Refugee by Alan Gratz: A Must Read

Akili Williams, Author

Refugee by Alan Gratz is an amazing, heartbreaking novel and a must read. Refugee follows the story of three children whose families were forced to flee their home country in search of safety. The story shifts perspective from Josef Landau, a Jewish boy living in Germany in 1938, Isabel Fernandez, a girl living in Cuba during the Cuban rafter crisis, and Mahmoud Bishara, whose family was fleeing from Syria while it was being ravaged by civil war. All of these stories teach the reader something important about compassion and empathy.

The story starts with Josef, which was a smart choice. The holocaust is one of the most well-known events in history, and by starting the story in this way, the reader is able to connect with a new story based on their past experiences. The first line further helps the reader connect with the characters because the story begins with action. The first sentence of the novel is “CRACK!”, and Josef is introduced by being startled out of his sleep. Both Josef and the reader are left confused, wondering what has happened. The next few pages are spent describing the Nazi’s assault on Josef’s home. The reader is still in shock and has no time to recover before being subjected to a scene filled with brutality. The scene quiets down as Josef’s father is taken by the Nazis. Both the reader and Josef are left reeling, trying desperately to calm down, and in that moment the reader understands Josef. They’ll never experience what he did, but they can feel his terror and confusion.

This opening is just one example of how Refugee’s stellar writing invokes empathy in the reader. Most people instinctively root for the main character in the book they are reading, so by making refugees the main characters in the story—and, by extension, giving statistics a face and a name—Gratz is teaching people to care about and have empathy for the struggles of refugees. By forcing the readers to feel Josef’s emotions and identify with him, Gratz is forcing the audience to internalize his struggles, and to take his suffering as a call to action. Isabel and Mahmoud are the same way.

Fiction teaches people to have empathy for others by giving names and faces to groups of people, instead of allowing the audience to distance themselves from an issue. Refugee is about fictional characters in real life situations and is designed to make the reader feel empathy. By reading stories like this, readers are able to put themselves into the shoes of displaced people and empathize with them more easily.

Millions of people throughout history have been forced from their homes in violent and often sudden ways, and novels like Refugee are necessary glimpses of that terror. Young people of today need to be educated on human rights issues such as these. Refugees aren’t just an unfortunate footnote in history, they’re our reality. The Syrian refugee crisis is still ongoing! Adolescents, the target audience of Refugee, should learn about these issues now so that they can take action in the future. Books like Refugee should never fade from memory.

“…facts may engender empathy in some students, for many others they are antiseptic. Numbers to be learned for a test, not calls for action or concern. For that, we must give statistics a name. A face. And that is exactly what I sought to do when I wrote Refugee.” –Alan Gratz, author of Refugee