Mahmoud, a twelve-year-old who begins the book living in Aleppo, Syria, is one of the three protagonists. Over the course of the book and his refugee journey from Syria to Germany, Mahmoud moves from believing staying invisible to others is the best way to stay safe to a more nuanced understanding that includes the value of being noticed in order to get help. At the start of the story, in war-torn Aleppo, Mahmoud does his best to disappear, by sitting in the middle of the classroom to avoid the teacher’s attention and giving up his friendship with Khalid when the two of them together attract too much attention from bullies. He stays out of sight on the streets in order to stay safe, leading Waleed home from school following a different route every day and hiding among the ruins of bombed buildings. When the family begins their journey to Germany, Mahmoud continues the pattern, trying to be invisible when soldiers stop their car near the Syrian border. He takes comfort in his family’s invisibility among the throngs of refugees in Turkey.  

However, on the journey, Mahmoud begins to see the disadvantages of invisibility and the potential power of being seen. When their dinghy bursts on the rocks in the Mediterranean, his father and Waleed disappear in the waves, an example of the danger of invisibility. In order to save Hana’s life, he must attract the notice of the next boat that passes and demand they pay attention to him, an example of the value of being seen. When the refugees encounter the fence at the Hungarian border, Mahmoud finds himself excited rather than frightened when they collectively rush the fence, refusing to be invisible any longer, a moment that demonstrates a change in his understanding of the value of invisibility. Although detention in Hungary briefly causes him to return to his old philosophy of intentional disappearance, he realizes there that taking action to save his family requires being visible. In that moment, he comes to understand that while invisibility has protected him from some bad people, it also makes it impossible for good people to see and help. Mahmoud takes the risk of visibility and leads the refugees out of the camp. Mahmoud’s decision to stop disappearing leads him and his family to a warm welcome.