The main themes in Refugee are trauma and growing up, the dehumanization of refugees, and empathy and hope.
- Trauma and growing up: The novel highlights the cruelty of having to become an adult too quickly in order to survive.
- The dehumanization of refugees: Gratz makes it clear that the rest of the world is able to disconnect from the refugee crisis by dehumanizing those it affects.
- Empathy and hope: In Refugee, the power of even the smallest acts of kindness is shown to be crucial and life-giving.
Trauma and Growing Up
When Josef’s traumatized, agitated father, Aaron, threatens to give himself away as medically unsound at Cuban customs, the twelve-year-old does something unimaginable in order to quieten him: he slaps his father across the face. “Six months ago,” the text notes, “he would never have even dreamed of striking any adult, let alone his father.” However, the violence Josef has experienced has made him grow up before his time, until he and his father have “traded places.”
This sudden, forced growth forms one of the most important themes in Refugee. Children are often cast in decision-making roles as the adults around them are incapacitated by trauma and pain. Aaron Landau is severely broken by his experience at Dachau, a Nazi concentration camp; Isabel’s mother is in an advanced state of pregnancy and indisposed; and Mahmoud’s father’s humor hampers his effectiveness. Even when parents and other adults in the lives of the children in the novel are capable, they are busy taking care of others—such as Mahmoud’s mother, whose focus is on her baby, Hana. Traveling with such adults, children often have to assume the mantle of parents and make impossible decisions no child should have to make.
Gratz also stresses the fact that childhood itself is a luxury not every child in the world is allowed to enjoy. In mortar-shelled Aleppo, Mahmoud’s younger brother, Waleed, is described as nearly catatonic, “a robot” who hardly laughs or plays. When Mahmoud and his family are gathered as part of an enormous queue awaiting admission to Turkey, the children are described as looking like “miniature versions” of their parents, and they
acted like miniature adults too—there was very little crying and whining, and none of the kids were playing.
They had all walked too far and seen too much.
Aboard the St. Louis, Josef’s pleasure at watching Ruth play and skip like never before is tinged with poignant surprise. Born Jewish in Nazi Germany, six-year-old Ruth has never had the opportunity to play outside like other children. Ruth has never had the opportunity to act like what she is: a child. The ideas of play, leisure, and creativity, usually so integral to childhood, are precious, fleeting commodities in the world of Refugee, and children often have to sacrifice them in order to survive. Isabel has to trade the trumpet she adores playing for gasoline so that her family can make their escape from Cuba. Her best friend, Iván, a skilled baseball player who dreams of being a part of the Cuban team the Industriales when he grows up, has to sacrifice his dream in the most final, devastating way possible.
As capable and decisive as the children become during their long journeys, Gratz makes it clear this is a forcing function of terrible trauma—not a free choice. Though the children handle their unspeakable circumstances with stoicism and courage, the point of Refugee is that no child should have to do so.
The Dehumanization of Refugees
How has the larger world eased its conscience about the various refugee crises through contemporary history? The answer to this question lies in the dehumanization of asylum-seekers, which is an important schema in Gratz’s text. By considering refugees variously as newsprint, as invisible, and—worse—as less than human, the rest of the world can disconnect itself from their plight.
Displacement is something which happens to other, “irregular” people, and it can thus be...
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