Refugee is about three different children who embark on dangerous journeys as they escape from horrific regimes in their homeland. It tells the story of Josef, Isabel, and Mahmoud and their families. The novel switches back and forth between each story as they suffer hardships on their journey to asylum.
We first meet Josef, a Jewish boy who lives in Berlin. His home is invaded in 1938, and his father is sent to a concentration camp. However, he is allowed to leave, as long as he leaves Germany. With plans to travel to Cuba, his family meets him at the ship, but he is now a much thinner, more paranoid man. Once they board the ship, they feel safer, but then Josef hears the crew sing the Nazi anthem and discuss killing Jews. When the ship arrives in Cuba, it anchors far away, and the family keeps being told they will be able to get off the ship the next day. After a few days, they are told the ship is not allowed to dock in Cuba. They try docking in the United States, but are also turned away. The boat heads back to Europe, and Josef takes part in a mutiny on board. Josef and his family do receive asylum in France, but before long, the Nazis invade that country too.
The second story line follows Isabel, who lives in Havana in 1994. She watches a riot in which her father is beaten. Her family then decides they must leave Cuba, and they do so in a homemade boat. They head for Miami while the police are shooting at them. On their way, the motor on the boat stops working, and when they finally get it working again, one of the passengers falls out. Isabel jumps in the water to save him. The boat begins to fall apart just as they see the lights of Miami in the distance. The Coast Guard arrives as her mother goes into labor. She delivers the baby as they are paddling to shore after her grandfather distracts the Coast Guard so the rest of the family can make it to Miami.
The third story follows Mahmoud, who lives in Syria and experiences a missile exploding in his home in 2015. He and his family make it out of their home and begin their journey to Turkey, where they receive temporary visas. They try to cross the Mediterranean, but keep being told to come back the following day. On one stormy night, they are finally allowed to board an inflatable raft, but it crashes into rocks. They all fall in the water, and Mahmoud’s mother gives his sister to a boat that passes by. Eventually, they are saved by the Coast Guard but are unable to find the sister. They decide to keep traveling and cross Macedonia. They then go into Serbia, where they are held up at gunpoint. When they make it to Hungary, they are arrested at the border and imprisoned. They are able to walk out of the prison with other refugees and walk to Austria, then Germany, where they are finally given asylum. The story comes full circle when they stay with a German couple who turns out to be Josef’s sister. She explains to them that Josef sacrificed himself so that she could survive the war.