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“It feels as if the course of my life, which had seemed so certain, is shifting like sand beneath my feet and might just suck me under,” Shif. –Refugee 87
by Ele Fountain
Shif has a happy life, unfamiliar with the horrors of his country’s regime. He is one of the smartest boys in school, and feels safe and loved in the home he shares with his mother and little sister, right next door to his best friend, Bini. Both boys dream of going to university. Bini hopes to be a doctor and Shif wants to be an architect.
Both boys’ dreams are shattered the day that soldiers arrive at their door. Soldiers accuse the fourteen-year-olds of trying to flee before they can be drafted into the military. The boys are sent to prison, where they discover the lengths the government will go to silence anyone who is seen as a possible threat. Shif and Bini’s only hope is to escape the prison, sneak across the desert, and enter another country.
Told from Shif’s point of view, Refugee 87 jumps into a hostile country where people face unthinkable cruelty at the hands of their government. Shif and the other prisoners are treated like worthless animals and are given little food. However, once Shif escapes from prison, he discovers many unexpected dangers. A woman tells Shif not to go to the refugee camps because “a tribe in this area kidnaps people who have escaped from our country. . . They have gangs who patrol the camps, waiting for anyone new. Children get good prices. . . Before selling you, they try to get hold of your family’s money.”
Readers will sympathize with Shif as they learn about the modern refugee crisis. Instead of delving into the political situation, Fountain keeps the setting vague and brings Shif’s hardships to life. Even though the story is told from Shif’s point of view, readers may find it difficult to believe that Shif did not understand the reason his mother was so cautious and the dangers people in his country faced. The easy-to-read story doesn’t waste words on detailed descriptions, which sets the fast pace of the story. However, the lack of detail leaves the reader with unanswered questions.
Even though the publisher recommends the story for children eight and older, younger readers may become upset by the story’s mature themes which include war, violence, death, and human slavery. Although the events in the story are not described in graphic detail, Shif faces the death of his best friend and other horrific treatment. The abrupt ending may frustrate readers because the conclusion does not tell readers if Shif eventually made it to the safety of Europe.
As realistic fiction, Refugee 87 will help readers understand why people flee war-torn countries and the dangers that refugees face. The story also touches on themes of friendship, endurance, and the predatory nature of humans. Refugee 87 explores the refugee crisis in a manner that is appropriate for younger audiences and will engage readers of all ages. Readers who enjoyed Refugee 87 or want to learn more about refugees should also read Refugee by Alan Gratz.
- Shif and other prisoners are walking. One of the guards pushes Shif “in the back with the butt of his rifle and points ahead. He pushes me again. . . ‘eyes down!’ the guard shouts, and pushes me so hard that I fall to my knees on the stone ground.”
- Shif and Bini try to escape the prison. As they run, the guards shoot at them. “Seconds later, I hear a bullet ricochet from the tree trunk. Another whizzes past my head like a bee. Puffs of dirt jump in the air as more bullets hit the earth around us.” The boys run and hide in a crack in the desert floor.
- When Shif and Bini walk through the desert trying to escape from the prison’s soldiers, they hear a vehicle coming. As they begin to run, “There is a puff of dust from the ground beside me. Bullets. Which means they are close enough to fire at us. . . Bini shudders and yells out, then falls to his knees in front of me, clutching his arm.” Because of his injury, Bini tells Shif to leave him. As Shif runs, he “hears Bini shouting at the guards. I hear two shots behind me, then silence.” The scene is described over three pages.
- Shif meets a woman who was injured. She tells him, “A land mine exploded when we were crossing the border. Two people we were crossing with were killed. I was hit with some pieces of shrapnel. We managed to get the pieces out, but the cuts were deep and I wasn’t able to clean them properly so they became infected.”
- Shif stays with a family, who has a young daughter named Almaz. While shopping in the market, someone steals Almaz’s money. “Almaz darts down a dusty street after the man. I skid to a stop at the top of the street. Halfway down I see the man has stopped too. He is holding Almaz by the waist. She has her back to him and is struggling to kick him or twist around to scratch at his face.” Shif helps Almaz. “I push at his shoulder and try to grab his arm. He pins Almaz against the wall with one hand, then hits me in the face with the other. I fall backward; my cheek and nose explode with a coldness that almost immediately turns to throbbing pain.” Shif and Almaz escape. The scene is described over two pages.
- While trying to escape the country, the smuggler yells at a woman who needs to pay more money. Shif hears “screaming and shouting in the corridor, and a loud cracking sound, then she is quiet.”
Drugs and Alcohol
- When Shif and Bini are shoved into a prison room, one of the men tells them, “Whatever you do, don’t piss on anyone in the night.”
- When Shif and Bini hide from the soldiers, Shif prays “that we look like nothing more than two rocky bumps in the uneven desert landscape.”