Summary: Mahmoud / Hungary-2015 / 17 days from home
Mahmoud and his father are taken to another refugee camp inside a large building and are reunited with Waleed and Mahmoud’s mother. Mahmoud’s father no longer makes jokes, and Waleed is completely silent; Mahmoud thinks that the experience has broken both of their spirits. While they are at the camp, a group of people from the United Nations arrive and start walking among the refugees, taking notes on clipboards. Mahmoud thinks about being invisible or being visible and how each has benefits. He decides to be visible. Mahmoud walks to the door of the building and opens the door. A Hungarian soldier nearby yells at him and raises her rifle but is discouraged by the UN officials. Mahmoud walks outside slowly, ignoring the soldier. After a moment, Waleed and many of the children run to Mahmoud. When Waleed asks Mahmoud what he is doing, Mahmoud tells him that he is not going back to Serbia, he is walking to Austria.
Summary: Josef / Vornay, France-1940 / 1 year, 1 month, and 10 days from home
Hiding with his mother and sister in a school in Vornay, France, Josef can hear gunfire and artillery shells. When he sees a map of Europe on the wall of the classroom, he thinks about how many countries on the map have been occupied by Germany. He hears Nazi storm troopers approaching the school and leads his mother and sister to a window. After breaking the window, they climb out and run to a nearby house. However, the storm troopers chase them down, search their pockets, and find papers identifying them as Jews from Berlin. The soldiers tell them that they will be taken to concentration camps. Josef’s mother offers them money, and then diamond earrings, which she had sewn into the lining of Ruth’s jacket. The soldiers tell her that there is only enough to save one of her children. Josef realizes that the soldiers are playing a cruel game: his mother must choose whether he or Ruth has to go to a concentration camp.
Summary: Isabel / Miami Beach, Florida-1994 / 5 days from home
Isabel’s mother gives birth to a baby boy, who Isabel’s father says will be named Mariano, after Lito. Isabel’s father tells Iván’s parents to take Isabel and swim for shore, leaving Isabel’s parents and newborn brother to the Coast Guard. When Iván’s parents jump in the water, they realize that it is only waist deep, and they can pull the boat the rest of the way. Baby Mariano is given to Isabel to carry through the shallow water. Lito cheers from the Coast Guard ship, which has stopped its pursuit and Isabel, her parents and Iván’s family make it to shore. People on the beach run over to help Isabel and her mother, asking if they are from Cuba.
Summary: Mahmoud / Hungary to Germany-2015 / 17 days from home
Mahmoud’s parents find him and Waleed and walk along the road toward Austria. Police officers tell the refugees that they must stop or be arrested, but the crowd keeps walking. Twelve hours later, the refugees reach the Austrian border, where they are welcomed. The Austrians had seen footage of the crowd of refugees on the news. As Mahmoud and the other refugees walk into Austria, people cheer to encourage them, and they are given food and water. Mahmoud thinks that people are finally seeing the refugees, and good people are helping them.
Mahmoud and his family travel across Austria by train and arrive in Munich, Germany the next day. Their welcome in Germany is similar to the one that they received in Austria, with crowds of people trying to help them. Mahmoud’s mother continues to search for Hana, but no one has heard of a baby that was handed to a raft of refugees. Mahmoud thinks that his father will finally get back to joking around, and Waleed will become a normal boy again. When asked if they are seeking asylum in Germany, Mahmoud’s father says, “A thousand times yes.”
Summary: Isabel / Miami, Florida-1994 / Home
Isabel and her family are taken in by Lito’s brother, Guillermo, who lives in Miami. Everyone from the boat has found work and Isabel was in American school. Guillermo even gives her a new trumpet.
Isabel must audition to be in her sixth-grade music class. She decides to play the “Star Spangled Banner,” while wearing Iván’s baseball hat. She plays the song in a Cuban salsa style and gets everyone in the class to clap along with her. While they are clapping, she hears a different rhythm, the clave from Cuba. Isabel realizes that the song of journey has ended and she is starting a new song in her life.
Summary: Mahmoud / Berlin, Germany-2015 / Home
Mahmoud and his family stay in Munich for four weeks before traveling to Berlin to stay with a host family. When they arrive in Berlin, Mahmoud looks at all of the large buildings and is pleased to see a park across from the host family’s home. He thinks about how long it took to rebuild Berlin after World War II and wonders if it will take as long to rebuild Aleppo. The host family is an elderly couple, Herr and Frau Rosenberg. Mahmoud recognizes the Star of David on their home and is amazed that Jewish people are taking in his family, since Jews and Muslims had been fighting for decades back in the Middle East.
