Visible and invisible: The stories of refugees

In this masterfully crafted young adult novel, author Alan Gratz weaves together the fictional stories of three young teens living in different historical periods who are forced to flee their countries, along with their families, in order to save their lives.

In 1938, a Jewish boy named Josef lived in Berlin, Germany. Josef’s father was arrested by the Nazis and sent to Dachau. In the concentration camp, he was subjected to unspeakable horrors, and his mind, body, and spirit were broken. Surprisingly, he was released, but on the condition that he leave Germany within 14 days. Josef and his family booked passage on the MS St. Louis, expecting to be brought to Cuba and admitted into that country. But their hopes were dashed as the welcome they anticipated never ensued.

In 1994, Isabel lived in Havana, Cuba. Political realities – the recent collapse of the Soviet Union and the United States embargo against trade with Cuba – resulted in widespread hunger and riots in the streets as people protested their plight. Cuban president Fidel Castro responded by allowing citizens to leave Cuba without fear of arrest or other reprisals. Isabel, her family, and some neighbours grabbed the chance at freedom and set out on an unreliable homemade boat for the United States.

In 2015, a Muslim boy named Mahmoud suffered as day after day the situation in Aleppo, Syria, deteriorated. He and his family escaped. On a journey fraught with danger, they relied on human smugglers and technology to make their way to Germany.

In a remarkable, surprise ending, Alan Gratz pulls together the plot lines of Josef, Isabel and Mahmoud’s stories. He also shows how their narratives are connected through their common experiences of fear, hunger, loss of loved ones, danger at sea, violence, disorientation, and the psychological impact of dislocation and war. In a more hopeful light, Gratz reveals their shared experience of surreptitiously receiving kindness from people in authority, witnessing courage in people who were facing seemingly insurmountable odds, and being sheltered by the love of family and friends.

Gratz fleshes out one theme in particular, that of invisibility and visibility. Mahmoud expresses it well; once when he and his brother prayed publicly, they felt the scorn of onlookers. Mahmoud had an epiphany: “They only see us when we do something they don’t want us to do, Mahmoud realized. . . . 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. But when refugees did something they didn’t want them to do – when they tried to cross the border into their country, or slept on the front stoops of their shops, or jumped in front of their cars, or prayed on the decks of their ferries – that’s when people couldn’t ignore them any longer.”

Later, Mahmoud grew to understand other aspects of invisibility and visibility: “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 to get your life back.”

Josef, Isabel and Mahmoud’s stories are deeply moving, and the way Gratz juxtaposes their narratives is powerful. Sadly, though the historical circumstances on which each story was based have changed, so much has remained the same for the world’s refugees.

Gratz concludes his book by encouraging readers to support organizations that help refugees. He will be donating a portion of the proceeds from the sale of Refugee to UNICEF and their work of advocating for and helping refugee children.

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