The Mentor

Inside the Mind of a Refugee Child

Tameika Rease

The Looking Glass thanks Meena Khorana, Editor-in-chief of Sankofa for allowing us to reprint this article. It first appeared in Sankofa: A Journal of African Children's and Young Adult Literature, Volume 3 (2004): 62-67.

Guest Editor: Meena Khorana is a professor of English at Morgan State University, Baltimore, where she teaches a variety of courses, including young adult literature, African children's literature, and Victorian literature. One of her most recent publications includes The Life and Works of Ruskin Bond (Praeger Press, 2003). In addition, her many articles have appeared in the major publications in her field. She was Editor-in-chief of Bookbird: A Journal of International Children's Literature for 6 years. In 2002, she founded a new journal at Morgan State University, entitled Sankofa: A Journal of African Children's and Young Adult Literature.

This paper was my final research project for Dr. Khorana's course on the diaspora experiences of young adults, entitled Literatures of the Diaspora. She liked the paper and submitted it to the Children's Literature Association for the Carol Gay Award, given for research by an undergraduate student. When the paper was recognized as the runner up for the award, she suggested that I prepare it for publication by doing additional research on refugee children. Although researching, writing, and revising the article proved to be more challenging and tedious than I had expected, it was seeing her excitement for the project that helped me to stay focused and excited about my work. I would encourage any student who is given the opportunity to submit any kind of work for a contest or for publication to embrace the challenge. Even when you feel limited, someone will be there to help you to keep striving.
(Tameika Rease)


In the past decade the worldwide refugee population has greatly increased, and the numbers will only continue to rise. The United Kingdom is facing a major increase in the number of asylum seekers. In 2000, there were 100,000 applicants for refugee status, representing a 250 percent increase from 1996. Over half of the world's displaced population are children. In the past ten years, an estimated two million children have been killed in conflict, six million have been wounded, and one million have been orphaned (cited in Fazel and Stien 1). According to Mina Fazel and Alan Stien, both professors in the Department of Psychiatry at Oxford University, "refugee children are at a significant risk of developing psychological problems" (1), such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety disorders. "Traumatic events can have an effect on a child's emotional, cognitive, and moral development because they influence the child's self perceptions and expectations of others" (4). There are many refugee children who have or will experience prolonged and repeated trauma. Fazel and Stien further state that the stresses that most refugees are exposed to happen in three stages. The first occurs in their native land, the second during their flight to safety, and the third during their settlement in a new country (1). In The Other Side of Truth, author Beverley Naidoo depicts these three stages and how they influence the two protagonists of the novel. The main problems that Sade and Femi Solaja display can be explained by examining the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, and how the two characters display this disorder and try to deal with the symptoms throughout the novel.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a severe anxiety that develops after experiencing a traumatic event, learning about a violent or unexpected death of a family member, or being a witness or bystander to a violent event (Huffman and Vernoy 497). According to Glenn R. Schiraldi, there are three types of traumatic stressors: intentional human (sexual, physical or emotional abuse, torture, kidnapping, violence, death threats,); unintentional human (explosions, plane or automobile crashes, nuclear disaster); and natural (typhoons, drought, sudden death) (Schiraldi 5). Matthew J. Friedman states that "[a]lthough exposure to catastrophic stress is a necessary condition, it is insufficient by itself to 'traumatize' an individual. The critical discriminator is the person's emotional response to such an event." He further explains that if the incident produces an intense emotional response (characterized as fear, horror, or helplessness), the event is traumatic. If the event does not produce such a reaction, it is not considered traumatic and does not cause PTSD (Friedman 2).

During the first stage of trauma, which happens to refugees in their native land, many refugees undergo traumatic experiences. Fazel and Stien state that they are often "forced to flee their homes because of exposure to war or combat, and hence witnessed violence, torture, and losses of close family and friends (2). Such events can cause emotional damage in anyone, especially in a child. This can be seen in The Other Side of Truth when the Solaja family becomes the victim of a corrupt government. The novel begins with the following episode:

Sade is slipping her English book into her schoolbag when Mama screams. Two sharp cracks splinter the air. She hears her father's fierce cry, rising, falling.
"No! No!"
The revving of a car and skidding of tires smother his voice.
Her bag topples from the bed, spilling books, pen and pencil onto the floor. She races to the verandah, pushing past Femi in the doorway. His body is wooden with fright.
"Mama mi?" she whispers.
Papa is kneeling in the driveway, Mama partly curled up against him. One bare leg stretches out in front of her. His strong hands grip her, trying to halt the growing scarlet monster. But it has already spread down her bright white nurse's uniform. It stains the earth around them.
A few seconds, that is all. Later, it will always seem much longer.

