by Alan Gratz

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Refugee Characters

The main characters in Refugee are Josef Landau, Isabel Fernandez, and Mahmoud Bishara.

  • Josef Landau is a twelve-year-old Jewish boy living in Berlin, Germany, in 1938. After his family is denied asylum in Cuba, Josef sacrifices himself so that his sister, Ruth, will be spared from the concentration camps.
  • Isabel Fernandez is eleven and lives in Havana, Cuba, in 1994. She plays trumpet and is deeply tied to Cuban culture. Most of her family is able to make it to Florida.
  • Mahmoud Bishara is a thirteen-year-old in Aleppo, Syria, in 2015, during the ongoing civil war. He and his family escape to Germany.


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Last Updated on September 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1357

Josef Landau

Twelve-year-old Josef is a Jewish boy in Berlin, Germany, in 1938. Awaiting his bar mitzvah—the Jewish ceremony that marks the passage from boyhood to manhood—Josef is shown to be proud of his heritage. However, his cultural pride is spoiled by fear. The Nazi Party rules Germany, and their leader, Adolf Hitler, wants to eradicate Jews from Europe. Forced to flee Germany, Josef and his family set sail for Cuba on the MS St. Louis.

From this point, Josef’s character arc takes on a new trajectory. With his father, Aaron, almost incapacitated by his experiences at the Nazi concentration camp Dachau, Josef is thrust into the role of a decisive adult. After his father is left behind in Cuba and the St. Louis turns back to Europe with most of its passengers, Josef grows more pensive, now placed firmly in the role of the man of the household. It is clear that his story is placed on a more tragic path than that of Isabel and Mahmoud, but Josef still holds out hope for a better future.

Though Josef, Rachel, and Ruth find asylum in France, the Landaus’ peaceful interlude is brief, as Hitler invades France in 1940. Forced to flee again, this time by foot to Switzerland, the Landaus run into four German soldiers. In exchange for Rachel’s diamonds, the soldiers allow her to leave one of her children behind in France—and in relative safety. Rachel is paralyzed by the impossible choice, and Josef steps in and decides to spare Ruth.

Decades later, Ruth returns to Germany to look for Rachel and Josef and learns that they both died in a Nazi concentration camp during the war. Josef sacrificed his life for his younger sister, performing the ultimate heroic act.

Isabel Fernandez

Isabel is eleven years old and lives in Havana, Cuba, in 1994, under Fidel Castro’s regime. Like Josef, Isabel is deeply connected to her heritage, especially through music. An expert trumpet player, Isabel worries about her inability to count the Cuban rhythm called clave. Despite her love for the music and boulevards of Havana, Isabel is acutely aware of the civil unrest and poverty plaguing her country. Though she is initially torn between her deep cultural ties for Cuba and the prospect of a safe existence elsewhere, she is spurred into decision when her father, Geraldo, runs into trouble with the Cuban police.

Isabel is shown to be extraordinarily courageous and resourceful, saving her father from the police and trading her trumpet for gasoline so the family can leave Cuba by boat along with their neighbors, the Castillos. Deeply attached to her best friend, Iván Castillo, and her grandfather Lito, Isabel makes heroic choices that prioritize human ties over everything else. Not only does he save Señor Castillo from drowning, she also guides her family to safe harbor in Miami, Florida. Yet she too faces her share of tragedy: Iván is attacked by a shark on their way to America and bleeds to death before Isabel’s eyes.

However, Isabel’s story ends on a positive note. After she lands in America, her great-uncle Guillermo gives her a trumpet, on which she spontaneously counts clave. Although Isabel has left Cuba, Cuba has not left her. In this, Isabel is an example of how displaced communities can continue their culture.

Mahmoud Bishara

Living in war-torn Aleppo, Syria, in 2015, thirteen-year-old Mahmoud has learned to survive the daily threat to his life by learning how to be “invisible.” Being anonymous is important in Aleppo: the Syrian Civil War has been wrecking the city since 2011, and the terror group...

(This entire section contains 1357 words.)

