On World Refugee Day 2018, #ReadForChange with Alan Gratz’ Refugee
Teen Librarian Toolbox is excited to be partnering with Marie Marquardt for her #ReadForChange project. Hop on over to this post to learn more about the initiative. Today, she and Alan Gratz join us for a conversation about immigrants, refugees, taking action, and his middle grade novel, Refugee.
“No one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.”
Warsan Shire, “Home”
Three Children, Three Boats, Three Courageous Journeys to Find a New Home
The first time I met Alan, he gave me his card. I couldn’t help but chuckle at the tagline under his name: “Putting fictional kids in danger since 2006.” Alan certainly lives up to this promise in Refugee. The novel deftly weaves together the harrowing stories of three young teens who set off with their families in search of safety: Josef, fleeing Nazi Germany in 1938, Isabel, escaping a crumbling Cuba in 1994, and Mahmoud, leaving war-torn Aleppo in 2015. Readers travel with brave young teenagers across oceans and seas, through ship wrecks, shark attacks, robberies and extortion. We also experience, with the story’s protagonists, moments of extraordinary beauty, as people reach out to help one-another through times of unthinkable distress.
As someone who works with immigrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers in the United States, I think perhaps the most compelling aspect of this story’s construction is how well it de-centers the contemporary narrative, depicting a global flow of real human beings who seek safety across space and through time. Joseph’s family journeys from Germany to Cuba, Isabel’s from Cuba to the United States, and Mahmoud’s from Syria to Germany. Their stories remind us that people from all regions of the world, of all ethnicities, religions, and social classes, find themselves in the impossible situation of having no alternative but to leave behind everything they know and seek safety among strangers.
In other words: these refugees could be you or me.
Refugee is carefully-researched, historically accurate, and nothing short of brilliant, for many more reasons than I can explain here (you’ll just have to read it for yourselves!). Alan Gratz manages to weave together these three families’ stories in ways that unflinchingly portray the evil effects of de-humanizing entire communities, while also reminding us of the enormous capacity we humans have to endure suffering, to act out of love, and to do what is right and good. Be forewarned: If you are human (and I’m assuming you are), you will shed tears. Some will be tears of joy.
One of the themes that Refugee explores invisibility and visibility. Mahmoud, in particular, reflects often on his journey: “Mahmoud’s first instinct was to disappear below decks, to be invisible. Being invisible in Syria had kept him alive. But now Mahmoud began to wonder if being invisible in Europe might be the death of him and his family. If no one saw them, no one could help them. And maybe the world needed to see what was happening here.”
In honor of Mahmoud, Isabel, Josef and all the real people on whom their story is based, let us all open our eyes and see! And then let us take courageous action to build refuge together, in these tempestuous times.
“Changing the Hearts and Minds of my Readers”: A Conversation with Alan Gratz
MARIE: Tell us about the moment when you knew that this story had to be written, and that you needed to be the one to write it.
ALAN: The story of Refugee began with the MS St. Louis, a real ship that set sail from Nazi Germany in early 1939 with nine hundred and thirty-seven passengers on board, almost all of them Jewish refugees bound for Cuba.
I was still looking for a way into the story of the MS St. Louis for young readers when my wife and daughter and I took a family vacation to the Florida Keys in early 2015. One morning we got up to walk along the small patch of beach in front of our resort, and we ran right into a homemade boat someone had used to come to America. There was room on the wooden benches for thirteen people, and abandoned clothing and plastic water bottles still littered the floor. The back end had an old rusty engine that had been yanked out of a car or a tractor and was attached to a propeller shaft. There were plastic paint buckets to bail it out along the way, and the whole bottom of the boat and all the seams were covered with Great Stuff—that foam insulation that comes from a spray can. That and the painted plywood walls were all that kept the seawater out.
One day the boat wasn’t there, and the next day it was. Whoever had been aboard had arrived in the night while we were sleeping, just a few hundred yards away from our room. The day before, while my daughter had been swimming in the pool and my wife and I had been reading books in hammocks in the shade, whoever had been on board this boat had been steering north, avoiding oil tankers and sharks and the American Coast Guard in a desperate, dangerous attempt to find refuge in America.
That boat was a wake-up call for me. I knew that immigrants and refugees were trying to reach America every day, by land, air, and sea, through channels official and unofficial, but because I didn’t live at the front lines of that struggle I didn’t see it every day. And out of sight was definitely out of mind. I wanted to do something about that. That’s when I knew this was a book I had to write. I wanted to write a book about the MS St. Louis, but I wanted to write a book about Cuban refugees too.
And then, every day, doing their part to make sure none of us forgot, newspapers and news channels and the Internet were showing us devastating image after devastating image of the refugee crisis caused by the Syrian Civil War. The Syrian Civil War began in 2011, and is still going on. More than two million Syrians have been killed or injured, and seven plus years of war have left around eleven million Syrians—half their entire population—homeless. I wanted to write a book about the MS St. Louis, and I wanted to write a book about Cuban refugees, and now I wanted to write a book about the Syrian refugee crisis too.
And then I realized, I could write a book about all three. I would tell the story of Josef, a Jewish boy trying to escape Nazi Germany for Cuba with his family on board the MS St. Louis in 1939, of Isabel, a Cuban girl trying to escape communist Cuba with her family for America on board a raft in 1994, and of Mahmoud, a Syrian boy trying to escape the Syrian Civil War for Germany with his family in the present day.
My sincere hope for young readers who pick up Refugee is that it, like that homemade raft I stumbled across in Florida, makes the invisible visible again.