Because Femi and Sade have witnessed the murder of their mother and the constant verbal attacks upon their father, they are under a tremendous amount of traumatic stress even before they cross the ocean to escape to London. A few hours after their mother was murdered, there is a threatening phone call that Sade answers. The voice wants her to relay the following message to her grieving father: "Tell him if we get the family first, what does it matter?"(6). When Sade hears this, it increases her fear and grief. The children's lives are uprooted in a matter of hours to ensure their safety. Their education is disrupted and they are moved from their stable home environment to a variety of stressful environments as they begin their journey from Nigeria to London. The soldiers who killed their mother had earlier ransacked the house and taken away their father's passport. Sade and Femi are deprived of the time to grieve for their slaughtered mother before the next stage of trauma is placed upon their shoulders. They do not even get to see her buried properly. Sade suffers initial shock at what has just happened, while Femi starts to withdraw from his family and shies away from any loving embrace.

The second stage of stress, according to Fazel and Stien, occurs during the journey to a new country. Oftentimes the journey can take months and can expose refugees to many life-threatening experiences (2). The Solaja children are very lucky in this regard. They are able to take a plane ride to London that lasts only a few hours. However, the journey causes panic and anxiety in Sade and Femi. The immediate danger that they face is detection by the immigration authorities, who will surely prevent them from leaving and will imprison their father. The children have to crouch in the back seat of their uncle's car on the way to the airport, hoping not to be discovered by the authorities. As in Sade and Femi's case, many refugee children are separated from their parents and smuggled out as a safety strategy, but often the separation is accidental. Femi and Sade's Uncle Tunde arranges with a Mrs. Bankoleg, who has two children Sade and Femi's age, to smuggle the children out of Nigeria, posing as her children. Had the authorities in Nigeria known the real identities of the children, both the children and their father would have been placed in further danger. Similarly had the officials in London found out about the smuggling, the children might have been sent back to Nigeria, placing the fate of the Solaja family in the hands of the corrupt Nigerian government.

The smuggling of children, however, has become a great international concern. Children who are smuggled can be exposed to abuse and exploitation en route or in the destination country. Just like Sade and her brother, children often arrive with fake papers or none at all and are unable or unwilling to give details about themselves (Fazel and Stien 9). Sometimes the family may only be able to afford to send away one family member, or they may feel that a single person will have a better chance of gaining asylum than an entire family. This is true in the case of the Solaja family. Because Mr. Solaja was being watched by the authorities as a result of his antigovernment newspaper articles, the likelihood of his family being able to escape together would have been extremely low. Should he be arrested after his children's departure, he would have the comfort of knowing that they were safe. Ironically, although the children have escaped immediate danger, they are placed in a stressful situation when they are taken from their home and thrust into unfamiliar and unexpected surroundings.

The third stage of trauma happens when refugees have to settle in a new and unfamiliar country. According to Fazel and Stien, this period is being increasingly referred to as a period of "secondary trauma." Upon arrival in the host country, refugee children need to settle in a new school and find a peer group. Ideally, this would enable them to cope with their trauma, but this does not always happen. Children are often thrown into situations where they have to prematurely assume adult roles (3). The Other Side of Truth focuses on this stage of Femi and Sade's experience. Not only are the brother and sister separated from their home, but when they arrive in London Mrs. Bankole abandons them in the airport. They are unable to find the only family member they have in London. Lost and alone, with only their fears and anxieties to accompany them, they are faced with a series of frightening situations. After they are abandoned, their bag is stolen in a dark alley by a stranger who drives them away. Next, they are wrongfully accused of a crime in a video store and are arrested. Femi, at this point, becomes completely withdrawn and shows PTSD symptoms of avoidance/numbing--that is, when the individual avoids thoughts, feelings, activities, places, and people related to the original traumatic event. This reaction helps the person to ward off terror/distress caused by the trauma. This strategy comes at a high price because in order to numb intolerable feelings, the person also blocks the feelings that are necessary to sustain any intimate, loving relationships (Friedman 9). Without his familiar surroundings and family support, Femi's way to cope with tragedy is to shut down and separate himself from the rest of the world, even from his sister.