Frau Rosenberg gives Waleed a stuffed rabbit, and Mahmoud tells her about losing Hana. She leads Mahmoud into her home and tells her about when she was a refugee. She shows Mahmoud an old family photo and tells him about traveling on the St. Louis with her family. (She is Ruth, Josef’s younger sister.) She tells Mahmoud that she never reconnected with her father in Cuba, and Josef and her mother died in concentration camps after Ruth was left alone in the woods. Since her mother could not choose which child the Nazis should take, Josef volunteered himself. She tells Mahmoud that she will help him find Hana. Mahmoud helps her put the picture back on the wall and, looking around, thinks that it feels “like a home.”
Ruthie’s coat is a symbol of Rachel’s plans to protect her family. At the beginning of their journey, when Ruthie complains that the coat is hot, Rachel orders her to keep it on until they reach Cuba, so that she doesn’t lose it. Over a year later, in France, Josef and Ruthie learn that Rachel’s order hasn’t been to avoid losing the coat itself, but to keep track of the diamond earrings Rachel has hidden in its lining. When they are captured by a Nazi soldier, Rachel tears open the coat, an image that recalls Josef and Aaron tearing their collars as gestures of mourning earlier in the book. At that moment, even while she is bargaining for her children’s release, Rachel is mourning their loss. Although the soldier refuses to let her save both children, taking pleasure in asking her to choose between them, the earrings Rachel hid away in the coat end up saving Ruthie’s life. They are a powerful symbol of the plans Rachel makes to keep her family safe.
Throughout the book, Isabel fights to keep her family together, arguing against Papi leaving Cuba without them and feeling deep relief when Mami refuses to leave them in the Bahamas. As the boat nears the shore, Mami, in the final stages of giving birth, tells Rudi to take Isabel out of the boat to shore. Isabel fights him, an indication of her fierce desire to keep the family together, until Rudi shows her they can stand and pull the boat in together. As she hits the water she grabs Iván’s hat, a symbol that she is keeping him with her even though he has died. When Mariano is born, her parents hand him to her to carry ashore, a fitting image of her role in bringing the family to America, from arranging space for them in the Castillos' boat to finding gasoline for the voyage. Throughout the book, Isabel fights to get her whole family to safety together.
Mahmoud’s walk from the Hungarian detention center to Austria represents the culmination of his transformation from someone who finds safety in invisibility to someone who understands the power of being seen. When he pushes open the door of the building where they are held, it is the fact that a UN observer is watching him that prevents the Hungarian guard from hurting or even shooting him. As he and the other refugees walk through Hungary, they are visible to whole crowds, from ordinary people on the sides of the road to police threatening to arrest them if they stop moving. At the border with Serbia, they were vulnerable because only the soldiers could see them, but in view of the public, the UN and reporters, they have more safety. At the Austrian border, Mahmoud is afraid of the people watching when they stop to pray. However, unlike the people who reacted to their prayers with disgust on the ferry to Athens, those who see them in Austria are only waiting respectfully to welcome them. Here, their visibility as Syrian refugees invites warmth and generosity. Mahmoud’s willingness to be seen results in a safe landing for him and his family.
Isabel’s audition performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” represents the melding of her Cuban and American identities, as well as her incorporating the story of her journey across the ocean into her new life in Miami. Although she gave up her trumpet for gasoline in Havana, she has a new one in Miami, as she told Lito she would, which represents the possibility of rebuilding a life in a new place. She wears Iván’s hat while she plays a song she has heard while watching baseball games as an homage to her friend lost at sea. She plays the anthem salsa, for Iván, for Lito, for her parents, for herself and for little Mariano, all of them Cuban, no matter where they live. By playing it in Cuban style so that she remembers where she came from, she finally finds she can feel the clave beat under the music, even though Lito has said she will not learn to feel it in the U.S. Her performance of the American anthem in a Cuban style symbolizes how she is creating a hybrid identity in her new home.
As Mahmoud looks at Berlin in 2015, knowing it was destroyed by bombs in the 1940s, he wonders how long it will take for Aleppo to go from being a city destroyed by war to a healthy, peaceful city again. This is an example of Gratz’s theme throughout the novel of cities and countries shifting from dangerous places migrants flee to sanctuaries, in order to show that any country can become dangerous and any country can have the opportunity to help. Although Mahmoud experiences Berlin as a safe haven, for Josef, it was a danger zone. Mahmoud wonders if Aleppo, like Berlin, can “rise from the ashes,” an image that suggests a metaphor of a phoenix, a bird that is born only after its previous form burns. This cycle suggests that Aleppo, once beautiful and now in ruins, may one day be rebuilt as a safe place for those who need to find shelter.