“No one leaves home; unless home is the mouth of a shark.” --Warsan Shire Three children. Separated by generations and continents. United by struggle.
Refugee by American author, Alan Gratz is a thrilling and fast-paced historical fiction novel which braids together the tale of three young children. Josef Landau, a Jewish boy in Nazi Germany; Isabel, a young girl in riot-plagued Cuba under dictator Fidel Castro, and Mahmoud, in 2015 Syria- set sails across seas in hope of an uncertain yet appealing future. The book follows their journeys; as the three leave their homelands, resiliently battle against all odds, lose their loved ones on the way, and ultimately have to make a decision impacting life and death.
As Gratz explores the narrative with remarkable historical accuracy, this breath-taking novel will make you rethink the conflicts and tragedies faced by humanity, and the inner turmoil of a refugee. The characters are all from different timelines, situations, and places, but their resilience and grit is what sets them apart from others of their age. However, Gratz makes no effort to "idolize" or make heroes of the protagonists, and their human flaws are explored equally well, be it Josef's obsession with being the "man of the family" or Mahmoud's tragical decision-making. The cyclic movement of time, which doesn't repeat but rhymes, is beautifully elucidated and serves as the last of many shocking revelations in the book.
The author explores the three stories simultaneously, ending each chapter in a cliffhanger. The central plot, the plight of refugees and their families, is nothing new to our generation. News stories of desperate, homeless, and penniless migrants on the coast of Europe or the United States dominate our feeds. However, what we often don't come across are their tumultuous journeys, their inner struggles, the possibility of being labelled as a "terrorist", an outsider without any basis or evidence, the difficulties of adjusting to an alien country, and the longing to see one's homeland. It isn't easy. Often, families who've had comfortable lives in their home countries are forced to live and work in unimaginable conditions and end up in terrible situations where they can barely recognise their past selves. This quote by Nadia Hashimi sums it up perfectly, “Refugees didn’t just escape a place. They had to escape a thousand memories until they’d put enough time and distance between them and their misery to wake to a better day.”
Readers of Victor Frankl's "Man's Search for Meaning" will be able to relate the horrifyingly inhumane concentration camps with Josef's father, Aaron, who was left a shadow of his past self-- a mentally extinguished and hollow soul after months at a concentration camp. In the most tragic moments of the harrowing tale, one of the most optimistic characters is Josef's mother. Even in midst of despondency, she often remarked, “You can live as a ghost, waiting for death to come, or you can dance.” Throughout the novel, Gratz shows you how fortunate we are to be a gifted life of freedom and encourages you to never give up trying. Another important point highlighted by the book is the famous bystander effect- waiting for someone else to do the job, to make the change. Isabel's grandfather said it the best, "All my life, I kept waiting for things to get better. For the bright promise of mañana [tomorrow]. But a funny thing happened while I was waiting for the world to change, Chabele: It didn't. Because I didn't change it."
While reading this book, I came across various unfamiliar themes, including the concepts of human dignity, authoritarianism, and especially, the extent of consequences of one's actions. The chilling description of the mental state of Jews in Nazi Germany, constant apprehension of being led one's death, and the loss of a free life made me question the very foundation of human rights our modern human society stands on. But what made me foster a personal connection to the novel was the brilliant intertwining of the fates of the three protagonists. How a single action by a newly recruited navy officer can alter the course of the life of hundreds of homeless migrants on a ship. How an act of sacrifice can change the life of families and an act of brave defiance can impact thousands. It dragged me down a rabbit-hole of unending questions--do we make our own choices? Do they even impact us? And how do they impact history? Should we even blame people for their actions? And, how do we classify actions in terms of a moral compass unique for all?
The novel’s main theme- that there can always be a better tomorrow, and the way it sheds light on the plight of refugees, is both relevant and important in today’s era, and hence a must-read.
The desperation, the struggle for survival, and the inherently incommunicable feeling of being a "refugee", in search of a place to call home, is portrayed to such a realistic extent and from the very perspective of the individual, that the book moves you to a point beyond tears. A New York Times Bestseller, Refugee aims to show you how our fates are irrevocably linked, how our single action can impact millions, and how all of us are ultimately refugees of a future that never happened.