As refugee children are often forced to do, Sade, as the oldest sibling, must assume the adult/parental role in order to ensure her brother's and her survival in this distant land. It is up to Sade to decide what information she will share with those she encounters. She is faced with the pressure of trying to receive help and at the same time protecting herself, her brother, and father. She must determine who can be trusted with the information she possesses. In her efforts to be protective, she is faced with self-conflict because she has to lie in order not to expose her father to the wrong people. She has to stay clear-minded and focused at all times, so as not to blow the cover that she is trying to create. This is just one more burden that Sade is forced to carry.

The children also have to quickly adapt to new living situations with people who are just as foreign to them as they are to London. After being settled in a foster home with Mrs. Graham, they are next quickly moved to a new home with the King family and placed in new schools. Once again, Sade is forced to adapt to her new surroundings and the bullies that harass her. Like most refugee children with a similar problem, she has to protect herself from those who are supposed to be part of her peer group. School adds stress because it does not provide a sense of safety. She is in constant fear of Marcia and Donna, who try to dominate her because she is different. When they make her steal from the store owned by Mariam's family, Sade suffers from a burdened conscience, because she has betrayed the confidence of her only friend. Sade is at the point of emotional instability and she starts to suffer from acute post-traumatic stress disorder. She has increased bouts of anxiety, suffers from recurrent flashbacks and nightmares about her mother's death, her concentration becomes impaired, and she avoids everyone around her. She also displays re-experiencing symptoms, which are characterized by "persistence of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors specifically related to the traumatic event" (Friedman 7). Many times stimuli related to the traumatic event can cause a person to relive the event, causing nightmares, terror/panic, grief, and despair. These intrusive recollections are unwanted and may completely take over the person's thoughts (Friedman 7).

Sade also shows the PTSD symptoms of hyperarousal, including insomnia, irritability, startled reactions, and hypervigilance. This hyperactive state prevents her from concentrating or performing cognitive tasks. According to Friedman, "[t]his cluster of PTSD symptoms most closely resembles symptoms seen in Panic Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder and is one reason why PTSD has been classified...as an Anxiety Disorder (9), because the sudden and shocking trauma affects the nervous system. Hyperarousal occurs because when the traumatic situation takes place, the body goes on full alert, but when the trauma is over, the body remains on full alert. This may cause sleep disorder, sudden crying, difficulty in concentrating, and sudden anger (Hybels-Steer 29). Sade turns to reading as a way of coping with the pain. However, she constantly relives the day her mother was murdered, passes out in school, loses appetite, is unable to complete school work, and blames herself for her mother's death.

Once the children know that their father is alive and in London, they begin to have some sort of peace, even though he is arrested for trying to do what is right. Knowing that he is on a hunger strike and that he may be sent back to Nigeria causes the children's hopes to be dimmed, just when they were starting to have some sense of peace. Their healing really begins when they are reunited with their father on Christmas Day. He assures them that their mother was given a proper burial, which is something that had been plaguing Sade's mind, and he is also able to spend uninterrupted time with his children. It is important to note, however, that Sade and Femi had a wonderful support system of adults to help them cope and settle in their new surroundings. This is critical in order to give refugee children a fair chance at emotional and mental stability (Fazel and Stien 7).

