Forced by life-or-death circumstances to flee home at a moment’s notice, the young protagonists of Refugee by Alan Gratz illustrate the journeys of asylum seekers in three periods of history. In 1938, Josef, a Jewish boy, boards the MS St. Louis for Cuba hoping for freedom for persecution. Isabel, her family, and her next-door neighbors, in 1994 board a handmade raft to Miami from Cuba after her father took part in a demonstration against Fidel Castro. Mahmoud and his family leave his beloved city of Aleppo, in ruins after six years of civil war, in 2014, after their apartment building is destroyed by a missile. Despite being separated by decades, the families are interconnected in surprising ways.
Though each has a unique voyage, similarities run through the pilgrimages. They all experience danger; watch as their families separate, sometimes permanently, witness death; and take on adult roles even though they are only twelve or thirteen. The book also shows how living besieged and then as refugees can affect people differently. Additionally, the reader can find interesting symbolic parallels such as the role of dictators and how they are displayed visually in each society.
These are heady and difficult issues, but Gratz presents them in an age-appropriate way. Especially at the beginning of the book, he provides a lot of context about the leaders in power in Germany, Cuba, and Syria, and the conditions that create refugees. While there is a lot of loss and sorrow in the book, it ends on a hopeful note.
I would recommend this book to any guardians who want their children to learn more about the refugee crisis. It’s also a book that promotes empathy with people of other cultures and backgrounds. Adults, too, can learn from the story.