Updated: Mar 10, 2019
By Alan Gratz
This book can be purchased at Mill Street Books in Almonte
A few days ago, Canada granted asylum to Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, an 18-year old Saudi woman who claims that she fled abuse from her family in Saudi Arabia. After fleeing to Thailand, Rahaf launched a social media campaign about her plight, which was viewed by people around the world. While Raha’s situation has raised more awareness about women's rights in Saudi Arabia, it is a reminder of the plight of millions of refugees around the world.
I often struggle with talking to my children about refugee crises, in large part because it involves difficult conversations about war, injustice and suffering. Are my children too young to understand these complex problems? Will they be traumatized? Don’t I have an obligation to teach them about these issues so they are aware of what is going on in the world?
Refugee is a historical fiction for young readers by Alan Gratz. It chronicles the lives of three young people and their families who flee their countries as a result of conflict. The stories take place in three different historical periods, on three different continents, but are woven together with a common theme that depicts the harsh and painful experience that millions of refugees face as they seek a new home in a foreign country.
Isabel is an eleven-year-old Cuban trumpet player whose family travels on a make shift boat to Florida. They were part of the 1994 Cuban Raft Exodus, which witnessed thousands of Cuban refugees fleeing their country, many seeking asylum in the United States.
Mahmoud, a twelve-year-old boy from Aleppo is forced to leave Syria with his family after an air strike destroys their home in 2015. They begin their long journey to seek asylum in Germany, surviving a harrowing trip across the Mediterranean Sea on an overcrowded rubber dinghy.
Joseph is a young Jewish boy whose father has been released from a concentration camp on condition that his family immediately leave Germany. In 1938, as twelve-year-old Joseph is about to make his Bar Mitzvah, they board the MS St-Louis that is bound for Cuba in hopes of a new beginning.
All three stories reveal the arduous journey that refugees face when they have to flee their homes and lives with very little possessions but with a deep sense of hope that they will seek refuge in a safe and welcoming country.
The chapters are short and very engaging, drawing the reader into an intense narrative. Some of the scenes are heart wrenching and very difficult to read. Gratz delves into the ugliness of the holocaust, the Syrian war, the political instability in Cuba, and the great lengths these characters go to, crossing dangerous oceans and distant lands in hope of safety. He does not shy away from describing death, loss, and the mental and emotional trauma of survival. As an adult, I found some of the scenes horrifying but this is a story that needs to be told. It provides a raw and detailed account for readers into the true experiences of refugees, and encourages us to appreciate what it really means to be forced to leave your life behind and move towards a world of uncertainty, contempt and struggle.
While this book is for children ages 8 and up, I think it is more suitable for older children, over ten because some of the subject-matter is very heavy. I also think that every adult should read this book.
Refugee is thought-provoking, reminding me how history repeats itself; what it means when governments and their people turn away refugees seeking asylum at their borders. But it also speaks to efforts of governments, such as Germany, who have welcomed refugees into its country, despite the history of Nazi Germany decades earlier. One character is fleeing the Nazi regime in Germany and another character is seeking refuge in Germany decades later.
Refugee also inspired me to do more to advocate for refugees. At the end of the book, Gratz shares with his readers what we all can do to help refugees.
This book is historical fiction, but as Gratz explains in his author’s note, some of the characters are real. One of the characters in the book, Mahmoud’s brother Waleed, is based on an image of a Syrian boy, Omran Daqneesh, who was among the many faces of the Syrian war. I remember seeing the image of Omran at an international photographic society event a few years ago; his face catatonic, covered in blood and gray ash. It was a haunting image of the true cost of war on the most innocent. This is ultimately what Gratz conveys in Refugee.
In November, 2018 Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offered a formal apology for denying asylum to over 900 German Jews who travelled on board the MS St. Louis from Germany to Cuba. The ship returned to Europe and over 200 of those passengers were killed in the holocaust.
We have to remember our role in history so that we can avoid repeating these mistakes in the future.
The publisher, Scholastic, has shared a discussion guide about Refugee.
Also, the Choices Program at Brown University has put together a collection of Refugee Stories: Mapping the Crisis. This is a great teaching tool for teachers in the classroom.
Check out our diversity library for a list of books about immigration and refugees.