Perhaps Sade and Femi's experience of foster care is romanticized in the sense that everything comes so easily to them, which is rarely the case in the real world of asylum seekers. However, as Naidoo so rightly points out,

fiction does not have to be the worst case to make an impact...my approach tends to be to ensure that what happens is credible--and, if anything, to underplay rather than overplay. It is the characters' emotional journey that is critical.
(Email to Meena Khorana)

Through the experiences of Sade and Femi, Naidoo touches on a serious international problem that concerns the rights of children. Judith Dennis, the Policy Adviser for Unaccompanied Children at the Refugee Council, states that "finding the right placement for a child is not merely about where that child lives but who is responsible for [his] day-to-day care and the plans for [his] future" (11). Dennis's research indicates that only a small number of unaccompanied children in the United Kingdom are placed in foster care. These children tend to have the least amount of problems. Some children live in hostels (which are supervised, inexpensive lodging for youth) or in semi-dependent units. A large number live in unsupported housing, shared housing, or with friends. Children placed in unsupported housing experience a higher level of problems than those in more supportive types of placement, because their needs are not being addressed. There is often a lack of privacy due to overcrowding, and many are made to move out before they are ready (Dennis 12).

An article entitled "Our Duty to Refugee Children" states that in 2001 there were 3,469 unaccompanied children aged 17 and under seeking asylum in Britain, compared with only 631 in 1996 (1). According to Jill Rutter, senior lecturer in Citizenship Education at London Metropolitan University, "in the last few years, the numbers of unaccompanied children has been less, approximately 2,000 children under 18 per year. They are looked after by the local government, hence social services care for about 6,000 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children at any given time." Rutter states that the characters in The Other Side of Truth would be classed as accompanied asylum-seeking children, even though they arrived by themselves. "Larger numbers of accompanied asylum-seeking children arrive in the United Kingdom every year. In 2003, about 9,000 asylum-seeking children entered the country. There are an estimated 98,000 asylum-seeking and refugee children of compulsory school age in the United Kingdom" (Rutter).

The rights of refugee children are easily overlooked. Attention to the mental health needs of this vulnerable group by the government and other law makers is urgently required ("Our Duty" 1). It would be an overwhelming task for any government to provide for so many people who try to enter the country each year. Hence, in recent years, more and more asylum seekers have been denied entrance into the United Kingdom, as well as other countries. This is a tactic to weed out those who falsely try to seek asylum.

Beverley Naidoo spent several months researching the conditions and experiences of refugee children in the United Kingdom in order to be thorough in her writing. Her main goal was to explore the injustice that many children are faced with all over the world. The Other Side of Truth shows Naidoo's knowledge of political and ethical issues as well. She wanted to show young readers the serious and frightening experiences of refugee children. "Instead of a safe-haven in London, however, the children find themselves abandoned and, as refugees, confronted by the police, immigration authorities, foster homes, and harassment at a strange new school" ("Naidoo" 301). When the novel received the 2000 Carnegie Medal, awarded by the British Library Association, the citation stated that Naidoo's novel challenges young readers "to ask the questions and to explore all the issues of truth, injustice, racism and oppression as they unfold in their own country" (qtd. in "Naidoo" 301).

Works Cited

Dennis, Judith. "Case for Change: How Refugee Children in England Are Missing Out." First Findings from the Monitoring Project of the Refugee Children's Consortium. 13 Jan. 2004.

Fazel, Mina, and Alan Stien. "The Mental Health of Refugee Children." Archives of Disease in Childhood. Vol. 87. Bigchalk (1 Nov. 2002). 23 Nov. 2003.

Friedman, Matthew J. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: The Latest Assessment and Treatment Strategies. Kansas City, MO: Compact Clinicals, 2000.

Huffman, Karen, and Mark Vernoy. Psychology in Action. 6th ed. New York: Wiley, 2001.

Hybels-Steer, Mariann. Aftermath: Survive and Overcome Trauma. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.

Naidoo, Beverley. The Other Side of Truth New York: HarperTrophy, 2000.

---. Email to Meena Khorana. 29 May 2004.

"Naidoo, Beverley 1943-." Contemporary Authors. New Revision Series. Vol. 113. New York: Gale, 2003. 299-302.

"Our Duty to Refugee Children." Bigchalk (15 June 2003). 23 Nov. 2003.

Rutter, Jill. Email to Meena Khorana. 1 June 2004.

Schiraldi, Glenn R. The Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Sourcebook. Los Angeles: Lowell, 2000.


Tameika Rease

Volume 9, Issue 2, The Looking Glass, 2 April, 2005

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"Inside the Mind of a Refugee Child"
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