Refugee: Summary, Plot, Characters, Literary Analysis & More

“Refugee” is a historical fiction novel by Alan Gratz, first published in 2017.

The novel stands as one of Alan Gratz’s most impactful works, resonating both critically and among readers.

“Refugee” weaves together the stories of three refugee children—Josef Landau escaping Nazi Germany, Isabel Fernandez seeking refuge from Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba, and Mahmoud Bishara fleeing the Syrian civil war and concentration camp.

Against the backdrop of harrowing journeys and encounters with historical figures, the novel explores themes of family, resilience, and the quest for safety in the face of oppression and conflict.

"Refugee" intricately weaves together themes of family unity, courage in adversity, and the universal quest for safety.

The Plot

“Refugee” follows the intertwined journeys of three young protagonists facing disparate yet equally perilous circumstances.

Josef, a Jewish boy, flees Nazi Germany with his family, seeking safety from concentration camps.

Isabel, a Cuban girl, escapes Fidel Castro’s rule on a makeshift boat. Meanwhile, Mahmoud and his family, Syrian refugees, flee the horrors of civil war.

As their paths converge, the novel paints a poignant portrait of resilience and unity amidst adversity, emphasizing the universality of the refugee experience across time and borders.


Delving into the heart of “Refugee,” we uncover compelling themes of family bonds, resilience, and the pursuit of safety.

The characters’ diverse journeys resonate as poignant tales of hope and survival.

Josef Landau

Josef, a young Jewish boy, is forced to escape Nazi Germany with his family to evade the horrors of concentration camps.

His perilous journey forms a core narrative of the novel.

Isabel Fernandez

Isabel, a Cuban girl, embarks on a risky journey with her family to escape Fidel Castro’s regime, navigating the treacherous waters of the Havana Harbor to find safety.

Mahmoud Bishara

Mahmoud, along with his family, flees war-torn Syria in search of refuge.

His journey sheds light on the plight of Syrian refugees and the hardships that they endure.

Key Themes

“Refugee” intricately weaves together themes of family unity, courage in adversity, and the universal quest for safety.

The escape of Josef’s family from Nazi Germany showcases an unbreakable bond.

Similarly, Isabel’s determination to leave Cuba and Mahmoud’s family’s journey from Syria underscore the resilience of familial connections in the face of overwhelming challenges.

The refugee camp experiences and harrowing escapes emphasize the strength that families can find within themselves and each other.

Genres in Refugee

“Refugee” deftly combines historical fiction and coming-of-age genres, offering a tapestry of intertwined stories across time and space.

This melding of genres enhances the novel’s ability to explore the human experience and historical events from multiple perspectives.

The historical backdrop of Nazi Germany, Fidel Castro’s regime, and the Syrian civil war adds depth to the characters’ narratives, creating a more immersive and impactful storytelling experience.

Language used in Refugee

Alan Gratz employs a vivid and emotive writing style to convey the atmosphere and emotions of “Refugee.”

Through evocative language, the anguish of Josef’s family fleeing persecution, the tension of navigating a makeshift boat to Cuba, and the desperation of seeking safety amid conflict in Syria come to life.

The author’s skillful use of descriptive imagery, interwoven with the characters’ personal journeys, amplifies the reader’s connection to the story’s emotional depth and historical resonance.

Literary devices in Refugee

“Refugee” by Alan Gratz employs a rich array of literary devices that enrich the narrative.

Through poignant interactions between characters like Josef’s father and Josef’s sister, the author uses dialogue to reveal familial dynamics.

Gratz skillfully employs symbolism to imbue objects like Josef’s father’s watch with deeper meaning, and he employs foreshadowing to create a sense of anticipation and tension throughout the intertwined stories of the three young protagonists.


Alan Gratz employs vivid similes to evoke powerful imagery and emotions. For instance, Isabel’s feelings towards Fidel Castro are likened to “a boulder on her chest,” highlighting her sense of oppression.

Comparing the Greek coast guard to “shadows in the night” intensifies the mystery surrounding their actions, enhancing reader engagement by creating a palpable sense of suspense.


