Three young people are looking for refuge, a place for themselves and their families to live in peace. Separated by decades in time and by oceans in geography, their stories share similar emotional traumas and desperate situations. . . . and, at the end, connect in astounding ways. Josef in 1930s Nazi Germany, Isabel in 1990s Cuba, and Mahmoud in present-day Syria — all three hang on to their hope for a new tomorrow in the face of harrowing dangers.
About the Author
Alan Gratz is the acclaimed author of several books for young readers, including Prisoner B-3087, which was named to YALSA’s Best Fiction for Young Adults list; Code of Honor, a YALSA Quick Pick; and Projekt 1065; a Kirkus Best Book of the Year. Alan lives in North Carolina with his wife and daughter. Look for him online at alangratz.com.
In this book, you will encounter cultures that may or may not be familiar to you. Research and become familiar with these terms before you read:
For Josef’s story: Adolf Hitler, Kristallnacht, Dachau, bar mitzvah, minyan, yarmulke, tallisim, Führer
For Isabel’s story: Batista, Fidel Castro, el norte, clave, mañana
For Mahmoud’s story: Bashar al-Assad, Aleppo, Daesh, Mecca, hijab, EU (European Union)
Key Ideas and Details
- Discuss the reasons that Josef, Isabel, and Mahmoud’s families leave their homes. What are the situations in each of their lives that force them to flee? How are their situations similar and how are they different? CCSS.RL.4–7.1
- What is the theme of this book as expressed through the central characters? What do you feel is the most important idea in each of these stories? Provide examples in the plot of each story to support your ideas. CCSS.RL.4–7.2,3
- Discuss the personalities of each of these young people: Josef, Isabel, and Mahmoud. In what ways do each of them have to take charge of their families’ plights at different points in their story? Describe the points at which each young person has to act as an adult. CCSS.RL.4–7.3
- How do the parents in each of these families change in the course of their journeys? Compare the fathers and mothers of Josef, Isabel, and Mahmoud, and discuss the ways that events in each story shape their responses to their situation. CCSS.RL.4–7.1, 3
- Compare the method of travel for each of these refugee families. How does Josef’s sea voyage compare to those of Isabel and Mahmoud? What is the most threatening part of each of these voyages and how do those threats create obstacles for the families as they travel? CCSS.RL.4–7.3
Craft and Structure
- Josef says, “It was like they were invisible . . . people chose not to see them.” (p. 18) How does this simple statement reflect his experience on the train in Nazi Germany. Why do the people ignore them? Compare his experience to Mahmoud’s when he says, “They only see us when we do something they don’t want us to do.” (p. 214) CCSS.RL.4–7.4
- Why do you think the author chose to tell these three stories in alternating chapters? What is the effect on the reader of moving back and forth between the stories from different periods of history? CCSS.RL.4–7.5
- Who are the helpful people in each of these three journeys? Why do others treat the refugees with meanness and disrespect? How do these experiences affect each of the families and lead to the survival of certain family members? CCSS.RL.4–7.6
- How does the author develop the point of view of each of the characters? What is the impact of seeing how many days each character has been away from home at the start of each section? How do the stories of these three children intersect in the end, even though they are separated by many years? CCSS.RL.4–7.6
Integration of Knowledge and Ideas
- Listen to the audiobook of Refugee. What is the experience of hearing the main characters speak rather than reading their words on the page? How does your perception of these stories change when you hear them narrated in a recording? CCSS.RI.4–7.7
- Compare the stories of Josef, Isabel, and Mahmoud to others you have read about refugee children. There are many stories of Holocaust victims like Josef and his family, but fewer that recount events that are more recent, such as the war in Syria. Compare the experience of Mahmoud’s family to one described in a Time Magazine article: http://time.com/a-syrian- refugee-story/ CCSS.RI.4–7.
- Research the history of the three dictators in these stories — Adolf Hitler, Fidel Castro, and Bashir al-Assad. Discuss how the policies and beliefs of these leaders have affected the lives of the characters in each story. Are the lives of the people in each of these places still the same today or have their lives improved? CCSS.RL.4–7.9
Can you find places in your community that are helping refugees to settle into a new life? Discuss ways that you could help children that have been affected by a refugee experience become acclimated to a different country with different customs. CCSS.RL.4–7.9
Recommended Further Reading After Finishing Refugee
90 Miles to Havana by Enrique Flores-Galbis. Roaring Brook. 2010
Based on the author’s experiences when he was sent away from Cuba during Operation Pedro Pan in 1961, this is a heart-wrenching account of families torn apart and the terror of a boy alone in a refugee camp.
Darkness Over Denmark: The Danish Resistance and the Rescue of the Jews by Ellen Levine. Holiday House. 2000
These factual stories chronicle the remarkable efforts by the Danish people to help the Jewish population escape from the Nazi regime in 1943, based on interviews with survivors.
Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. Bantam reissue edition. 1993
When Anne’s Amsterdam family goes into hiding from the Nazis in 1940, she records her most private feelings to her diary, a factual record of the difficulties of living life in hiding for over two years.
Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan. Scholastic. 2000
Forced to flee their privileged life in Mexico in the 1930s, Esperanza’s family lands in a migrant workers’ camp in California.
Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai. HarperCollins. 2011
In this story based on the author’s own experience as a refugee from Vietnam, a young girl eventually finds a new home in Alabama, but also the cruelty of classmates who make fun of her.
A Long Walk to Water: Based on a True Story by Linda Sue Park. Clarion. 2010
Salva, one of Sudan’s “lost boys,” spends years in a refugee camp before finding a new home in America. He later returns to Sudan where his story intersects with Nya’s, whose life revolves around carrying water for her family.
Lost and Found Cat: The True Story of Kunkush’s Incredible Journey by Doug Kuntz and Amy Shrodes. Crown. 2017
A refugee family that has fled the city of Mosul, in Iraq, is miraculously reunited with their beloved pet after he is lost on their boat to Greece.
Now Is the Time for Running by Michael Williams. Little, Brown. 2013
Deo and his brother Innocent flee the dusty soccer field in their village in Zimbabwe when the soldiers arrive. Hoping for a safe haven in South Africa, they face the prejudice that many refugees suffer.
Number the Stars by Lois Lowry. HMH Books for Young Readers. 2014 (25th anniversary edition)
Annemarie’s family joins the successful effort to help the Jewish population of Denmark to escape the country after the Nazi invasion. Based on a true story.
Outcasts United: The Story of a Refugee Soccer Team That Changed a Town by Warren St. John. Delacorte. 2012
Determined to help a diverse group of refugee children, a female soccer coach establishes a team called the Fugees in the Georgia town that is their new home.
Prisoner B-3087. Based on the true story by Alan Gratz with Ruth and Jack Gruener. Scholastic. 2013
As a boy of ten when the Nazis invade Poland, Yanek loses all he holds dear. During the course of World War II, he survives ten different concentration camps in a remarkable true story of survival.
The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney. Little, Brown. 2014
Life in Amira’s peaceful Sudanese village is destroyed by war, sending her on an arduous journey to a refugee camp where the simple gift of a red pencil opens new possibilities in her world.
Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey (Arabic and English edition) by Margriet Ruurs.
Illustrated with stone images by a Syrian artist, this is one family’s story of fleeing their war-torn country for refuge in Europe.