I am a reader. Since school let out towards the end of May, I have finished 29 books. I am a writer. I have written several poems, blog posts, personal reflections, quick writes, and story beginnings since June 2. Yet, I have never written a personal reflection of a book until now. Why this book? Well, it is one of the best books I have ever read. It is the third book I've read by this author. Refugee by Alan Gratz has left me confused, broken, and put back together differently. This book disrupted my thinking, and I need to blog to work through some of my thoughts.
Now, I know the topic of refugees can be very political. I do not want to have any political discussions or comments here about that. If there are any, I will delete them. This is just to discuss this book and my thoughts and questions with which I am pondering. Also, Mr. Gratz did not ask me to publish this and I am not gaining anything from doing so. I paid for the book myself and this is not a way to garner attention to me, but rather to promote sympathy and kindness towards others.
This book tells the stories of three families in three different countries during three different times in our history. The first story begins in 1938. Josef and his family are Jews living in Germany who attempt to escape via the MS St. Louis. The next story happens in 1994. Isabel and her family attempt to flee Fidel Castro's communist Cuba and land in the US. The final story is set more recently: 2015. Mahmoud and his family need to escape Aleppo, Syria because of the war and total destruction of their country. The author rotates between the stories with each chapter and has you hanging on to each part with every page turn. The ending is just, well, wow. I do not know how a writer can make something so powerful that you feel anger and love and compassion and disbelief all at once. Simply, amazing.
Now for my thoughts...
Joseph: The Holocaust of WW2 happened. One man was able to convince others that certain people should not live. His tyranny caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. I have read, heard interviews with survivors, and taught about this horrific time in history. I've visited the museum in Washington, DC. I cried as I walked through it and was forever changed. I wasn't sure how another book that includes this would be. I mean, what else was there? A lot! I didn't know that ships full of Jews took them to other countries for safety. Now, I want to learn more. Why did some countries accept them and others say no? Why was our government not willing to do more? Where can I find more information about this so I can teach my students? Why weren't more countries willing to accept these refugees who were fleeing for their lives and their freedom?
Isabel: People wanted out of Cuba, and many died trying to escape. That happened. I lived at GTMO from 1998 until 2000. I saw the remnants of boats used in those attempts. I saw the Northeast gate where prisoners and detainees were exchanged. A class field trip was held up because people trying to cross onto the base hit land mines and died the night before. I saw, from a distance, where the people had been held before going back to Cuba. I remember when five year old Elian Gonzalez was found on an inner tube after his mother tried to escape with him and then all of the court battles that ensued before he was returned to Cuba. Until this book though, explained so much more and in a way that I (and my students) can gain a better understanding of what happened. Sure, we won't understand what life was like in Havana at the time, but we can experience the escape with Isabel's family. I want to learn more about this time too. Are Cubans still trying to escape? After then President Obama ended the "Wet feet, Dry feet" program, what happens to people who flee Cuba? Will improved US relations with Cuba help/encourage people immigrate legally? What happened to those people sent back even though Fidel Castro said they wouldn't be punished for leaving? Why weren't countries more willing to accept these refugees who were fleeing a communist rule that took away so much?
Mahmoud: The war in Aleppo and in all of Syria is happening. No matter what spin each news source puts on it, the crisis is real. People die every day. Bomb drop every day. Much (maybe most) of Aleppo is destroyed. Nearly half a million people have died in Syria, over a million wounded, and more than 12 million have had to leave their homes since this started in 2011. Hospitals are gone or don't have supplies. Food and water are scarce. Countries are putting up walls and fences and stationing soldiers to not let refugees in. They can't go home; they don't have homes. They can't live with relatives because so many people have died and many families are separated. These people are suffering. I admit, I know next to nothing about this civil war. I've watched a Netflix documentary about the White Helmets in Aleppo. I know that current President Trump has ordered bombings in Syria. Yet, I still don't understand it all. How will people survive this? Where will the refugees go? What are they supposed to do? How will the country recover? How do the wounded get help? Why didn't our government do more sooner? Why are we now only bombing? Why do we have a travel ban against countries that haven't committed terrorist activities on our soil since 1975 but still allow refugees from countries that have attacked the US? How can we help the people still there and how can we help the refugees stuck in tent cities? Why aren't countries more willing to help these refugees who just want to live?
I am so torn and confused. I have more questions than answers. I am going to learn more about all of these stories and what can be done to help refugees and survivors of these events. I need to be more willing to learn about others and not judge them. I know that terrorists are out there and can attack at any moment, but I don't want to live in fear. We are all human. If I had to escape to save my life and the lives of my family members, I hope people from other countries would say yes to helping me and not judge me because of my religion or who my country's President is or where I am from. Isn't that what you would want?