Summary: Isabel / Off the Coast of Florida-1994 / 5 days from home

While the Coast Guard searchlight scans the boat, Isabel’s mother says that the baby is coming. Isabel watches the searchlight scan the water, and it stops on another boat, a raft full of refugees. While the Coast Guard ship maneuvers to intercept the other boat, Isabel and everyone else paddle for shore. Isabel’s mother cries out loudly as Iván’s father yells for everyone to row. Isabel worries that they are still too far from shore and that the Coast Guard will catch them and send them back to Cuba.

Summary: Mahmoud / Serbia to Hungary-2015 / 15-16 days from home

Mahmoud has his wrists bound by zip ties, and he is thrown into the back of a van. When his eyes recover from the teargas, he finds that his father is also in the van. They ride for several hours and are taken to an immigration detention center. Mahmoud and his father yell for Waleed and Mahmoud’s mother as they are taken to a cell. After telling several soldiers that he never intended to stay in Hungary, Mahmoud’s father is beaten with batons. As Mahmoud and his father are led to be processed, they see Waleed and Mahmoud’s mother in another cell, full of women and children. When Mahmoud’s father calls to his wife, he is hit with a baton again. When Mahmoud and his father reach the front of the line, they are asked if they plan to claim asylum in Hungary. Mahmoud’s father says that he would not stay in Hungary if it was made of gold. The officer tells them that they will be taken back to Serbia, and if they are caught again they will be arrested. While they are escorted away, Mahmoud tries to become invisible again, to “avoid the bullies.”

Summary: Josef / Antwerp, Belgium-1939 / 36 days from home

The passengers of the St. Louis celebrate, having been told that they will be divided between Belgium, the Netherlands, France, and England. Josef, his sister, and his mother are assigned to France. Josef and his family end up in Le Mans, where Ruthie goes to kindergarten and Josef gets to return to school.
Two months later, Germany invades Poland, starting World War II. Eight months after that, Germany invades France and Josef, his mother, and his sister are on the run again.

Summary: Isabel / Off the Coast of Florida-1994 / 5 days from home

Isabel’s mother screams as the Coast Guard ship draws closer. While everyone paddles, Lito tells them that when he was a young man, he and the other policemen turned away a boat of Jewish refugees. (He is officer Padron.) He had told the Jewish passengers Mañana, just like when the small boat would reach Miami: Mañana. Lito says that he spent his life waiting for the world to change, for things to get better, but it never did. Lito tells everyone to keep paddling and then jumps into the water to distract the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard ship turns to pick up Lito as Isabel and her family approach the shore.


As Mahmoud’s family approaches the Hungarian border, they see soldiers building a barrier to keep the refugees out despite the fact that they only wish to pass through Hungary on their way to Austria and Germany. This is an example of the ways governments work against refugees, sometimes seemingly for no reason, a theme throughout the book. The fence is an imposing symbol of the country’s inhospitable nature. It is twelve feet tall and topped with razor wire. Like the patrols of the U.S. Coast Guard along the Florida coast, the fence represents the efforts of the country to keep refugees out rather than helping them. When the refugees stampede, yelling that they are not terrorists, they are treated as enemies and gassed with tear gas canisters shot by the soldiers into the crowd. Although the refugees only ask to walk through the country, they are greeted with violence.

In the Hungarian detention center, Mahmoud and his family are treated as prisoners, where becoming invisible is a necessity. Their hands are zip-tied, heavily armed soldiers guard them and they are forced into cinderblock cells. In this part of the story, being visible becomes dangerous again. When Youssef asks questions of the guards, they beat him, stopping only when Mahmoud surrenders on his behalf. He is beaten again when he sees Fatima and Waleed and runs to them. This cruelty is an example in the book of people punishing refugees rather than helping them. When Youssef is threatened with deportation to Serbia, blocking their path to Germany, he shuts down and lets Mahmoud finish answering the processing questions. Youssef and Mahmoud both work on being invisible, ignoring Fatima as they pass her cell to avoid more bullying. Mahmoud needs the same tactics he used to stay safe in war-torn Aleppo to avoid the bullies of Hungary, a country that he believed would be more humane.

When the St. Louis returns to Europe, the countries of Britain, Holland, Belgium, and France spend a full day negotiating over which country will take which refugees. Even though they have agreed to accept refugees, each country is trying to pick the people most likely to gain admittance to the United States, an example of governments using refugees as pawns for trade rather than seeing them as people deserving of help. By 1940, all of the countries except Britain had been invaded by Germany, leaving the refugees once again at risk of being sent to concentration camps. Even in 1939, Nazi Germany is described as having a “long shadow,” foreshadowing the invasion of France, Holland, and Belgium. This moment in the text shows how the negotiating countries and the United States, like Cuba, failed to take the actions most likely to save the refugees' lives. The governments chose to protect their own interests rather than help the people in dire need.

As the Coast Guard ship bears down on the sinking boat carrying Isabel’s family and the Castillos, Lito sees their situation as parallel to that of the prisoners on board the St. Louis. With this understanding, he decides to sacrifice his own freedom so that they can reach the shore in Miami and arrive “dry foot” and therefore eligible for asylum in the U.S. He realizes that the world has not changed in part because people like him did not feel a responsibility to change it. Although he had sympathy for the Jewish passengers, he did not challenge the rules to help them. He sees his leap from the boat to distract the Coast Guard as his opportunity to change the world for Isabel and her family, letting them reach freedom in the United States. Although he did not change the world for the passengers of the St. Louis in 1939, he can now change the world for his family.