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Refugee Summary, Characters and Themes | Alan Gratz

Alan Gratz’s “Refugee” is a young adult novel that tells the interconnected stories of three children seeking refuge from their war-torn homelands. 

Josef, a Jewish boy escaping Nazi Germany in 1939, Isabel, a Cuban girl fleeing unrest in 1994, and Mahmoud, a Syrian boy seeking safety in 2015, face harrowing journeys in their quest for a new home. The novel highlights the timeless struggle of refugees and the universal desire for safety, freedom, and a place to belong.


In 1938 Germany, Josef Landau, a young Jewish boy, witnesses the escalating persecution of his community under Hitler’s Nazi regime. The ominous shadow of Kristallnacht shatters their lives, as Josef’s father is arrested and sent to a concentration camp. 

Six months later, the family receives a glimmer of hope when Josef’s father is released on the condition of immediate exile. 

With heavy hearts, they board the MS St. Louis, a ship carrying Jewish refugees to Cuba, seeking a safe haven from the horrors of Nazi Germany. However, their dreams of sanctuary are crushed when Cuba refuses to grant them entry. 

Desperate, they turn to the United States, but their pleas are met with indifference, forcing them to return to Europe. Tragedy strikes as the family is captured by the Nazis in France, and Josef makes the ultimate sacrifice to ensure his sister’s survival.

Meanwhile, in 1994 Havana, Isabel Fernandez, an 11-year-old girl, grapples with the harsh realities of life under Fidel Castro’s communist regime. 

Food shortages, economic hardship, and political oppression plague the island nation. 

Amidst growing unrest and protests, Isabel’s family decides to risk everything and escape to the United States on a makeshift boat. Their perilous journey across the treacherous Straits of Florida is fraught with danger, as they face storms, sharks, and the constant threat of capsizing. 

Along the way, tragedy strikes when Isabel’s best friend loses his life to a shark attack. The family perseveres, driven by the hope of a better future, and eventually reaches Miami. 

However, their arrival is bittersweet, as Isabel’s grandfather, burdened by guilt from a past decision, sacrifices himself to secure their freedom.

In 2015 Aleppo, Syria, Mahmoud Bishara, a 13-year-old boy, and his family find themselves trapped in the crossfire of a brutal civil war. Bombs rain down on their city, leaving destruction and despair in their wake. 

Mahmoud’s family embarks on a treacherous journey to seek refuge in Germany, enduring the hardships of border crossings, exploitation by smugglers, and the harsh conditions of refugee camps. 

During a harrowing boat trip to Greece, the family is separated, and Mahmoud is forced to make an agonizing choice to prioritize the safety of his baby sister over his own. The family is reunited in Greece, but the trauma of their separation lingers. 

They continue their journey through Europe, facing prejudice and discrimination, before finally reaching Germany, where they hope to rebuild their shattered lives.

The novel culminates in the unexpected intersection of the three storylines. 

Mahmoud and his family find refuge with an elderly woman named Ruthie, who turns out to be Josef’s sister, the sole survivor of the Landau family. Ruthie shares her own harrowing story of survival, revealing the sacrifices made by Josef and their mother to ensure her safety. 

The interconnectedness of their experiences highlights the enduring struggle of refugees throughout history and the enduring power of hope in the face of adversity.

refugee by alan gratz summary

Main Characters

Josef Landau

Josef is a 12-year-old Jewish boy living in Germany during the rise of the Nazi Party. He is initially portrayed as a typical child, eager for his bar mitzvah and looking forward to his future. 

However, the escalating persecution of Jews forces him to mature rapidly. He becomes the protector and decision-maker in his family when his father is traumatized by his experience in a concentration camp. Josef’s courage and resourcefulness are evident in his attempts to save his family, from standing up to Nazi officers to organizing a mutiny on the ship. 

Despite facing numerous hardships and losses, Josef maintains a strong moral compass and a determination to survive.

Isabel Fernandez

Isabel is a vibrant and resourceful 11-year-old girl living in Cuba during a time of economic hardship. She is fiercely loyal to her family and takes the initiative to organize their escape to the United States. 

Isabel’s resilience shines through as she faces the dangerous journey across the sea, using her intelligence and quick thinking to overcome obstacles. 

