By Alan Gratz

It’s sometimes a challenge to get young people—and adults, for that matter—to care for people different from themselves.

One way we can teach empathy in the classroom is through the teaching of history. We can quote statistics—like the fact that six million European Jews were murdered during the Holocaust, and that half a million of those Jews were children. We can tell students that in the early 1990s, after the Soviet Union had collapsed and its massive food and economic subsidies to Cuba had gone with it, of the close to sixty-thousand hungry Cubans who fled on rafts, an estimated three in five of them died at sea. We can tell them that since the start of the Syrian Civil War, one in four schools has been destroyed or damaged or is now being used as a shelter, and that of the nearly half a million people who have died in Syria since 2011, twenty-four thousand of them are children. These are all facts. Lines in a history text book. And while those facts may engender empathy in some students, for many others they are antiseptic. Numbers to be learned for a test, not calls for action or concern.

For that, we have to give statistics a name. A face. And that is exactly what I sought to do when I wrote Refugee.

Refugee-Cover-1682pxRefugee is the story of three young people from different eras and different parts of the world who are connected through the decades by their desperate, perilous attempts to flee dangerous situations back home, and their dreams of a better, safer tomorrow. Josef, a young Jewish boy, escapes Nazi Germany in 1939 with his family aboard a ship bound for Cuba. Isabel, a young Cuban girl, runs away from Fidel Castro and hunger riots with her family aboard a homemade boat bound for Florida in 1994. Mahmoud, a young Muslim boy, flees the Civil War in Syria for Germany by car, boat, train, and foot with his family in 2015. None of these three children are real; they are each, instead, amalgams of the many other real children who took—and continue to take—the same harrowing journeys. But by giving those collective children a name and a face, I have turned those statistics into real people, turned numbers into characters we cry for, and care for, and root for.

This theme of empathy, of seeing the unseen and caring for others, is of particular concern to each of the three main characters in Refugee. While on a ferry from the island of Lesbos to mainland Greece, Mahmoud watches as tourists frown at him and the other refugees for ruining their vacations, and give the refugees a wide berth.

They only see us when we do something they don’t want us to do, Mahmoud realized. The thought hit him like a lightning bolt. When they stayed where they were supposed to be—in the ruins of Aleppo or behind the fences of a refugee camp—people could forget about them. But when refugees did something they didn’t want them to do—when they tried to cross the border into their country, or slept on the front stoops of their shops, or jumped in front of their cars, or prayed on the decks of their ferries—that’s when people couldn’t ignore them any longer.

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 really happening here. 

Putting Students In the Shoes of Refugees

When I visit schools to talk about Refugee, I challenge the kids to think about what they would do in a similar situation. Let’s say that tomorrow, war comes to your neighborhood, I tell them. You see houses and schools and shops and hospitals all around you destroyed by bombs and missiles. You and your family want to leave, but this place is your home. It’s where you grew up. It’s where your friends and family are. And this house, this apartment—your parents paid a lot of money for your home. They can’t just leave it, can they? You don’t want to leave. None of you do. So you stay as long as you possibly can while the world falls apart around you.

But finally it becomes too dangerous to stay. If you stay, you will die. So you decide to leave. But what do you take with you? You can only take what you can carry. You’re going to need clothes. Blankets. Food. Water. What else can you fit in a backpack? All those things you treasure, the books and toys and pictures and things you’ve collected that mean something to you, there’s no room for all that. You maybe have room for one thing that’s not useful. Just one thing you keep for sentimental reasons. What is that one extra thing you take? Anything else that doesn’t fit in your backpack has to be left behind.

Now that you’re going, where do you go? To your grandparents’ house? What if they’re in just as much danger as you and your family are? Where else can you go? Will you leave the country? If so, what country will let you in? What if they already have all the refugees and immigrants they can handle? What if they practice a different religion than you and your family, or have a different skin color, and they’re afraid of you? What if you have to stay in a refugee camp for months—years—while other countries argue over which one is going to take you in?

And if one of them does let you in, how will you live? Your parents don’t have a job here to pay for rent, and if they were doctors or lawyers or teachers or some other job that requires a professional degree, what if that training isn’t good here? What if they have to start all over? How will your parents earn money for a home and for food and a car when they’re going back to school? And what if you don’t speak this new country’s language? When you go back to school, will they put you in a class with other kids your age where you don’t understand a word that’s being said, or will they put you in a class with little kids half your age where you’re all learning the words for “cat” and “dog” and “apple?”

When we can turn numbers into names, and put students in the shoes of people who are not themselves, only then can we begin to build the empathy our country—and our world—needs to survive.