Children's Literature Bookshelf

Review: "Refugee"

“Refugee,” by Alan Gratz.
Scholastic Press, New York, 2017, 338 pages, Grades 8-10.

Refugees are forced to flee their homelands because of war, ethnic attacks and hatreds. These terrible situations have happened in many nations because of long held angers or greed to possess other countries.

The Holy Family was subject to such a plight. St. Matthew tells us: “Behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise and take the Child and His mother and flee to Egypt and remain there till I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the Child, to destroy Him. And he arose and took the Child and His mother by night and departed for Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod.” Mt 2:13-15. So shortly after the Savior of the world was born in Bethlehem, He was forced to become a refugee and be taken to a foreign land by His parents. The Holy Family, like many modern-day refugees, had done nothing wrong. Yet they were still persecuted.

Alan Gratz’s novel, “Refugee,” is a masterful account of three refugee situations that have occurred in the last 80 years. Through their compelling accounts we see the heights and depths of human reactions to sufferings. With so many refugees fleeing to safety today, we would do well to try to learn what we should do as Christians and followers of Christ, Himself an infant refugee in Egypt.

Josef Landau is a young Jewish boy born in Germany in the 1930s. His family is well off and they have a pleasant life. This changes, however, when Hitler takes over Germany and enforces his diabolic hatred of Jews on the nation. Josef’s father is arrested and placed in a concentration camp. Thoroughly broken mentally, Mr. Landau is released from the concentration camp with the order to leave Germany within two weeks’ time. He cobbles together money to buy passage on a ship going to Cuba, one of the last countries to accept Jews.

The second refugee is Isabel Fernandez of Cuba. It is 1994 and all of Cuba is suffering from the evils inflicted on the island by Fidel Castro. After a riot in Havana, the Fernandez family must flee Cuba or risk Mr.  Fernandez being arrested by the secret police. How can they leave? They and their neighbors come up with a dangerous plan: they will build a boat and try to navigate it through the 90 treacherous miles to Florida. Although they aren’t sailors, they have little choice but to try.

The final refugee is Mahmoud Bishara from Aleppo, Syria. It is 2015 and Aleppo is under daily attacks from both sides involved in the Syrian civil war. During one attack, the back of his apartment building is blown off. Now without shelter, Mahmoud and his family have no option but that of fleeing Syria. The journey is hundreds of miles across treacherous seas and hostile countries.

Gratz takes the readers though the harrowing events in each of the three refugees’ flights. We see people acting with great courage and nobility while others exploit the vulnerable refugees. Throughout all three stories the effects of different governments and people depersonalizing the refugees is apparent. When the refugees cease to be viewed as people, all charity can be lost. It is then that the worst abuses happen.
The author does not flinch when describing the situations all three refugees find themselves in. But there is still much hope in this book. Some people always choose the higher good and assist the refugees and their families.

“Refugee” is particularly timely given displacement of so many people throughout the world today. Let us hope that if our time should ever come, we would act with the heart of Christ. For after all, He and the Holy Family were once refugees. 

Terrence Nollen




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