Calais kids and Chibok girls: the homecoming

Wave goodbye: One Syrian and five Afghan boys on the platform of Calais train station. © PA

Yesterday our screens were filled with emotional scenes of teenagers returning home to their families. First the Chibok girls. Then refugees from Calais. Why are their stories so powerful?

‘I’m very happy today,’ smiles Saadi, a teenager from Afghanistan. After fleeing his home country, for months he has lived in the cramped, muddy migrant camp near Calais, nicknamed the ‘Jungle’. No school. No bedroom. Alone, with his sister across the sea in London. But now he has finally left that world behind.

The Jungle’s days are numbered. French bulldozers are closing in, hoping to ‘disperse’ the 6,500 or so people still living there. Fearing what might happen to the camp’s children, Britain has ‘fast-tracked’ the asylum applications of dozens of eligible minors — including Saadi, who arrived over the weekend. Yesterday he was followed by 14 more teenagers, and there are still at least 100 more waiting to make the journey.

Each time, their relatives have been waiting for them. The emotional family reunions mark the end of a long, traumatic journey. It is ‘touching’ to watch, remarks the press, which has eagerly followed the story.

Four thousand miles away in the capital city of Nigeria, there are 21 girls who might understand how the Calais teenagers feel. They too have been reunited with their families after months of separation. They too have witnessed horrors that no young person should ever have to see. These are the ‘Chibok girls’, a group of 276 schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram in 2014.

Last week, a small number were finally released. They had been kept as slaves in the forest, washing and cooking for the militants. Food was scarce. But now they are back in the arms of their parents.

‘I felt like it was the day that I born her into this world,’ said one girl’s mother. ‘I danced and danced and danced.’

Together, images of these few young people have made headlines around the world. But why are their stories so powerful?

Journey’s end

The answer is simple, say some: they are about children. From Steven Spielberg to Charles Dickens, the greatest storytellers have always understood the power of children to move our emotions. As readers we believe they are innocent, we want to protect them, and we rejoice when they find a happy ending.

It goes deeper than that, say others. Their stories fit perfectly into one of the ‘seven basic plots’ outlined by Christopher Booker: the voyage and return. It goes like this: a hero leaves a safe home, enters a strange, dangerous new world and eventually returns home older and wiser. Think of Odysseus narrowly escaping shipwrecks and monsters as he journeys home after the Trojan War. Or Bilbo Baggins returning to The Shire with treasure from a dragon’s lair. Or Dorothy clicking her heels. Such stories fulfil a deep need for meaning and order in our lives. When they appear in the news, we cannot look away.

You Decide

  1. Were you moved by the stories told above?
  2. Is it true that we repeat the same stories throughout literature?


  1. List five other stories which fit into the basic ‘voyage and return’ plotline. They can be from books, film, or real life.
  2. Create a newspaper front page which includes your own news story about the Chibok girls or the teenagers arriving in Britain from Calais.

Some People Say...

“Telling stories is the one thing that unites every person on Earth.”

What do you think?

Q & A

But they are not stories — they’re real people!
Of course. And there are hundreds of girls still trapped by Boko Haram, and many more child refugees all around the world who are still dreaming of finding a safe home again. They should not be forgotten. But what we are talking about today is how the media present the stories of those who do have a happy ending, and how we — as readers — respond.
How can there only be seven plots?
Booker is not saying that exactly the same thing happens in every story. For example, sometimes the strange world of the Voyage and Return is wonderful (as in Oz) and sometimes it is terrifying (Dante’s Inferno). But you’re right — many have criticised his theory for being too broad, and for ignoring a lot of modern literature.

Word Watch

The official number from the French government. Charities say it is closer to 10,000.
The same official survey as above estimates that there are 1,200 children living alone in the camp.
Eligible minors
The EU’s Dublin regulation allows unaccompanied refugee children to be settled in a country where they have family.
276 schoolgirls
Around 50 escaped soon after the kidnapping. Of those remaining, half became wives for the militants and half slaves. They are the focus of an international campaign called #bringbackourgirls.
Christopher Booker
The author wrote a book on the subject which analysed thousands of novels and films.
Hero of The Odyssey, an epic Greek poem by Homer.
Bilbo Baggins
Hero of The Hobbit, a fantasy series by JRR Tolkien, and prequel to The Lord of the Rings .
Heroine of The Wizard of Oz, a children’s book by L. Frank Baum which was adapted into a popular film and musical.

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