MARIE: What are some of the things you’re doing to create the world that you want to live in?
ALAN: My family and I sat down recently to talk about all the causes we wanted to support, and how much we could afford to give, and now we make regular contributions to a variety of social, environmental, and political groups. Beyond that, I figured that what I do best is write, so I would use my talents to help bring awareness to the issues and causes I support. And that’s been paying off. Kids across the country (and around the world!) are reading Refugee and advocating and working for change. Kids are working with their local refugee aid groups in their communities, they are raising money for UNICEF, they are calling their congresspeople and championing refugees. The book hasn’t even been out for a year yet, and the response from young readers has been amazing. I hope, in some small way, that I’m helping make the world one I want to live in by changing the hearts and minds of my readers!
MARIE: For readers who are moved to take action themselves, what’s your advice?
ALAN: Start local. Almost every community has a local refugee aid or resettlement organization, and they can use things larger world-wide organizations like UNICEF can’t–they need things kids can help collect, like socks, coats, blankets, and canned food. If they want to look more globally, organizations like UNICEF and Save the Children work on behalf of young refugees around the world, providing necessities and education. But the simplest thing kids can do is to become a friend to refugees. If there are any refugees at their schools, or in their churches or neighborhoods, just saying hello and getting to know them and being a friend is a tremendous thing to someone who has been displaced against their will and is starting all over again.
MARIE: Thanks so much, Alan. This theme of working in our local communities is one that I’ve heard from so many of our featured authors, from Jodi Lynn Anderson, talking about combating climate change, to Lilliam Rivera on gentrification. I love this idea of getting to know our neighbors and working with them to build a better world – from the ground up!
“Out of sight… out of mind. I wanted to do something about that.”
Ready to learn more? First, be sure to read Alan’s very informative Author’s Note, at the end of Refugee. Then, dive into one of these four non-fiction books – all excellent, and all appropriate for young readers:
Stormy Seas: Stories of Young Boat Refugees by Mary Beth Leatherdale is an illustrated book presenting five true stories of young people who survived the harrowing experience of setting off in boats in search of asylum.
How Dare the Sun Rise: Memoirs of a War Child by Sandra Uwiringiyimana and Abigail Pesta is the memoir of a girl from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who survived a massacre, immigrated to the United States, and struggled to overcome her trauma through art and activism.
A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ismael Beah offers a first-hand account of a young man’s recruitment as a child soldier, release, and eventual rehabilitation at a UNICEF center.
By Warren St. John is an excellent and engaging story of a refugee youth soccer team in a small southern town turned upside down by the process of refugee resettlement. (Note that there is a young adult version of the book).
And now, two documentaries:
Human Flow was shot over the course of one year in 23 countries. It shares stories of the more than 65 million people who have been forced from their homes since World War II
Fire at Sea explores life in Lampedusa, Italy, an island has become a landing spot for boats filled with refugees fleeing Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.
“The simplest thing: Become a friend to refugees.”
Ready to take action? Let’s follow Alan’s advice and start local!
There are many agencies that work officially to resettle refugees nationwide. Contacting one of the agencies working in your community is a good place to start. To find out who’s working in your area, check out this UNHCR website and then click on the link toward the bottom:
While these local resettlement agencies always can use supplies and material support, the best way to get involved is to build relationships and friendships. Many local communities have innovative non-profits and community groups that foster this work. Make sure to ask your local refugee resettlement agencies about these sorts of groups and opportunities in your area. Here are some examples in my community of metro-Atlanta:
Of course, if we start to open our eyes, as Alan Gratz is urging us to do, we will realize that refugees are our neighbors and our classmates. Refugees worship with us, shop in the same stores as us, and play sports on the same fields. The best thing we can do is make new friends. It’s that easy!
“A desperate, dangerous attempt to find refuge in America” A Call to Action NOW.
One final note, because this weighs so heavy on my heart…
Even though this book is entitled Refugee, all of the stories Alan tells are, technically, those of asylum seekers. (If you’d like to better understand the difference, listen to this recent NPR interview with a U.S. Asylum Officer). Asylum seekers with similar stories to those we read about in Refugee are in the news headlines these days for reasons that are simply unthinkable. Last month, the United States Department of Homeland Security instituted a new practice that routinely separates child asylum seekers from their parents and holds them in child detention centers. One, recently opened in El Paso, is quite literally a tent city.
While I don’t generally climb up on a soapbox in these newsletters, I’m gonna do it now. I believe there is a moral imperative for every single one of us to resist this action by the U.S. government. It simply contradicts basic human decency, and it’s heartbreaking.
If you want to learn more about this and take action, follow #KeepFamiliesTogether and #FamiliesBelongTogether. You also can check out the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights to stay informed about proposed legislation and actions in your community, and go to Families Belong Together (a movement sponsored by the National Domestic Workers Alliance) to sign a petition and find other actions.
#ReadForChange with Refugee!
If you can’t wait to get your hands on REFUGEE, here’s your chance! Follow this link to the giveaway, which runs until the end of June. We’ll be announcing the winner on Twitter @MarieFMarquardt and Instagram marie_marquardt July 1!)
Meet Marie Marquardt
Marie Marquardt is the author of three YA novels: The Radius of Us, Dream Things True, and Flight Season. A Scholar-in-Residence at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, Marie also has published several articles and co-authored two non-fiction books about Latin American immigration to the U.S. South. She is chair of El Refugio, a non-profit that serves detained immigrants and their families. She lives with her spouse, four kids, a dog and a bearded dragon in the book-lover’s mecca of Decatur, Georgia.
Filed under: Guest Post
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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