‘Refugee’ demands your humanity
“‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'”
— Matthew 25:44-45
They are the least of these.
They are women without faces, men without voices, children without names. More to the point, they are families without homes, running to escape hunger, war, oppression, and death.
And maybe this would pull at your heartstrings, open up within you that reliably human thing we saw in Houston, where people reached out to the suffering stranger, squeezed tighter in the boat to make room for one more. Except that the people we’re talking about are not from Houston.
They come from different places, speak different languages, sing to another God. And they huddle behind a collective noun: refugee. All of which makes it easier to objectify them, to see them as anonymous and abstract, to subsume their trauma in your unreasoned fears. It makes it easier to support dumb ideas like “extreme vetting.”
Anyone who does could benefit from reading “Refugee,” the new novel by Alan Gratz. It is a tripartite narrative, stories of escape as experienced by three children in three different eras. In 1939, Josef and his family are running from Nazi Germany and its persecution of the Jews. In 1994, Isabel and her family are fleeing the hunger and repression of the Castro regime. In 2015, Mahmoud and his family are trying to get away from the civil war that that has turned Aleppo, Syria, into a wasteland of blasted rubble.
Gratz is a writer of young adult fiction, but there is nothing childish about the ordeals these children face. Captured by the Nazis, Josef must help his mother make an unbearable decision. Capsized in the Mediterranean Sea, Mahmoud must do the unthinkable to save his infant sister. And then, there is Isabel, racing for the bright lights of Miami Beach as a U.S. Coast Guard ship bears down.
Under the immigration policy later dubbed “wet foot-dry foot,” if she and her family and friends are caught before reaching land, they will be sent back to Cuba, but if they make the beach, they can stay. That rule was always controversial. People complained that it discriminated against Haitian refugees, who enjoyed no such favor. Others feared a new influx of refugees would overwhelm Florida’s economy.
But those concerns are far from your mind as the Coast Guard closes in on Isabel. Having endured a harrowing trip with her on a rickety boat crossing the Florida Straits, you’re just pulling for her to make it.
It’s not that the political concerns are immaterial or even wrong, but that they tell only part of the story. In “Refugee,” Gratz tells the rest, which is that human beings and human lives get caught in the gears of those politics.
His book is dangerous because, once having lived in Isabel’s shoes, in Josef’s and Mahmoud’s shoes, you will find it that much harder to ever again reduce a refugee’s plight to just its policy dimensions. Much less, to your fears. The book demands more. It demands your humanity.
At its best, fiction is a lie that reveals truth. The truth these pages reveal could not be more timely for a nation arguing over Muslim bans even as Syrian families run for their lives.
That truth is this: What we so readily see as nameless, voiceless, and faceless is really none of those things. It is girls and boys, women and men, people like us, just trying, like us, to navigate safely through this challenging life.
And all they’re asking for is a seat in the boat.