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Gripping refugee tale wins Waterstones children's book prize

Saturday 23/March/2019 - 11:16 AM
Onjali Q Raúf
Onjali Q Raúf
Onjali Q Raúf has won the Waterstones children’s book prize with her debut novel، which she wrote while recovering from life-saving surgery، the guardian reported.

Raúf is founder of the charity Making Herstory، which fights the trafficking and enslavement of women. After botched surgery for endometriosis left her vomiting and in crippling pain، she was told she had only three weeks to live. Further major surgery saved her life، but forced Raúf to spend three months recovering in bed.

During that time، all she could think of was the women she had met while working in refugee camps in Calais and Dunkirk، some of them heavily pregnant، or in pain، and one Syrian woman in particular، Zainab، who had just given birth to a baby boy called Raehan.

“Suddenly this title، The Boy at the Back of the Class، just popped into my head،” Raúf said. “I couldn’t stop thinking about Raehan، and as soon as the doctors said I was OK to sit up again، it just flooded out. It was literally written in seven or eight weeks.”

The novel tells the story of a nine-year-old refugee called Ahmet، who has fled the war in Syria. When the children in his class find out he is separated from his family، they come up with a plan to help.

According to Waterstones children’s fiction buyer Florentyna Martin، The Boy at the Back of the Class is a future classic that showcases the very best of what stories can achieve.

“Raúf has distilled what it means to be a genuine and positive person into a story that sparkles with kindness، humour and curiosity،” Martin said. “Her characters step out of the book with a warm smile، fully formed as role models for everyday life، ready to take you on an ambitious adventure which is both fun and exceptionally gripping. Children’s books have a raft of difficult topics to convey to young readers، and Raúf embraces this with an approach that is funny، upbeat and overwhelmingly open-hearted.”

The novel was named the overall winner of the book chain’s £5،000 children’s book prize last night، ahead of category winners Tomi Adeyemi’s The Children of Blood and Bone، which won the older fiction slot، and The Girls by Lauren Ace and Jenny Løvlie، which won the illustrated books prize.

It's extra surreal … I'm seeing people who are distraught، trafficked، dealing with emergencies … and then in this other world you've got champagne and cupcakes
Raúf dedicates The Boy at the Back of the Class to Raehan، “the Baby of Calais. And the millions of refugee children around the world in need of a safe and loving home.” But she has not seen him since.

“Unfortunately I lost touch with them the day I met Raehan،” she said. “When we were leaving we saw the police coming to demolish the campsite. I had Zainab’s phone number and I tried to ring her the next day but it didn’t go through، so I don’t know where they are، or if they are OK. He’d now be two and a half.”

Raúf is now writing another novel، The Star Outside My Window، tackling the topic of domestic violence through the story of a girl who goes on the hunt for a star “for sad reasons”. But her main focus is her charity، and the refugee camps where she continues to work in her free time. “It’s extra surreal because my real life versus my book life are such different worlds،” she said. “I’m seeing people who are distraught، trafficked، I’m trying to deal with stuff on an emergency basis، and then in this other world you’ve got champagne and cupcakes. Winning this prize is mind-blowing، the really massive cherry on an amazing cake.”

Edited by: Yara Sameh

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