Refugee Gratz

I love YA novels! I wrote about that here. As I read, I’m constantly on the look out for books to incorporate into my class or to recommend to my geography students. My final summer read this year was Refugee by Alan Gratz. It is one of those books that as I read, I was thinking I can’t wait to share this one with students to have them discussing the issues the book addresses as well as hopefully inspiring students to take action.

Refugee is a historical fiction novel that follows three different young refugee protagonists. Josef is a 12 year old Jewish boy, fleeing Nazi Germany in 1938. Josef’s family escaped Germany on the S.S. St. Louis. Most of the 937 passengers were Jews fleeing Nazis rule in Germany. This is the ship whose passengers were tragically denied entry at their primary destination, Havana Cuba, as well as the United States. The ship was forced to return to Europe where the passengers were resettled in Great Britain and in western Europe. Of the 532 passengers that were later trapped in western Europe after the German victories there, 254 would die in the Holocaust. You can read more about the S.S. St. Louis on the United States Holocaust Museum website as well as the Facing History and Ourselves website. I also recommend that you examine the haunting @Stl_Manifest Twitter page. This page shares the names and photos of those Jewish refugees who were killed. There is a good Teen Vogue article about this Twitter page you can read here

In addition to Josef, the book also tells Isabel’s story. She and her family are fleeing Fidel Castro’s rule in Cuba in 1994. They are escaping on a make shift boat that her neighbors had hurriedly assembled. The third protagonist the novel follows is Mahmoud a young teenager who along with his family, is trying to escape the violence in Aleppo, Syria in 2015. The book details the violence that the people of Aleppo faced, as well as the dangerous escape from the war torn country. The story of Mahmoud also includes life as a refugee in Turkey as well as the dangerous trip to Europe that some refugees have undertaken as well. As I read I kept thinking of the 60 Minutes October 18, 2015 segment “Seeking Asylum”  which details the dangers of this trip. This novel addresses the causes as to why these 3 people fled. It details the dangers that they faced trying to flee to saftey. It also shows how unscroupulous people were willing to take advantage of them, and many more were more than willing to turn a blind eye to their plight. The book addresses all these things head on, just as the 2016 novel Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys about the ill-fated Wilhem Gustloff did.

This will my 11th year teaching world geography. In the past I have taught about the plight of refugees using the documentary The Lost Boys of Sudan. I have also talked about refugees fleeing Cuba. In particular, I had students examine the case of MLB baseball players defecting from Cuba. For the past two years my students have examined the refugee crisis of those fleeing Syria. We have looked at life in refugee camps using the Scholastic Scope Magazine article “Shattered Lives”. We have toured a refugee camp in Lebanon using Google Expeditions.

In addition to that we have held a Socratic Seminar on how Europe as well as the United States should respond to the refugee crisis. We held this Socratic Seminar after reading articles from Newsela as well as watching segments from CNN10. Last year, I added additional resources that Pernille Ripp (@pernilleripphighlighted in her excellent post “Planting a Seed–Our Project on the Refugee Crisis”. This year though I would like to go beyond classroom discussion and move students to taking action.

Earlier this summer I read Chris Heffernan’s (@cheffernan75)  excellent post about The Bitter Side of Sweet by Tara Sullivan. Chris’s post ecouraged me to add this title to my summer to read list. I found the novel which details the use of child labor/slavery in the Ivory Coast to harvest cacao beans to be just as moving as it was for Chris. This book is another one I plan to include in my class this year. What I liked best about Chris’s post he suggested numerous ways students could take action that go beyond fundraising. I hope to not only have students try to build off these ideas for when we address child labor but also when we look as the refugee crisis.

I also read the book Upstanders by Harvey “Smokey” Daniels (@smokeylit)  and Sara K. Ahmed (@SaraKAhmed) over the summer. In the first chapter Sara Ahmed discusses her experiences in her classroom when addressing the refugee crisis. Sara connected her students to Syrian refugees in Camp Zeitouna in Turkey. After this experience her students began making T-shirt bracelets to raise money and awareness for the refugees in the camp. Her students also wrote “Convince Me” letters with researched facts, statistics, and stories with cited sources to encourage others to donate. Their work raised over 700 dollars for computer equipment for the school at the camp. In addition their work inspired students at other schools to carry on their fundraising efforts. Sara connected her students to students at Carmel H.S. in the Chicago area using Padlet to encourage their efforts and have their students learn together. Here is a promo video that other students created to encourage people to participate.

This year my districts junior high curriculum pilot that I will be taking part in is an inquiry based curriculum. The goal of each inquiry is to get students to be taking informed action. It is my hope that books like Refugee and The Bitter Side of Sweet as well as highlighting the work of other educators and their incredible students prompt my students to not only want to learn about these important topics but also start to make a difference!

What books, short stories, and graphic novels do you use to that relate to social studies topics? Also, how have your students taken action in regards to issues that you have studied. Let me know as I would love to share them with my students as we start a new school year!

5 thoughts on “Refugee By Alan Gratz: A Must Read for Social Studies Teachers & Students

  1. Thanks for the post! I read the YA Adaptation of “Enrique’s Journey” in my 7th Grade classes at a very affluent American-curriculum private school in Northern Mexico. Frankly, as great as that novel is, I am tired of it and it is one-dimensional with regard to addressing different types of immigrants, asylum-seekers, and refugees. So I will definitely try some of your suggestions and add Refugee next year.


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