Through metaphors, Gratz delves deeper into the characters’ experiences. The concept of refugees carrying their “own lives in their hands” encapsulates the weight of their journeys.

Sister Hana’s laughter being “a candle that refused to be snuffed out” symbolizes resilience. Grandfather Lito’s violin represents both a connection to his past and a source of hope.

The metaphoric language enriches the reader’s understanding of the characters’ struggles and aspirations.


“Refugee” skillfully employs analogies to elucidate intricate concepts. Sister Hana’s choice to “hold on to life like it’s a raft” mirrors the characters’ determination to survive amidst turmoil.

Grandfather Lito’s violin playing, akin to “a prayer sent to the sky,” conveys his longing for a better future. These analogies allow readers to connect emotionally with the characters’ struggles and aspirations on a deeper level.


The anticipation of Josef’s family’s decision to leave is palpable, as they “hovered like birds above a field of land mines.”

The host family’s welcoming presence is depicted as “a lighthouse in the storm,” offering refuge.

Imagery like Brother Waleed’s “laughter, a melody of hope” heightens the emotional impact, immersing readers in the characters’ world.


Sister Hana and her hairpin represent sacrifice, echoing the resilience of Jewish refugees like Josef’s family.

Grandfather Lito has cherished the violin and that violin signifies the enduring power of music amid adversity.

The critical moment when families decide to leave becomes a symbol of hope and courage, connecting these decisions to the broader theme of seeking refuge and new beginnings.


The host family’s house “welcomed them with open arms,” endowing it with human-like warmth. Brother Waleed’s “laughter danced through the air,” emphasizing its infectious and uplifting nature.

Personifying Josef’s story as a “living thing” adds emotional weight, while Josef’s mother “held the world on her shoulders,” poetically encapsulating her strength and determination.


When Isabel’s family decide that they must leave Cuba, the enormity of the situation is heightened, underscoring the gravity of their choice.

Similarly, the host family in Germany provides “more food than they could ever eat,” conveying the abundance of care and support that the refugee children receive, emphasizing their newfound safety and hospitality.


When Isabel rallies for Fidel Castro, the dramatic irony lies in her eventual need to escape his regime. Isabel’s story, originally intended as a school assignment, takes on profound significance as her own experiences unfold.

The juxtaposition of a Syrian boy expressing hope for his government’s protection amidst the conflict serves as a poignant instance of situational irony.


Brother Waleed has hopeful belief in the Syrian government and their protection stands in stark contrast to the harsh realities of the civil war.

This contrast intensifies the reader’s understanding of the challenges faced by refugees like Waleed’s family, showcasing the disparity between their expectations and the grim actualities they encounter.

The technique prompts readers to consider the impact of such contrasts on the characters’ lives.


While Isabel trades cherished possessions to secure a passage out of Cuba, the very act contradicts the normalcy of childhood.

The presence of Jewish passengers aboard the ship parallels the protagonist Josef’s escape from Nazi Germany. Sister Ruthie’s silence amid turmoil paradoxically symbolizes her profound strength.

The novel’s status as a New York Times bestseller contrasts with the harsh realities of its refugee characters’ lives, reflecting a bittersweet irony.


The reference to the “Cuban rhythm” reflects the cultural identity of Isabel’s homeland.

When Isabel dives into the ocean, the act alludes to the pursuit of freedom often associated with aquatic escapes.

References to the “Soviet Union” and “Turkish border” contextualize the global scope of refugee crises.

The presence of a “Coast Guard boat” reflects the persistent struggle for survival amid perilous crossings.


“Refugee” can be seen as an allegory representing universal themes of hope, resilience, and the human quest for safety.

Sister Ruthie’s silence amidst turmoil symbolizes strength and resistance. Mahmoud’s story serves as an allegory for the plight of Syrian refugees, standing in for countless individuals affected by war.

Isabel and her family’s journey, from fleeing Fidel Castro’s regime to navigating a detention center, allegorically mirrors the wider refugee experience, creating a poignant tapestry of shared struggles.


“Refugee” does not prominently feature instances of ekphrasis, where detailed descriptions of artworks are vividly portrayed.

