“Refugee” Raises Questions About Life in Other Parts of the World


In the Young Adult Fiction book Refugee by Alan Gratz, three stories are woven together. The first one is about Josef, a 12-year-old Jewish boy trying to flee from 1930s Nazi Germany to Cuba with his family. The second story is about Isabel, an 11-year-old Cuban girl escaping Fidel Castro’s regime in the 1990s. The third story is about Mahmoud, a Syrian boy on a long quest in 2015, for a life without violence in Germany.

Isabel is 11 years old. She grew up in Havana and is deeply tied to her Cuban heritage through music. She is “thin, hungry, in need of a bath.” Though naive and flimsy, she does not hesitate to rise to the occasion when others are in urgent need. She trades her trumpet, which is perhaps the only valuable item she owned, for gasoline, so she and her family can ride in a boat and pursue freedom. She also jumps into the sea when her best friend’s father falls out from their handmade vessel. Isabel is an important character because she teaches us about the strength that exists deep inside a person, despite their outward appearance. She shows us the pressure someone this young might have to endure in parts of the world we do not see.

Josef: Josef is a 12-year-old Jewish boy who lives in Germany in 1938. On the “Night of Broken Glass,” his father is taken away to a concentration camp. After six months, his father is released but forced to leave Germany. The family reunites on board the MS St. Louis, a ship full of Jewish refugees heading to Cuba. Despite the hospitality of the crew, Josef’s father remains in horror from memories in Dachau. When Cuba rejects the refugees, Josef’s father jumps overboard, gets saved by Cuban policemen, and remains inland. The rest of the family departs with others on the ship and finds refuge in France. After ten months of peace, Josef, his mother, and his sister are found by Nazi soldiers. Josef and his mother agreed to be taken to concentration camps so the little girl, Ruthie, could live.

Isabel: Isabel is an 11-year-old Cuban girl in 1994. Without support from the Soviet Union, Cuba suffers from poverty and famine. Isabel’s family of four, together with five other people from her best friend’s family, drift into the sea in a handmade boat toward Florida. In a storm, the vessel shifts off course and lands in the Bahamas. It takes another two days, through a journey filled with storms, sharks, and coast-guard ships, for them to arrive at the Miami coast. Eventually, eight people make it into the United States, but, unfortunately, Isabel’s best friend is killed by the sharks on the way.

Mahmoud: Mahmoud is a 13-year-old Syrian boy in 2015. In hopes of escaping the violence and turbulence in his home country, his family embarks on a long journey by boat, in a car, and on foot to Europe, passing through Turkey, Greece, Hungary, and Austria. When thrown off into the Mediterranean sea, they decided to send Mahmoud’s baby sister, Hana, onto a refugee boat that passed by. A week later, the rest of the family found their way into Germany. They lived with two elderly hosts, one of whom was Ruthie, a Jewish girl who was also a refugee six decades ago.

To start with, I liked the book because the message is essential and timely. Growing up in a resourceful household and a rather peaceful part of the world, I have never been through poverty and homelessness. The love and comfort I live with block my vision of the darkness that exists within humanity. As I read more and more, I start to be aware of events in the world that I am missing out on. This book takes me further into the exploration of humanity, tears me apart inside, and makes me wonder what causes the seemingly advanced human society to step backwards. The personal stories within the book impacted me profoundly by putting me in the shoes of the refugees who are all around my age. How come I am living so comfortably while they have to go through life-or-death situations, What makes me so fortunate; are we really that different from each other? The questions and doubts this book triggers are what make its message worth spreading. 

Moreover, the overall writing technique presented by the author is exquisite. There is a good balance between drama and realism, where details are written out and intense events are woven together. The historical facts are very accurate and elevate the story into something heartier than merely a fictional novel. The author’s investment in research, along with his dramatic effects, helps build a powerful, convincing storyline. He also skillfully connects three separate stories, which reminds me once again that history only stops repeating itself when lessons are learned. Although those events are set in the past tense, this book can forever be applied to our current society because we have to keep reflecting on our previous experiences to avoid the same mistakes. I appreciate the author’s effort and the tools he uses to make even the people who aren’t refugees care.  

However, despite the author’s success in getting his point across, I did notice some awkward phrases used in conversations between characters. The lines seem to be read off from a script instead of being realistic reactions of someone in the specific cases presented. For example, when a dinghy full of refugees chopped past Mahmoud, who was tumbling in the sea and struggling not to drown, a conversation run like this,

     “Let go!” a woman in the dinghy yelled down at him. “You’re dragging on us!”

     “Let us in! Please!” Mahmoud begged. It was all his mother could do to hang on to the dinghy and to Hana. 

     “We can’t! There’s no room!” a man inside the dinghy yelled. 

     “Please,” Mahmoud begged. “We’re drowning.”

     “I’ll call the Coast Guard for you!” a man said. “I have their number on my phone!”

I suppose that the author extends this conversation and makes the words clear so young readers would be able to perceive the scene. Though it is a clever tactic considering the target age group of this book, it is obvious that someone could not maintain such a long and clearly understood conversation in the sea. This conversation, as well as some others in the book, takes away the fear and sorrow the author has built through his meticulous descriptions.

Overall, I would say that this is a brilliant book and one of substantial significance. I would give it a score between three and four only because of the unnatural conversations that diminish the storyline.