Illustrators helping to build empathy

I’m a big fan of the work the Empathy Lab does, using children’s books to nurture and extend empathy, and so I was very interested when I found out about a new EU/United Nations World Food Programme project bringing children’s book illustrators together with a similar aim; using illustration to encourage a better understanding of what life can be like for refugees, at the same time as raising awareness of the jointly funded Emergency Social Safety Net project, a programme that provides cash to the most vulnerable refugee families living in Turkey to spend on whatever they decide is most important.

Twelve children’s book illustrators from across the EU were commissioned to highlight the importance of everyday objects in providing hope, security and comfort to refugee children who have been uprooted from their homes and normality. The illustrators show how everyday objects significantly impact the life of a child and help them to feel settled and confident again in their new surroundings.



Italian illustrator Marika Pegoraro (@MarikaPegoraro) focussed on the joy a simple toy car can provide.


Kristof Devos, from Belgium, wanted to explore the importance of routine and so he brought to life (quite literally!) something as simple as a toothbrush.


Kristyna Litten (@KristynaLitten), a UK-based author and illustrator with Eastern European heritage, highlighted the the joy of playing with friends. (Kristina is the only illustrator in this group I had previously heard of; I really love her Norton and Alpha and would wholeheartedly recommend you find a copy! See reviews here, here and here.)


This sketch from Natalie Smillie, a children’s book illustrator from Northern Ireland, focuses on a rubber duck bath toy, focussing on how play not only fosters creativity but also helps develop physical, cognitive, and emotional strength.


The print on these pyjamas remind a girl of the great times she had with the pet she had to leave behind – and can’t wait to get back to one day in this sketch by Lieke van der Vorst from the Netherlands.


Spanish Illustrator Mariajose Gajate Molina, focuses on the importance of community and team spirit which can simply be found by playing football. Even an object as simple as a football can have such a profound effect on children’s wellbeing.


Estonian-Born illustrator Aleksei Bitskoff (@Bitskoff) celebrates the power of books to bring solace and strength.


Pintachan (@pintachan), of Spain, honours the joy of reading bedtime stories.

Toothbrushes, skipping ropes, footballs and stories – none of these are extravagances, and yet the impact they can have on helping children and young people feel safer and more hopeful can be profound. It is hoped that in giving refugee families some say in what they want and the ability to buy it for themselves, the ESSN (Emergency Social Safety Net) Programme will help some of the most vulnerable refugee families in Turkey find their feet again.

(Regarding the technical details of the scheme, the ESSN money is provided on a debit card which can be used in shops, just like a normal debit card. As the programme says “it is not just a cash card. It’s an acknowledgement that, despite their hardships, refugees should have the right to choose how to manage their lives.” It might be interesting to know that here in the UK if you are an asylum seeker you can apply for £36.95 per week in cash, but if you’ve been refused asylum, you can only receive that money on a payment card, which does have some restrictions on how it can be used.)

Alongside the illustrations commissioned to illustrate the power of the ESSN programme, which I enjoyed not least for opening my eyes to some new-to-me artists, I also want to encourage you to find two books which I think pair powerfully with the cameo illustrations above: Welcome to Nowhere by Elizabeth Laird, which is out in paperback for the first time this week, and My name is not Refugee, written & illustrated by Kate Milner (@ABagForKatie).

Elizabeth Laird’s Welcome to Nowhere has the most powerful final sentence I’ve read in a very long time, but you mustn’t read that last page without having read all that comes before it; powerful and wonderful storytelling about one family caught up in the Syrian civil war. Like me, you may well be moved to donate to The Mandala Trust as a result.

Kate Milner’s My name is not Refugee is quite simply the best book I know for helping the youngest readers and listeners think about what it might be like to be a refugee. It’s candid and clear, thoughtful and unpatronising, and whilst it enables us to consider awful things (such as the possibility of never seeing friends again), it is like a great big hug, managing to contain the fear and worry, giving us strength to keep going and redouble our efforts to be kind and understanding (do read @librarymice’s interview with Kate Milner to find out more).

2 Responses

  1. What a great and inspiring blog post. Thank you for highlighting these wonderful illustrations!

  2. Amazing post! its really best blog post that gives me more ideas thank you for these sharing

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