The Immigrant and Refugee Experience in America

Posted on May 29, 2018

by April S

What is Immigrant Heritage Month?

According to the I Am an Immigrant website, Immigration Heritage Month began in 2014. The purpose is to prompt people throughout the United States to explore their own heritage, celebrate “the shared diversity that forms the unique story of America” and “the monumental contributions that immigrants have made – and continue to make every day.”

How Can You Celebrate Immigrant Heritage Month?

As a nation of immigrants we have a duty to learn more about our shared American heritage. Most of the people in our country either came from another land or have ancestors who did. In celebration of Immigrant Heritage Month, let’s all take the time to explore the stories of the people that make up this great land we call the United States of America.

The basic idea of welcoming immigrants to our shores is central to our way of life — it is in our DNA. We believe our diversity, our differences, when joined together by a common set of ideals, makes us stronger, makes us more creative, makes us different. From all these different strands, we make something new here in America. ~ President Barack Obama, July 4, 2014

Read, watch and listen to immigrant and refugee stories:

Immigrant and Refugee Stories for Children

Emma's Poem: The Voice of the Statue of Liberty by Linda Glaser
Emma’s Poem: The Voice of the Statue of Liberty” by Linda Glaser

Ages 4-7 | Grades Preschool-3

The story of Emma Lazarus, who, despite her life of privilege, became a tireless advocate for the immigrants who arrived in New York City in the 1880s and wrote a famous poem for the Statue of Liberty.

Also available in eBook and DVD.

One Green Apple by Eve Bunting
One Green Apple” by Eve Bunting

Ages 4-7 | Grades Preschool-3

As a Muslin immigrant to the country who can hardly speak the native language of her new land, Farah feels like an outsider amongst her classmates, but when they all go to a field trip to an apple orchard, Farah finally sees many similarities to the world she left behind and, through her observations and shared experiences, begins to feel like one of the gang.

In the Small, Small Night by Jane Kurtz ; pictures by Rachel Isadora
In the Small, Small Night” by Jane Kurtz

Ages 4-8 | Grades K-5

Kofi can’t sleep in his new home in the United States, so his older sister Abena soothes his fears about life in a different country by telling him two folktales from their native Ghana about the nature of wisdom and perseverance.

Teacup by Rebecca Young ; illustrated by Matt Ottley
Teacup” by Rebecca Young

Ages 4-8 | Grades Preschool-3

A boy travels across the sea in a rowboat in search of a new home, making a journey that is long and difficult–but also filled with beauty and hope.

The journey by Francesca Sanna
The Journey” by Francesca Sanna

Ages 5-7 | Grades K-2

With haunting echoes of the current refugee crisis this beautifully illustrated book explores the unimaginable decisions made as a family leaves their home and everything they know to escape the turmoil and tragedy brought by war. This book will stay with you long after the last page is turned.

Mama's nightingale : a story of immigration and separation by Edwidge Danticat ; illustrated by Leslie Staub
Mama’s Nightingale: A Story of Immigration and Separation” by Edwidge Danticat

Ages 5-8 | Grades K-3

A little girl eases the pain of her separation from her mother, who is being held in an immigration detention center, by listening to her mother’s readings of Haitian folktales, which inspire her to write her own story.

Islandborn by Junot Diaz ; illustrated by Leo Espinosa
Islandborn” by Junot Diaz

Ages 5-8 | Grades K-3

Lola was just a baby when her family left the Island, so when she has to draw it for a school assignment, she asks her family, friends, and neighbors about their memories of her homeland…and in the process, comes up with a new way of understanding her own heritage.

Also available in Spanish, eBook and eAudio.

My name is Sangoel / written by Karen Lynn Williams and Khadra Mohammed ; illustrated by Catherine Stock
My Name is Sangoel” written by Karen Lynn Williams and Khadra Mohammed

Ages 6-10 | Grades 1-3

When Sangoel and his mother and sister arrive in the United States, everything seems very strange and unlike home. This poignant story of identity and belonging will help young readers understand the plight of the millions of children in the world who are refugees.

Naming Liberty by Jane Yolen ; paintings by Jim Burke
Naming Liberty” by Jane Yolen

Ages 6-9 | Grades 1-4

In parallel stories, a Ukrainian Jewish family prepares to immigrate to the United States in the late 1800s, and Frederic Auguste Bartholdi designs, raises funds for, and builds the Statue of Liberty in honor of the United States’ centennial.

