72 pages 2 hours read

Alan Gratz


Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 2017

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Summary and Study Guide


Refugee is a historical, young adult fiction novel by Alan Gratz.

First published in 2017, Refugee became a New York Times bestseller.

Plot Summary

The novel follows the stories of three refugee children in three different geographic locations and points in time. Each child experiences traumatic losses and personal victories as they struggle to escape the political instability of their homelands. Josef Landau is fleeing Nazi Germany in 1939. Isabel Fernandez is escaping Castro’s Cuba in 1994. Mahmoud Bishara is leaving Syria during the volatile regime of Bashar al-Assad in 2015.

In 1939 Germany, Josef’s life is disrupted when Nazi Brownshirts drag his father away to a concentration camp. Months later, Josef’s father is returned to his family—a broken man. The Landaus board the MS St. Louis intending to make a new life for themselves in Cuba. However, tragedy strikes when the ship is refused entry into Havana Harbor, and Mr. Landau’s panicked mental state causes him to attempt suicide. After Landau is taken to a Cuban hospital, the ship is forced to leave him behind and go in search of another haven. Although the refugees eventually find new homes in Europe, Josef and his mother are captured by Nazis and die in a concentration camp. The only survivor is Josef’s little sister, Ruth.

In 1994 Cuba, Isabel, her family, and next-door neighbors board a leaky makeshift boat to travel to a new life in Miami before Fidel Castro can prevent their emigration. Over the course of their journey, the little band battles a hurricane, a near collision with an oil tanker, a motor that refuses to start, and a shark attack that kills one of the shipmates. Just as they are about to be apprehended by a US Coast Guard vessel, Isabel and her companions reach land in Miami, where they can start a new life for themselves.

In 2015 Syria, the wall of the Bishara apartment house is blown out by a missile strike. This convinces Mahmoud’s father that they need to leave the country immediately. Mahmoud and his family encounter unimaginable hardships as they travel through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, and Hungary on their way to their destination. In Hungary, the family is about to be deported back to Syria when Mahmoud leads a refugee march out of the detention center. The group walks all the way to the Austrian border, where they are welcomed. When Mahmoud and his family are placed with a host family in Germany, their sponsor proves to be Josef’s sister, Ruth. Josef’s sacrifice in 1940 made it possible for Ruth to help a new generation of refugees in 2015.