Instead, the narrative primarily focuses on the journeys and experiences of characters like Isabel and her family, who must make the urgent decision to leave Cuba immediately to start a new life.

The story emphasizes their challenges, decisions, and the broader refugee experience rather than elaborate descriptions of art.


“Refugee” employs repetition to underscore themes and intensify emotional impact.

Repeatedly referencing Officer Padron’s presence highlights his authority while amplifying the tension.

As families travel, the repetition of their challenges emphasizes the broader refugee experience.

The importance of the “important book” grows with each new narrative, reinforcing the gravity of their stories. Repetition here acts as an echo of the characters’ struggles and their quest for safety.

The Use of Dialogue

In “Refugee,” dialogue serves as a powerful tool to reveal character traits, express themes, and build narrative tension.

Officer’s exchanges with families traveling underscore their vulnerability. Ms. St.’s interactions with refugees reflect their desperation and the harsh realities of their situations.

Conversations about Bashar al-Assad or discussions with other refugees reveal the diverse experiences and motivations driving the characters.

Through dialogue, the book unearths the multifaceted aspects of the refugee journey and the tumultuous countries they come from, such as Hungary.

Word Play

Although puns and double entendre are not central, the use of evocative language when discussing Sister Ruthie or Señor Castillo may carry subtle linguistic nuances that add depth to their characters or situations.

The emphasis lies more on vivid descriptions and emotional resonance than wordplay.


The diverse backgrounds of the characters and the countries they come from create a parallel exploration of the global refugee experience.

This parallel structure helps highlight both individual stories and the universal struggle of refugees.

Refugee: FAQs

In this section, we address the frequently asked questions that shed light on the connections between past and present, the challenges faced by refugees, and the enduring impact of the characters’ experiences.

What is the summary of the refugee?

“Refugee” by Alan Gratz follows the journeys of three young protagonists – Josef, a Jewish boy escaping Nazi Germany in 1939; Isabel, a Cuban girl in 1994 seeking freedom in America; and Mahmoud, a Syrian boy fleeing the civil war in 2015. The novel intricately explores their struggles, resilience, and the common thread of seeking refuge amidst historical turmoil.”

What is the main message of refugee?

The main message of “Refugee” is the resilience and courage of individuals seeking safety amidst turmoil, emphasizing the universal human experience of displacement and the importance of empathy.

In which concentration camp Josef’s father is taken to?

Josef’s father is taken to the concentration camp of Dachau, revealing the horrors faced by Jews during the Holocaust.

What role do Jewish refugees, like Josef’s family, play in the novel ‘Refugee’?

Jewish refugees, exemplified by Josef’s family, showcase the struggles and sacrifices of those fleeing persecution, adding depth to the narrative’s exploration of refugee experiences.

How is Nazi Germany depicted in ‘Refugee’?

Nazi Germany’s portrayal in “Refugee” underscores the harsh realities and challenges faced by characters like Josef, amplifying the historical context and the urgency of their escape.

Summing up: Refugee: Summary, Plot & More

As you now know from this “Refugee” summary, this work provides a poignant and impactful narrative that portrays the complex journeys of refugees with compassion and authenticity.

By interweaving historical events and diverse characters, Gratz’s novel underscores the importance of empathy and understanding in a world marked by displacement and adversity.

Its themes of hope, resilience, and the unbreakable bonds of family make it an important read that invites readers to reflect on the shared experiences of refugees throughout history.

Other Notable Works by Alan Gratz

If you enjoyed “Refugee,” you might also find these works by Alan Gratz intriguing:

  • Prisoner B-3087“: A gripping tale of a boy’s survival during the Holocaust.
  • Projekt 1065“: Follow a young spy’s daring mission in World War II.
  • Grenade“: Delve into the Okinawa campaign through the eyes of two young soldiers.
  • Code of Honor“: Experience the challenges of an Afghan-American teen in a post-9/11 world.
  • Ban This Book“: Join a girl’s fight for the freedom to read against book censorship.

These novels explore various historical and contemporary themes, offering engaging stories that resonate with readers of all ages.

Refugee is about hope, resilience, and the unbreakable bonds of family.