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Characters from the novel Refugee by Alan Gratz stand in front of a red and yellow background with a globe behind them


Refugee by Alan Gratz is a historical fiction novel written in 2017 that weaves together three compelling stories of families seeking sanctuary in other countries. The stories are set in different times and places and are told from the perspective of the refugee children. Josef's story is set in Nazi Germany in 1939. Isabel's story is set in Cuba in 1994 during a time of great economic crisis and upheaval. Mahmoud's story is set in Syria in 2015 during the Syrian Civil War. Refugee is both thrilling and heartrending. Students will see themselves in the young protagonists: children faced with insurmountable and tragic circumstances but who, at their heart, are just kids who love their families and want to live in peace.

Õpilaste tegevused saidil Pagulane



Refugee Summary

Refugee is a New York Times bestselling historical fiction novel. It tells the story of three refugee children and their families in different times and places. All are escaping persecution and seeking safety and freedom. Each story weaves actual events into the narrative to create a realistic picture of the struggle and tragedies that families in each of these situations have faced.

Josef's Story

Refugee by Alan Gratz

Josef Landau's story begins in 1938 in Nazi Germany. Josef, his father, mother, and little sister Ruthie are all asleep when their home is invaded during Kristallnacht, the night when Nazi police and "Brownshirts" were directed to destroy Jewish shops, homes, and synagogues, and terrorize Jewish citizens all across Germany. Josef's father, along with thousands of other Jewish men, was arrested and sent to Dachau, a concentration camp. Josef's family is finally reunited months later in 1939, and they attempt to escape Nazi Germany aboard the M.S. St. Louis, a ship taking Jewish refugees to Havana, Cuba. Josef's father suffers greatly from post traumatic stress disorder from his months of torture, starvation, and hard labor in the concentration camp. At only 13, Josef takes on much of the family's responsibilities. The St. Louis was an actual ship that sailed from Hamburg to Cuba in May, 1939 under the command of Captain Gustav Schröder. It carried 937 Jewish refugees who were seeking freedom from Nazi persecution in Germany. The trip is initially joyous and hopeful. However, the trouble begins when the ship docks in Havana harbor and the Cuban government does not allow the passengers to disembark. Josef, his family, and the passengers are now faced with the possibility of being returned to Germany and to their certain death.

Isabel's Story

Refugee by Alan Gratz

Isabel Fernandez's story begins in 1994 in Havana, Cuba under the oppressive rule of Fidel Castro. Her father is caught participating in the "Maleconazo" riot, during which citizens protested the government's civil rights abuses as well as the economic crisis that had plunged the nation into poverty. Faced with her father being sent to prison, Isabel and her family (her pregnant Mami, Papi, and grandfather Lito) decide to band together with Isabel's best friend Ivan and his family, the Castillos. The Castillos have been secretly building a makeshift boat and the next day, they set out together for Miami. The two families face much peril in the Florida straits: giant tankers, a hurricane that blows them off course, running out of fuel and water, deadly sharks, and Mami's going into labor all while trying to avoid the U.S. Coast guard so that they can make it to shore where they can claim asylum. Isabel's story is like that of thousands of other Cuban immigrants who all fled Castro's Cuba.

Mahmoud's Story

Refugee by Alan Gratz

Mahmoud Bishara's story begins in 2015, during the ongoing Syrian Civil War. His mother, father, little brother Waleed, and baby sister Hana barely manage to escape the bombing of their apartment building. Their city of Aleppo is in ruins and the family decide that leaving Syria is their only option if they wish to survive. The family face incredible hardship and tragedy throughout their long journey through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, and Hungary on their way to Germany. The family struggles between needing to stay "invisible" in order to avoid danger and survive and becoming "visible" so that those with means can give them aid. The Syrian Civil War is still ongoing as of 2021. It is called the most deadly conflict of the 21st century thus far, with 250,000 casualties and millions Syrians who have been forced to flee the devastation.


Refugee is a heart-pounding adventure as well as an important book that shines a light on a too often invisible and politicized problem. It gives the reader an unflinching look at the humanity, courage, and struggle of refugees seeking safety and freedom


Essential Questions for Refugee by Alan Gratz

  1. Who are the main characters in Refugee and what challenges do they face?
  2. What were some allusions (references to real people, places, events, religious practices, art, literature) present in the novel? What can you learn about the people and the time period from these allusions?
  3. What are some of the themes, symbols and motifs present in the novel? How does the symbolism help you better understand the characters and their motivations?
  4. What are the different settings of the novel and how does it affect and shape the characters?
  5. What are some ways that the characters were helped by the kindness and compassion of others? In what ways were they taken advantage of or harmed by the cruelty and apathy of others?
  6. In the back of the book, the author Alan Gratz offers ways that people can help refugees like Josef, Isabel, Mahmoud, and their families. What are some ways we can all help?

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