The loss of her beloved trumpet and the death of her friend Iván deeply affect her, yet she perseveres, finding solace in her music and the hope of a better life in America.

Mahmoud Bishara

Mahmoud is a 12-year-old Syrian boy forced to flee his war-torn home in Aleppo. 

He is initially withdrawn and focused on survival, believing invisibility is the key to safety. However, as he and his family face numerous challenges on their journey to Europe, Mahmoud realizes the importance of being seen and heard. 

He leads a daring escape from a Hungarian detention camp, demonstrating his courage and leadership. The loss of his baby sister Hana is a devastating blow, but Mahmoud finds strength in his family and the hope of finding a new home in Germany.

Supporting Characters

  • Aaron Landau: Josef’s father, traumatized by his experiences in a concentration camp, highlights the psychological impact of persecution.
  • Rachel Landau: Josef’s mother, represents the strength and resilience of mothers in protecting their children.
  • Ruthie Landau: Josef’s sister, embodies the innocence lost in the face of war and ultimately provides a connection to the future for Mahmoud’s family.
  • Geraldo Fernandez: Isabel’s father, a musician who dreams of a better life for his family.
  • Teresa Fernandez: Isabel’s pregnant mother, represents the strength and sacrifice of mothers.
  • Lito Mendez: Isabel’s grandfather, carries the guilt of his past actions but ultimately sacrifices himself for his family’s future.
  • Iván Castillo: Isabel’s best friend, whose tragic death underscores the dangers faced by refugees.
  • Fatima Bishara: Mahmoud’s mother, a pillar of strength who endures immense suffering.
  • Youssef Bishara: Mahmoud’s father, a resourceful and determined father fighting for his family’s survival.


The Importance of Family

“Refugee” explores the powerful and enduring bonds of family, particularly in the face of adversity. 

Throughout the novel, the protagonists prioritize their family members’ safety and well-being above all else. Josef takes on the role of protector for his father, while Isabel risks her life to save her grandfather from drowning. 

Mahmoud’s unwavering determination to find his baby sister Hana underscores the lengths to which families will go to stay together. 

Even when separated by vast distances and harrowing circumstances, the characters cling to the hope of reunion, demonstrating the resilience of familial love.

The Resilience of the Human Spirit 

In the face of immense hardship and suffering, the characters in “Refugee” display remarkable resilience and an unwavering determination to survive. 

Josef’s courage in standing up to the Nazis, Isabel’s resourcefulness in navigating the treacherous journey to Miami, and Mahmoud’s refusal to succumb to despair amidst the Syrian civil war are all testaments to the indomitable human spirit. 

Despite the trauma they endure, the characters find ways to persevere, drawing strength from their hopes and dreams for a better future. 

This theme underscores the power of hope and the capacity for humans to overcome even the most daunting obstacles.

The Dehumanization and Indifference of Bureaucracy 

“Refugee” exposes the harsh realities of bureaucratic systems that often fail to protect the vulnerable. 

Josef’s family faces rejection and indifference from officials in both Cuba and the United States, highlighting the dehumanization inherent in immigration policies. 

Similarly, Mahmoud’s family encounters hostility and abuse from Hungarian authorities, emphasizing the ways in which bureaucratic structures can perpetuate injustice and discrimination. 

This theme serves as a critique of systems that prioritize rules and regulations over compassion and human rights.

The Search for Home and Belonging 

The novel explores the universal longing for home and the challenges faced by refugees in finding a sense of belonging in new and unfamiliar environments. 

Each protagonist experiences the pain of leaving behind their homeland and the struggle to adapt to different cultures and languages. Isabel grapples with the fear of losing her Cuban identity, while Mahmoud’s family yearns for the familiar comforts of Aleppo. 

This theme speaks to the emotional and psychological toll of displacement and the enduring search for a place to call home.

Final Thoughts

Refugee is a powerful and timely novel that sheds light on the global refugee crisis through compelling storytelling. 

While the narrative is fictional, it draws from real historical events and resonates with the ongoing struggles faced by displaced people worldwide. Gratz’s accessible prose and the interwoven narratives make it a captivating read for young adults and adults alike. 

The novel not only educates but also fosters empathy and understanding for refugees, encouraging readers to consider their own roles in creating a more welcoming and compassionate world.