America, My New Home : Poems by Monica Gunning
America, My New Home : Poems” by Monica Gunning

Ages 7-12 | Grades 3-6

Poems describe a young Jamaican immigrant’s new experiences as she faces life in the United States, including hearing new languages, loneliness, and visiting Washington, D.C., the circus, and a library.

Inside out and back again by Thanhha Lai
Inside Out and Back Again” by Thanhha Lai

Ages 8-12 | Grades 3-7

Inspired by the author’s childhood experience as a refugee—fleeing Vietnam after the Fall of Saigon and immigrating to Alabama—this coming-of-age debut novel told in verse has been celebrated for its touching child’s-eye view of family and immigration.

Also available in eBook and eAudio.

Esperanza rising by Pam Munoz Ryan
Esperanza Rising” by Pam Munoz Ryan

Ages 8 & up | Grades 6-8

Esperanza and her mother are forced to leave their life of wealth and privilege in Mexico to go work in the labor camps of Southern California, where they must adapt to the harsh circumstances facing Mexican farm workers on the eve of the Great Depression.

Also available in Spanish, Audio, eBook and eAudio.

Immigrant and Refugee Stories for Teens

The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani
The Night Diary” by Veera Hiranandani

Ages 8-12 | Grades 3-7

Shy twelve-year-old Nisha, forced to flee her home with her Hindu family during the 1947 partition of India, tries to find her voice and make sense of the world falling apart around her by writing to her deceased Muslim mother in the pages of her diary.

Also available in eAudio.

What the Night Sings by Vesper Stamper
What the Night Sings” by Vesper Stamper

Ages 12 & up | Grades 7-12

Lushly illustrated with evocative imagery, a poignant tale about a young Holocaust survivor finds her struggling to survive, rebuild and come to terms with the losses of her family and everything she knew after being liberated from a Nazi concentration camp, a situation that is complicated by her growing feelings for a fellow survivor.

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
Salt to the Sea” by Ruta Sepetys

Ages 12 & up | Grades 7-9

Racing to freedom with thousands of other refugees as Russian forces close in on their homes in East Prussia, Joana, Emilia, and Florian meet aboard the doomed Wilhelm Gustloff and are forced to trust each other in order to survive.

Also available in Audio, eBook and eAudio.

A land of permanent goodbyes by Atia Abawi
A Land of Permanent Goodbyes” by Atia Abawi

Ages 12 & up | Grades 7-9

In a country ripped apart by war, Tareq lives with his big and loving family . . . until the bombs strike. His city is in ruins. His life is destroyed. And those who have survived are left to figure out their uncertain future.

You bring the distant near by Mitali Perkins
You Bring the Distant Near” by Mitali Perkins

Ages 12-18 | Grades 9-12

From 1965 through the present, an Indian American family adjusts to life in New York City, alternately fending off and welcoming challenges to their own traditions.

Also available in Audio, eBook and eAudio.

The Alex crow by Andrew Smith
The Alex Crow” by Andrew Smith

Ages 14 & up | Grades 9-12

The story of Ariel, a Middle Eastern refugee who lives with an adoptive family in Sunday, West Virginia, is juxtaposed against those of a schizophrenic bomber, the diaries of a failed arctic expedition from the late nineteenth century, and a depressed, bionic reincarnated crow.

Also available in eBook and eAudio.

Picture Us in the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert
Picture Us in the Light” by Kelly Loy Gilbert

Ages 14 & up | Grades 9-12

Danny Cheng has always known his parents have secrets. But when he discovers a taped-up box in his father’s closet filled with old letters and a file on a powerful Silicon Valley family, he realizes there’s much more to his family’s past than he ever imagined.

Also available in eBook.

American Street by Ibi Zoboi
American Street” by Ibi Zoboi

Ages 14 & up | Grades 9-12

Separated from her detained mother after moving from Haiti to America, Fabiola struggles to navigate the home of her loud cousins and a new school on Detroit’s gritty west side, where a surprising romance and a dangerous proposition challenge her ideas about freedom.

Also available in Audio, eBook and eAudio.

Immigrant and Refugee Stories in Adult Fiction

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
The Namesake” by Jhumpa Lahiri

A portrait of the immigrant experience follows the Ganguli family from their traditional life in India through their arrival in Massachusetts in the late 1960s and their difficult melding into an American way of life.

Also available in eBook, eAudio and DVD.

Typical American by Gish Jen
Typical American” by Gish Jen

Jen’s immensely intelligent, thunderously funny, truly heartbreaking novel is perhaps the best story of contemporary immigrant experience ever to grace our literature.