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ISIS (known in Syria as Daesh) has operatives everywhere. As members of the Shia minority, Mahmoud and his family—his ten-year-old brother, Waleed; his mother, Fatima; his father, Youssef; and his baby sister, Hana—are doubly marginalized. However, when their neighborhood is bombed, Mahmoud has no option but to become more visible and flee Aleppo with his family.

Like Josef and Isabel, the trauma of displacement forces Mahmoud to grow up fast as the family moves from Syria to Germany. One example of Mahmoud’s newfound decisiveness and willingness to be visible occurs when he flags down a kind taxi driver for help in Turkey, despite his father’s protests. Mahmoud’s arc from anonymity to visibility is complete when he comes to understand in Hungary that keeping his head down and avoiding the bullies is no longer an option:

If you were invisible, the bad people couldn’t hurt you, that was true. But the good people couldn’t help you, either.

Deciding instead to “stand up” and “stand out,” Mahmoud leads a group of Syrian refugees out of the Hungarian camp where they are being detained and into Austria. Finally, Mahmoud and his family find asylum in Germany with Ruth, Josef’s sister.

Ruth Landau Rosenberg

Josef Landau’s younger sister, Ruth is adopted by a kind French family after her mother and brother are captured by the Nazis. After World War II ends, Ruth learns that Rachel and Josef died in a German concentration camp. She marries Saul Rosenberg, another Holocaust survivor, and settles down in Berlin. Ruth gives Mahmoud and his family a place to stay and empathizes with their plight as refugees.

Aaron Landau

Josef and Ruth’s father, Aaron Landau is a Jewish lawyer who lives in Berlin. He suffers a mental breakdown after he is forcibly taken to Dachau. After he jumps into the ocean from the St. Louis, he is taken in by Cuban authorities. He remains in Cuba, and the rest of his family are sent back to Europe.

Rachel Landau

Mother to Josef and Ruth, Rachel gains asylum in France with her children after the three are turned away from Cuba. However, after Germany invades France, Rachel is forced to flee on foot to Switzerland, and she is arrested by Nazi officers. She and Josef die in a concentration camp during World War II.

Geraldo Fernandez

Isabel’s father, Geraldo, has tried unsuccessfully to leave Cuba several times before the novel begins. After the police spot Geraldo participating in a riot in Havana, he decides to leave Cuba. Though his father-in-law, Lito, thinks Geraldo does not prioritize his family, by the end of the novel, Geraldo proves himself to be a devoted father and husband.

Teresa Fernandez

Teresa is Isabel’s mother and Geraldo’s wife. Nine months pregnant at the start of Isabel’s story, Teresa gives birth to Isabel’s baby brother on the boat to the United States.

Lito (Mariano Padron)

Isabel’s beloved grandfather Lito encourages her interest in music and love for Cuba. He reveals an old secret to Isabel as they near the United States: as a police officer in 1939, Lito did not let Jewish refugees from the St. Louis disembark in Cuba. He atones for denying the passengers asylum by letting himself be deported to Cuba so that his family can make it safely to Florida. Thus, Lito represents the power of empathy and redemption for past actions.

Iván Castillo

Isabel’s best friend and a gifted baseball player, Iván flees Cuba with her on his family’s boat. Iván tragically dies in a shark attack en route to the US, highlighting the perils children face as refugees.

Waleed Bishara

Mahmoud’s younger brother, ten-year-old Waleed is described by Mahmoud as being “broken” piece by piece by the trauma of civil war. Waleed represents the extreme effect trauma can have on refugee children.

Fatima Bishara

Youssef’s wife and Mahmoud, Waleed, and Hana’s mother, Fatima is initially shown to be a strong parent focused on giving her children a better life. However, after Mahmoud makes the difficult decision to give Hana away to a passing boat and thus save her life, Fatima lapses into grief, forcing Mahmoud to assume the role of the family’s adult.

Youssef Bishara

An engineer with a mobile phone company in Aleppo, Youssef is Fatima’s husband and Mahmoud, Waleed, and Hana’s father. Youssef constantly tries to keep the family’s morale up with his jokes, but he sometimes tends to frivolity, which the increasingly-adult Mahmoud dislikes.