Essay

Marit Törnqvist

Soapbox

12 June 2017

Hardly anyone could have failed to notice this book in recent months. An anthology in Arabic for child refugees. A lot of people smile when they see the book. Because it opens the other way around. And I think letters are funny too when you can’t read them. Jip and Janneke and Frog in Arabic, read from left to right. Jubelientje. Alfie the Werewolf.

But behind this book is a deadly serious story.

In 2015, we all saw pictures in the news of crowded boats sinking in the Mediterranean. Of people who were risking their lives to reach Europe in order to escape wars and desperate conditions. I looked at those pictures and suddenly I saw the children. All I could see was the children. Children who had never been children. Children who had seen their homes turned into ruins, seen wounded members of their families lying in the rubble. They had left in a hurry and, instead of consolation and sympathy for everything they had been through and lost, they encountered barbed wire.

Once I had truly identified with the fate of these children, I had no other option than to go and visit them. I went to the nearest centres for asylum seekers. I wanted to put my arm around one of these children. To say: I don’t agree with the barbed wire. You have the right to a childhood too, just like my own children.

And so it came about that, for a year, I took a break from the book I was working on and instead I made every effort in my power as an artist to do something to help these children. Luckily, there were many other people who felt the same way as I did. I’d never had so much impetus before.

This book, which is called A Book for You, is a gift for all children in centres for asylum seekers and also for their parents. We want to tell them that they’re welcome, even if they don’t yet know our language and culture. That they can forget the images of bombings and shootings for a moment by looking at Frog or hearing about Jip and Janneke. That their life in this country can be a new beginning. On the first day after their arrival, they receive our stories as a present. In their own language. Because Mohammad and Nahla want their mum and dad to read them a story and it may take them a long time to regain the calmness they need to learn Dutch.

When I recently asked a young Syrian girl what she missed most in the new country, I expected to hear something about her friends, her home or her school. But she said: ‘I miss the people who died.’

In Sweden, people talk about dandelion children. If you snap a dandelion, it’ll flower again a couple of weeks later. Some children have incredible resilience. These children, too, may blossom again.

Books will help. They give us an opportunity to talk to each other. And to have shared experiences. To open doors, both to the outside and to the inside. But these children also need to meet adults from the Netherlands who take them seriously, who listen to them and love them.

And who are not afraid of a world that is simply changing.

More than a hundred children’s authors are now in the process of doing exactly this. They are visiting children and their parents in centres for asylum seekers and sharing stories with them.

They are able to show them that there is hope, in spite of the horrors that can be seen in those children’s dark eyes.

We are gathered here as a group of people who understand better than anyone the influence that childhood has on the rest of your life. We have the gift of being able to identify closely with children and really understanding them. That is a part of our profession.

Let us, together, try to take responsibility for ensuring that these dandelion children receive water.

That is the urgent appeal I am making to you from this soapbox today. Thank you.

  • translation: Laura Watkinson

If you snap a dandelion, it’ll flower again a couple of weeks later.

Marit on soapbox

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