Also available in eBook.

What is the what : the autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng : a novel / Dave Eggers
What is the What : The autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng : A Novel” by Dave Eggers

The epic novel based on the life of Valentino Achak Deng who, along with thousands of other children —the so-called Lost Boys—was forced to leave his village in Sudan at the age of seven and trek hundreds of miles by foot, pursued by militias, government bombers, and wild animals, crossing the deserts of three countries to find freedom. When he finally is resettled in the United States, he finds a life full of promise, but also heartache and myriad new challenges.

Also available in eBook.

"The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay" by Michael Chabon
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” by Michael Chabon

In 1939 New York City, Joe Kavalier, a refugee from Hitler’s Prague, joins forces with his Brooklyn-born cousin, Sammy Clay, to create comic-book superheroes inspired by their own fantasies, fears, and dreams.

Also available in eBook.

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok
Girl in Translation” by Jean Kwok

Emigrating with her mother from Hong Kong to Brooklyn, Kimberly Chang begins a secret double life as an exceptional schoolgirl during the day and sweatshop worker at night, an existence also marked by a first crush and the pressure to save her family from poverty.

Also available in Audio and eBook.

Call it Sleep by Henry Roth
Call it Sleep” by Henry Roth

The magnificent story of David Schearl, the “dangerously imaginative” child coming of age in the slums of New York in the early part of the twentieth century.

Also available in eBook.

Americanah : [a novel] / Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

A young woman from Nigeria leaves behind her home and her first love to start a new life in America, only to find her dreams are not all she expected.

Also available in Audio, eBook and eAudio.

The Russian debutante's handbook / Gary Shteyngart
The Russian Debutante’s Handbook” by Gary Shteyngart

In a novel about being an outsider in America and what it means to be an American, Vladimir, a young Russian-American immigrant, pursues his dreams of success, wealth, and a girlfriend, as his quest takes him deep into uncharted territory.

Also available in eAudio.

Adult Nonfiction Books Exploring the Immigrant and Refugee Experience in America

In the country we love : my family divided / Diane Guerrero with Michelle Burford
In the Country We Love: A Family Divided” by Diane Guerrero

A moving, heartbreaking story of one woman’s extraordinary resilience in the face of the nightmarish struggles of undocumented residents in this country. There are over 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the US, many of whom have citizen children, whose lives here are just as precarious, and whose stories haven’t been told.

Also available in eBook.

The making of a dream : how a group of young undocumented immigrants helped change what it means to be American / Laura Wides-Muñoz
The Making of a Dream: How a Group of Young Undocumented Immigrants Helped Change What it Means to be American” by Laura Wides-Munoz

A journalist chronicles the next chapter in civil rights—the story of a movement and a nation, witnessed through the poignant and inspiring experiences of five young undocumented activists who are transforming society’s attitudes toward one of the most contentious political matters roiling America today: immigration.

The far away brothers : two young migrants and the making of an American life / Lauren Markham
The Far Away Brothers : Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life” by Lauren Markham

An urgent chronicle of contemporary immigration follows the harrowing journey of a pair of teenaged twins from El Salvador who were forced by gang violence to see safety and a better life in the United States, an endeavor marked by family estrangement, a mounting coyote debt and America’s complicated immigration policies.

Undocumented : a Dominican boy's odyssey from a homeless shelter to the Ivy League / Dan-El Padilla Peralta
Undocumented : a Dominican Boy’s Odyssey From a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League” by Dan-El Padilla Peralta

A Princeton University salutatorian describes his experiences as an undocumented immigrant youth in New York City, relating his efforts as a scholarship student in a private school that sharply contrasted with his street life in East Harlem.

Where the wind leads : a refugee family's miraculous story of loss, rescue, and redemption / Vinh Chung with Tim Downs
Where the Wind Leads : A Refugee Family’s Miraculous Story of Loss, Rescue and Redemption” by Vinh Chung with Tim Downs

Where the Wind Leads is the remarkable account of Vinh Chung and his refugee family’s daring escape from communist oppression for the chance of a better life in America. It’s a story of personal sacrifice, redemption, endurance against almost insurmountable odds, and what it truly means to be American.

Also available in eBook.

Toward a better life : America's new immigrants in their own words : from Ellis Island to the present / by Peter Morton Coan ; foreword by Barry Moreno ; preface by Stephen A. Briganti
Toward a Better Life : America’s New Immigrants in Their Own Words : From Ellis Island to the Present” by Peter Morton Coan

What motivates so many people to take great risks to come to America’s shores? This is a fascinating and profusely illustrated oral history of the true stories of immigrants told in their own words.

