by Alan Gratz

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Refugee Themes

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.


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Last Updated on September 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1369

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 dismissed—or, rather, this is what people tell themselves. This dismissal occurs even within the immediate space the refugees inhabit and, in fact, is a precursor to their displacement. In...

(This entire section contains 1369 words.)

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the case of Josef’s family, that dismissal amounts to complete erasure. Forced to wear an armband markedJ for Jew, the Landaus are simultaneously singled out and rendered invisible. In school, Josef’s teacher uses him as an example of a “typical” Jew, discussing his physiognomy before his class and treating him like an “animal.” As a member of the Shia minority in Sunni-dominated Syria, Mahmoud too faces marginalization, his presence in public spaces shrinking every day. When even this shrinking space is literally demolished as his house is blown apart by a bomb, Mahmoud’s othering is complete, and he is forced into displacement. For Isabel, alienation occurs through poverty. It is telling that she identifies with a scrawny street cat hunting for food scraps, again a reminder of her removal from the “human” sphere.

However, by meticulously detailing every step of a refugee’s journey, Gratz forces the reader to step into their shoes and empathize with them. What happens when Isabel’s boat tips over and the family loses their food? How does Mahmoud manage to stay afloat in a freezing sea? Will Josef make it through his journeys on train, ship, and foot? Not only is the children’s perilous journey detailed, its cause is also described, so that the reader can see that most asylum-seekers don’t “migrate”; rather, they flee poverty, terror, and threat of death.

Empathy and Hope

If dehumanization alienates asylum-seekers, empathy can be the antidote to marginalization. Time and again, the text features acts of human kindness, small and otherwise, that break through the cycle of apathy. An example of such an empathetic action occurs early in Josef’s story, when a member of the Nazi Youth, a boy around Josef’s age, discovers that Josef, a Jew, has wandered into the forbidden “German” section of the train to Hamburg. Josef is certain the boy will report him, to disastrous consequences for himself and his family, but instead, the boy chooses to let Josef go with a warning:

What were you thinking?

It is a minor reprieve, perhaps no more than basic decency, but in the monstrous world Josef inhabits, the Hitler Youth’s small act reinforces Josef’s—and the reader’s—hope in human kindness.

Isabel encounters the kindness of strangers when her boat loses its way and drifts to the coast of the Bahamas. Although the authorities bar the Cuban refugees from docking at the coast, the tourists on the beach are suddenly galvanized into action, tossing the Cubans as much food and water as they can manage. Isabel makes an important observation about the cascading effect of a small, kind deed at the right time and place: the tourists’ momentary acts of kindness can be the difference between life and death for the hungry, thirsty passengers on the boat.

The novel often contrasts the inhumanity of institutions and authorities against the humane actions of individuals. The Bahaman coast guard may order the refugees out of their waters, but the individual tourists act empathetically. These two aspects—of institution and individual—are united in the figure of Isabel’s grandfather Lito. As a member of the Cuban police force in 1939, he was one of the people who denied the passengers of the St. Louis entry into Cuba, warding them off with the empty promise of letting them disembark mañana. In 1994, he has the realization that those he sent back because of institutional pressure were people, “real people.” Now a refugee himself, Lito understands the magnitude of his refusal. He atones for the mistake by sacrificing his freedom for his family’s passage. Through Lito’s act of kindness, Gratz illustrates that empathy can even come from those who have previously inhabited morally grey areas.

Finally, kindness grows when it changes hands, as illustrated in the figure of Ruth. When Mahmoud meets Ruth, for whom her brother sacrificed himself, he is filled with sadness for the loss of Josef. But he also realizes that “Josef had died so Ruthie could live, and one day welcome Mahmoud and his family into her house.” It is significant that Ruth and Mahmoud find some kind of closure together, even though they are Jewish and Muslim, respectively, two communities in conflict in West Asia. It is equally important that this closure is achieved in Berlin, the same city that once threw out Ruth. Gratz illustrates that empathy and kindness, paid forward, may not heal the wounds of history—but they can at least build the mañana everyone seeks.