‘There used to be an empty chair at the back of the classroom.’ But then one day Ahmet appeared. Scared, sad Ahmet with golden eyes like a lion. The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q. Raúf tells this young Syrian refugee’s story in her debut novel, the much-applauded recipient of Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2019. Taking a child’s eye view of the refugee crisis, we follow a bunch of curious and big-hearted school kids as they eagerly pursue a friendship that leads to the hailing of ‘Ahmet: The most famous refugee boy in the world!’
As a welcome gift, Ahmet is presented with a pomegranate, in honour of his homeland. How cool are pomegranates?
‘…when you pull one open, it’s like finding a million sparkling red rubies all squashed together inside a round suitcase, and bursting to get out.’
Warming to his kindly schoolmates, the little Syrian bravely stands in front of the class to tell his life story, accompanied by hand-drawn pictures of family and events. A later drawing of a refugee boat on a turbulent sea, is missing his little sister. Where on earth, our naive audience wonder, could Ahmet’s little sister have gone? He finishes by telling the class that he feels safe in England, where there are no bombs and he can play football.
But this is not a neat end to our story. Unfortunately bullies transcend borders, and Ahmet is set to encounter more hostility, sometimes from unexpected quarters. Inspired by his courage, Ahmet’s new friends decide to take on the Herculean task of locating his parents, who are stranded in separate refugee encampments. The only thing for it is to request help from the most important person in the land. And so out comes the letter writing set.
‘Please Mrs Majesty…’
Warm, funny, and yes worthy, this is a novel rich with incident and empathy. Recommended with relish!
The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q. Raúf is published by Orion Children’s Books, 256 pages.