The Devil's highway : a true story / Luis Alberto Urrea
The Devil’s Highway : a True Story” by Luis Alberto Urrea

Describes the attempt of twenty-six men to cross the Mexican border into the desert of southern Arizona, a region known as the Devil’s Highway, detailing their harrowing ordeal and battle for survival against impossible odds.

Also available in eAudio.

Enrique's Journey : The Story of a Boy's Dangerous Odyssey to Reunite with his Mother by Sonia Nazario
Enrique’s Journey : The Story of a Boy’s Dangerous Odyssey to Reunite with His Mother” by Sonia Nazario

In this astonishing true story, award-winning journalist Sonia Nazario recounts the unforgettable odyssey of a Honduran boy who braves unimaginable hardship and peril to reach his mother in the United States.

Also available in eBook (Young Adult adaptation).

Learn About the History of Immigration in the United States

A Century of Immigration, 1820-1924 by Christopher Collier
A Century of Immigration: 1820-1924” by Christopher Collier and James Lincoln Collier

This work aimed at young readers reviews the century of 1820 through 1920, in which there were two waves of immigration to the United States. This book discusses the varied motivations and nationalities of these new Americans, as well as the effects of mass immigration on the country as a whole, and the rise of antiforeign sentiments among more recent immigrants.

Also available in eAudio.

This land is our land : the history of American immigration / Linda Barrett Osborne
This Land is Our Land: The History of American Immigration” by Linda Barrett Osborne

Geared towards young readers, “This Land is Our Land” explores the history of how immigration has shaped America exploring the ways government policies and popular responses to immigrant groups have evolved in the country, particularly between 1800 and 1965, and includes a profile of how today’s immigration has become a hot-button issue.

Also available in eBook-hoopla and eBook-Overdrive.

The American Immigrant: An Illustrated History by Life books
The American Immigrant: An Illustrated History” by Life books

A lively, visual portrait of the arrival of immigrants in America captures the many diverse peoples and cultures that have made American their home, as well as the important influence of these various cultures on the evolution of American history and society.

Immigrant Stories in Movies and Documentaries

America : Promised Land - Season 1
America: Promised Land

Season one of this compelling documentary series chronicles the massive immigration patterns of ethnic groups to the United States, anchored by interviews with descendants of ancestors and geographical imagery that showcases the history of how America was populated.

Also available in eVideo.

Foreign Letters directed by Ela Thier
Foreign Letters” directed by Ela Thier

In this touching tale of young friendship Ellie, a 12-year-old Israeli immigrant, and Thuy, a Vietnamese refugee, form a powerful bond that helps Ellie cope with the hardships of adjusting to her new life in the states.

Also available in eVideo.

Which Way Home directed by Rebecca Cammisa
Which Way Home” directed by Rebecca Cammisa

In 2006, Rebecca Cammisa received a Fulbright Scholar Grant to travel to Mexico to document the plight of the children left behind when their families travel to the United States to find work. This Oscar®-nominated film is the result of her journey.

Also available in eVideo.

The Citizen directed by Sam Kadi
The Citizen” directed by Sam Kadi

A gripping tale of courage, love, and perseverance, revolving around a Middle Eastern man’s dream to become an American citizen and the prejudice and barriers he faces on his journey to attain the American dream.

Also available in eVideo.

Documented directed by Jose Antonio Vargas
Documented” directed by Jose Antonio Vargas

In 2011, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas outed himself as an undocumented immigrant in an essay published in the New York Times Magazine. “Documented” chronicles his journey to America from the Philippines as a child; his journey through America as an immigration reform activist; and his journey inward as he re-connects with his mother, whom he hasn’t seen in person in over 20 years.

Also available in eVideo.

If you enjoyed this blog post, then you may also like …

Young Immigrant Stories for Kids

Booklists Featuring Immigrant and Refugee Stories

15 Books for Kids About the Immigrant Experience in America – Brightly

25 Kid and YA Books That Lift Up Immigrant Voices – School Library Journal

The Refugee Experience for Teens – The Hub

The Best Nonfiction and Fiction Books About Immigration – Book Scrolling

Coming to America: 50 Greatest Works of Immigration Literature – Open Education Database (OEDb)

Online Resources for Immigration Heritage Month

Academy of American Poets

I Am an Immigrant

Library of Congress



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