A faint chirping sound alerts Faisal to a bird in the bushes. As he carefully cradles the bird, he realizes that its wing is broken. His friend Rahim joins him for their daily trip to the forest to collect firewood but Faisal insists they must first find a safe spot for the bird. He makes his way across the camp they call home to find his sisters and leave the bird in their care.
Making their way to the forest to gather firewood, Rahim and Faisal manage to avert the danger of an elephant in their path, but Faisal loses his footing, falls and injures his hand. Back home, his mother creates a makeshift sling and Faisal find companionship and healing as he tends and nurses the injured bird. Soon, the bird spreads her wings to indicate she is ready for flight but Faisal and his family have a hard time letting go. As Faisal reflects on his life in the camp, he knows things are hard but he is grateful for small acts of love: ‘his sister’s giggles, Rahim’s friendly hand on his shoulder, and his mother’s soft voice.’ He realizes that the bird belongs with her family too and they release her with the words ‘Go in Peace.’
The Unexpected Friend is story about kindness and compassion and the Rohingya community’s plight that has gotten little international attention. Inspired by the Rohingya refugee children, this fictional story is set in a refugee camp in Cox Bazar, Bangladesh. The Rohingya are a Muslim minority group from Myanmar (erstwhile Burma) who have faced a long history of discrimination, violence, denial of citizenship and other restrictions by the Burmese government. In recent years, this discriminatory treatment turned to ethnic cleansing by state-led forces and as many as 700,000 Rohingya have been forced to flee their native Rakine State to the safety of refugee camps in Bangladesh.
The book shows the life in these camps and the daily struggles of the Rohingya community – the long lines to collect food rations, trekking to the dangerous forest for firewood, overworked clinics, makeshift homes and schools in a prosaic manner. Maintaining a simple storyline and that draws parallels between the bird and Faisal’s plight, the story weaves an element of hope for a better future for these children. The author Raya Rahman also focuses on to the very real tussle between nature and people who forced to live off the forests. The vivid and colorful illustrations by Inshra Sakhawat Russell, complement the simple story and offer a bright spot amid the drab surroundings. Mitali Perkins is credited as editorial consultant.
The book includes an afterward with information about the Rohingya as well as a note about their inspiration for this story. The author-illustrator are also founders of Guba Publishing which partnered with Save the Children to create a personal story that would reflect the lives of Rohingya children in a hopeful way. The book is available in English, Bengali and Burmese and part of the proceeds will be donated to the Save the Children Rohingya Relief Fund.
Kudos to them for telling this story with empathy and commitment to cause of uplifting Rohingya children and their stories. May many of their untold stories take flight.
Read an interview with the founders of Guba Publishing here