Tale of a touching gift passed on to a new refugee family turns into picture book

Doll originally given to Tran-Davies became part of museum exhibit

For Nhung N. Tran-Davies, her autobiographical picture book The Doll, illustrated by Ravy Puth, isn’t just personal – it’s a book four decades in the making.

When her family first arrived in Canada as refugees from the Vietnam War, their sponsors’ daughter, Adrienne, gave her the eponymous doll.

“Having come from war and poverty, that doll came to symbolize for me the kindness, generosity, and compassion of so many Canadians,” Tran-Davies explains. In particular, the doll reminds her of the people who sponsored her family to come to Canada, particularly Adrienne, to whom the book is dedicated.

As her family settled into life in Canada and Tran-Davies grew older, she kept the doll on her shelf as a treasured reminder of the kindness of strangers. “Knowing that all that I have and all that I’ve become are because of them, I live to honour their kindness and to pay [it] forward,” she says.

A few years ago, Tran-Davies felt compelled to act when she heard about the war in Syria.

“Seeing the thousands of desperate refugees, the crammed boats, the reports of many perishing at sea brought back memories of our own journey,” says Tran-Davies. She gathered her friends to sponsor two refugee families. Then “it was my turn to stand at the airport gates to give a doll to little Alma, a child refugee from Syria.”

That moment was caught on camera by CBC broadcasters and, through social media, captured the hearts of people around the world. Knowing that her story had had such an impact on so many people inspired Tran-Davies to write the book.

The publication process was full of surprises, but of the best kind. “What I didn’t expect was Ravy reaching out from Montreal to talk to me, to get to know me, to get a sense of my vision for the story,” she explains. “I cried when I first saw the illustrations.” The artist even captured the original doll’s cinnamon-coloured hair.

Nhung N. Tran-Davies
Nhung N. Tran-Davies

Tran-Davies’s doll has become a traveller, too. In 2018, it was part of a temporary exhibit called Refuge Canada at the Canadian Museum of Immigration. This exhibit is now travelling across the country until 2024.

“I find it funny that while most of us are stuck at home with the 2020 COVID upheaval, she continues to travel across the country,” says Tran-Davies. “In fact, I’m a little envious.”

Having one of her personal possessions in a nationwide exhibit has been humbling for Tran-Davies. “It moves me to know that the doll is there,” she says, and that it “could possibly change the course of someone else’s life.

“It warms my heart to know our story is recognized as an important part of Canadian history.”

Tran-Davies hopes her book can provide similar insights to readers.

“Most of all,” she says, “I’d like readers to be empowered with the knowledge that they can positively change the course of someone else’s life. That is, for them to appreciate that a seemingly small act of kindness in a moment of time can ripple forth beyond our doors and neighbourhoods, across the world, and through the generations.”