They only see us when we do something they don’t want us to do, Mahmoud realized. The thought hit him like a lightning bolt. When they stayed where they were supposed to be—in the ruins of Aleppo or behind the fences of a refugee camp—people could forget about them….
Mahmoud’s first instinct was to disappear below decks. To be invisible. Being invisible in Syria had kept him alive. But now Mahmoud began to wonder if being invisible in Europe might be the death of him and his family. If no one saw them, no one could help them. And maybe the world needed to see what was really happening here.
A calm came over Lito, as though he’d come to some sort of understanding, some decision. “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. I’m not going to make the same mistake twice.
According to UNICEF, almost fifty million children are uprooted from their homes, with 28 million fleeing conflict in places like Syria, Yemen, and South Sudan. Refugee tells the story of one such child—Mahmoud, feeling Aleppo after his home is destroyed—interspersed with the story of a Jewish child, Josef, on the MS St. Louis in 1939 and Isabel, a Cuban child fleeing for Miami in 1994. Refugee puts faces on the millions of children who, throughout the modern era, have been forced to flee their homes and seek refuge in lands not their own.
Briefly, if you are unfamiliar—the MS St. Louis was a ship containing over six hundred mostly-German, mostly-Jewish passengers fleeing a fledgling Nazi Germany. Though the ticketholders held valid Cuban visas, by the time the ship arrived, the visas had been used as a political tool and were cancelled, through no fault of the ship’s occupants. Cuba and the United States ultimately turned them away. The ship’s passengers wound up unloading in Belgium, France, and the UK. Many of the Jews aboard the ship were later rounded up as Germany invaded France and Belgium, with many perishing in concentration camps. Josef was a fictional passenger on this ship.
For many years in the modern era, particularly in the nineties, many Cubans fled their home countries in search of a better life—a life with enough food and education for their children. The “Wet Foot, Dry Foot” rule, in place until very recently, essentially held that if a Cuban was picked up at sea (with wet feet), he or she would be returned to Cuba via Guantanamo Bay. If the refugee made it to the coast of Miami—had “dry feet” when caught, he or should would be granted amnesty. Thousands upon thousands fled, with an untold (large) number drowning on the way. Isabel is one such child, fleeing Cuba in a ramshackle boat held together with string and chewing gum.
The current Syrian refugee crisis is one of the largest refugee crises of the modern era, with over thirteen million Syrians displaced, including five million outside of the country. Mahmoud tells the story of one such boy whose family chose to take the risk and leave, walking, swimming, and nearly drowning their way through Turkey, Macedonia, Hungary, Austria, and Germany.
Everything is Connected
As is common with a book like this, you begin to realize that the stories are connected—both in theme as well as with tangential characters. I won’t say more about the characters because I don’t want to spoil that part. From reading, however, I kept having a line from Ecclesiastes come back to me—“There is nothing new under the sun.” The current Syrian refugee crisis is nothing the world has not seen before. The question is whether we will behave better this time—when the modern MS St. Louis comes to our shorts, teeming with Syrian refugees, will we do better this time? Or will we send them back to almost certain death? I am afraid, with the current political climate and the most recent iteration of the travel ban, that we are headed to a repeat of history. History does not look kindly upon those who turned away the MS St. Louis, and I do not see how it will look kindly upon us for these failures.
Middle Grade Books
I typically struggle a bit with middle-grade books since they don’t tend to hold my attention. Thematically, I usually enjoy books with a bit more struggle than is appropriate for the typical middle-grade book. Language and writing are also vital for a book to hold my interest. Middle grade can thus rarely fully capture me—which is fine; these books aren’t really made for me.
With that said, I had no such struggles with Refugee. Though the language stayed on-grade for middle-grade readers, it held my attention and I fairly well devoured this one. The day after I finished, I recommended it to a coworker as a book he could read with his son, since it would capture both of their interests. This is considered a young YA or mature Middle-Grade book and would thematically be a bit much for the younger end of the YA spectrum.
Gratz includes a lengthy author’s note with his sources and explanations of how he developed certain characters (For example, Josef’s father is an amalgam of two actual passengers on the MS St. Louis). While I am not usually a fan of white authors telling the stories of people of color (as Mahmoud and Isabel are), Gratz seems to have taken pains to ensure accuracy and to be culturally respectful.
Additional Recommended Reading
I read this book for the Diverse Books Club books this month. Other books in the “flight” of books included Inside Out & Back Again and Music of the Ghosts. I loved the first and the review is here. I’m starting the second this week and can’t wait to dive in—it is set in Cambodia when people were fleeing the Khmer Rouge. I don’t know enough about the time in history and reading accurate historical fiction is one of my favorite ways to begin to learn more.
I also highly recommend Exit West—It is still my favorite book of the year so far and would have received a glowing, five-star review on this blog if I hadn’t read it several months before actually starting to write these reviews. Though the country is unnamed, the crisis so closely mirrors Syria as to essentially clearly be about the current crisis. Exit West raises interesting scenarios—in Refugee and in history, the US was able to turn away the MS St. Louis. Countries like the US are still able to turn away current Syrian refugees, while countries within the contiguous EU are currently trying to control the flood. In Exit West, doors appear to take refugees across borders. By going through a door, they are suddenly in London, San Francisco, etc. Exit West imagines a world were we have to live with and address refugees who cannot be kept out.
Published July 25, 2017 by Scholastic Press (@scholasticinc)
Author: Alan Gratz
Date read: October 12, 2017
Rating: 5 Stars, in the running for top five books of the year