Refugee by Alan Gratz was the most important book I’ve read this summer; its powerful story is timeless, mainly because we don’t seem to be able to heed its message or behave in ways which create unceasing wars that lead to waves of refugees seeking sanctuary from danger and devastation.
Here’s the jacket copy summary:
Three different kids.
One mission in common: ESCAPE.
Josef is a Jewish boy in 1930s Nazi Germany. With the threat of concentration camps looming, he and his family board a ship bound for the other side of the world…
Isabel is a Cuban girl in 1994. With riots and unrest plaguing her country, she and her family set out on a raft, hoping to find safety and freedom in America…
Mahmoud is a Syrian boy in 2015. With his homeland torn apart by violence and destruction, he and his family begin a long trek toward Europe…
All three young people will go on harrowing journeys in search of refuge. All will face unimaginable dangers–from drownings to bombings to betrayals. But for each of them, there is always the hope of tomorrow. And although Josef, Isabel, and Mahmoud are separated by continents and decades, surprising connections will tie their stories together in the end.
Joseph, Isabel and Mahmoud are all the same age when they must flee their homelands – twelve; they are at that stage of their lives when they are between the innocence and magical thinking of childhood, and a more circumspect and realistic understanding of the worlds they live in. This kind of dual perspective lends their individual stories a moving poignancy, and makes a powerful impact – how do children who have seen their worlds fall apart in such cruel ways ever return to having hope, to believing in humanity?
Gratz does not hold back from describing what war and persecution looks like and feels like; he is especially careful to also include unexpected acts of kindness, as well as moments when people turn away from doing what little they can to assuage suffering. In other words, Refugee is realistic. What makes it a difficult book to read, however, is the way we see history repeating itself time and time again, in every part of the world.
I was moved, too, by the way Gratz described the anguish and frustration of the refugee. Here, for instance, Mahmoud ponders over the predicament of his family as they make one harrowing journey after another trying to find safety:
But Mahmoud wasn’t ready to give up. He wanted life to be like it was before the war had come. They couldn’t go back to Syria. Not now. Mahmoud knew that. But there was no reason they couldn’t make a new life for themselves somewhere else. Start over. Be happy again. And Mahmoud wanted to do whatever it took to make that happen. Or at least try.
But making something happen meant drawing attention. Being visible. And being invisible was so much easier. It was useful too, like in Aleppo, or Serbia, or here in Hungary. But sometimes it was just as useful to be visible, like in Turkey and Greece. The reverse was true too, though: Being invisible had hurt them as much as being visible had.
Mahmoud frowned. And that was the real truth of it, wasn’t it? Whether you were visible or invisible, it was all about how other people reacted to you. Good and bad things happened either way. If you were invisible, the bad people couldn’t hurt you, that was true. But the good people couldn’t help you, either. If you stayed invisible here, did everything you were supposed to and never made waves, you would disappear from the eyes and minds of all the good people out there who could help you get your life back.
Of course, “the people” these three characters encounter across different time frames and continents, are the rest of us – the lucky ones who are not displaced, who live in security, whose lives are not upended by circumstances beyond our control. And, more often than not, we choose to “disappear” the Mahmouds, Isabels and Josephs because it’s uncomfortable, or because choosing not to do something is easier than speaking up and doing the right thing.
The gift of this book is that we can share this story with our students, and open conversations about what it means to see people, to act on their behalf, to keep ourselves open to the idea that we all own a share of the suffering displaced people face, and we must change the way in which we respond. Isabel’s grandfather says this:
“I see it now, Chabela. All of it. The past, the present, the future. All my life, I kept waiting for things to get better. For the bright promise of mañana. But a funny thing happened while I was waiting for the world to change, Chabela: it didn’t. Because I didn’t change it.”
The idea of changing the world, of doing what we can to make it a better place, is one that is especially important now, in Trump’s America, where toxic messages of hate and indifference to suffering are reaching our kids through news every day. We will be reading Refugee in my sixth grade class, and I look forward to many important discussions with my students – to change.