely helpful. I also   looked for people who had shared their stories before..

How did you choose which stories to include?

It was very difficult to choose the individuals to profile in the book. I came across so many stories of boat refugees that were just as compelling and heart-wrenching as the ones that appear. For me, part of the challenge and pleasure of the writing came from creating this composite, balancing stories over decades, geographical regions, diverse cultures, and personalities.

Also pragmatically, dangerous boat crossings share many similarities in the horrific conditions, dangers at sea, and emotions experienced so there was a real danger of the book feeling repetitive despite the worthiness of each account. I tried to highlight certain aspects of each contributor’s story to ensure every chapter was distinct without sacrificing the larger truths of the contributors’ journeys.

Was there a particular story that touched you the most?

I was extremely moved by all the contributors’ stories — their strength and resilience, but also their vulnerability in sharing not just their harrowing journeys but also the difficulties of adapting to life in their new home countr; however, it’s Mohamed’s story that still leaves me feeling raw. Mohamed is younger than all the other contributors to the book. His crossing is the most recent and the trajectory of his future the most uncertain. After being orphaned in the Côte d’Ivoire at age thirteen, he travelled by himself across Northern Africa working and paying human traffickers to get to Libya so he could cross the Mediterranean to Europe to start a new life. Mohamed faced unspeakable hardship on his journey. He was cheated, beaten, robbed, and imprisoned. Even after saving the money to pay a smuggler for passage on a tiny wooden boat, he was imprisoned in a migrant camp in Malta.. Four long and painful years after leaving his home, he arrived in Italy.

It’s not just his extraordinary journey that makes Mohamed’s story so moving. Mohamed’s attitude towards his experiences and his ability to reflect and come to peace with them is astounding. He says “I thought I was going to spend my life in my village with my parents. But this is my life and I cannot fight my destiny.” In those few words, Mohamed summed up for me the pain, the loss, and hope that came through in all of the contributors’ stories.

What do you hope young readers will take away from reading this book?

I hope Stormy Seas does for young readers what it did for me in researching and writing the book. Rather than feeling overwhelmed by the plight of thousands of boat refugees, I hope that these first person accounts give readers insight into the courage and fortitude of individual boat refugees, and a better understanding of how political and cultural conflicts force children and families into these untenable situations. Whether your family arrived in North America generations ago or last week, the forces that brought you here seeking peace and security may not be that different from these stories.


 

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2015 Preview Interview: Annick Press

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