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Programs - 2000

Subject: Children of War
by Kane Kurtz

On any given morning at Kotobia, a refugee camp in Eritrea, East Africa, third-grade students can be found sitting on rocks and logs in the shade of thorny acacia trees. "Who can read? Who can read?" an eighteen-year-old teacher from nearby Asmara asks. On a nearby tree hangs a cracked blackboard. History is taught under another tree. "It's really hard for the students," another teacher tells the French media correspondent. "There is not enough shade for them; there is dust and wind, and they are distracted by all the people and livestock passing by."

It's amazing how people learn and work and dream even in the most extreme of circumstances. "Eritrea, we love you," sings a class of second graders under the acacia trees. "We are your children, and when we grow up we are going to help build you." They are living in tents if they are lucky or under plastic tarpaulins to provide a little protection from the heat and cold. But, like refugees everywhere, they are also finding things to do, struggling to make some kind of normal lives for themselves. And they want their voices to be heard.
Can students in the United States have any understanding of what life is like for the children of war? They can!

In the novel for young readers, The Storyteller's Beads (Harcourt 1998), a story is told of two girls from that same war-torn area of East Africa. Sahay and Rahel both have to flee from war and hunger. When they are thrown together on the journey, their own internal struggles make the journey even harder, since Rahel has never been away from the stories and teachings of her Ethiopian Jewish community and Sahay has been raised to believe that Ethiopian Jews can turn themselves into hyenas at night and put the evil eye on her people. A fourth grade student from New York wrote that the book helped him under-stand "the terrible things that happen to people in the world" and added "you have the coolest vocabulary ever." A seventh grade student from California wrote, "I liked the way you told the story. It was like you were really there. You described it so well I even thought I was there."

In the presentation, I talk about what happens when the journeys away from war are over, what it is like for Ethiopian families to settle in the United States and raise children who think of the U.S. as home—the experience reflected in my newest picture book.

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