With the widespread influx of refugees to Europe from Africa and the Middle East in recent years, as well as the ongoing issue of illegal immigration in the United States, it's no surprise that this theme is beginning to show up in both young adult and even juvenile fiction novels. Ele Fountain's debut novel, Refugee 87 is one such novel that explores the journey of a young refugee with heartbreaking realism.
Fourteen-year-old Shiferwa (Shif) Gebreselassie lives next door to his best friend Bini in a two room house. Both boys are good students and ambitious about their futures. While Bini wants to be a doctor someday, Shif is considering engineering. Both boys have lost their fathers; Shif's father died when he was seven, while Bini's father left around the same time to find a better job but never returned. Every day Shif's mother goes to work taking his younger sister Lemlem with her to her job mending clothing.
One day Shif and Bini notice an army truck parked outside their school with four armed soldiers watching the students enter the school. At school the atmosphere is tense and Shif finds he is unable to focus. At home that night, Shif waits for his mother and Lemlem to return home. When they are late arriving he decides to go to the nearest shop to purchase some injera despite being forbidden by his mother to go out after school. It is a rule he has religiously obeyed until now. On his way home Shif hears soldiers knocking on the doors of houses and when a soldier calls out to him, he flees home. Later his mother tells him the reason for her strict rule, that by going out he makes himself visible to others and to the army.
The next day Bini doesn't attend school, despite having to write an important test. After school Shif tries to see Bini but Bini's mother, Saba tells him that he's at market and will not be returning to school. This news leaves Shif in shock because he knows his friend loves school. They have one more year of school and the mandatory two years of military school before they can apply to university. That night Shif questions his mother about these events and learns the stunning news that his father is likely not dead. A university lecturer, he had requested that teachers be paid more and was taken away by the government. He was imprisoned in a camp with others who had also spoken out against the government. His mother doesn't know for sure if Shif's father is still alive but she remains hopeful.
Shif's mother also tells him that the military is doing an operation known as a giffa, rounding up those boys and girls they believe are trying to escape military school. Because Shif is the son of someone considered by the government to be a traitor, if he is caught in the giffa he will likely never be released from military school. It is likely that he will be sent to the gold mines. The two mothers instead have planned for the boys to leave the country; they will leave in the morning with smugglers who will take them to the border and then north to the coast where they will take a boat to Europe. Shif's mother explains that he must learn her phone number as well as his Uncle Batha's number in case of emergency.
However, their plans are thwarted when, in the middle of the night, soldiers raid both boys' homes and drag Shif and Bini into the night and into the back of a waiting truck. Driven miles from home, into the desert and imprisoned in a metal shipping container with other political prisoners, Shif and Bini know their situation is dire. With the help of other prisoners, the two boys are given a second chance at life, a chance to escape and tell the world what is happening.
Refugee 87 also published as Boy 87 is a riveting fictional account of one refugee's journey out of Eritrea to Europe. The title is taken from the name given to Shif when he is taken to a military prison by soldiers. Fountain who is a British writer, lived for several years in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia at a time when the government enacted laws punishing those critical of the regime.
Fountain doesn't focus on the names of the countries in her novel, because she "...wanted the focus to be on his experience rather than the politics of one regime." While this is understandable, it means there is less context to Shif's experience. Instead, Fountain is appealing to her young readers on an emotional level. Fountain does hint at some of the reasons life in his country might be dangerous; for example, the government imprisons those who speak out against it.
However, life goes on for Shif until he is targeted by the military.
Refugee 87 offers a good starting point to familiarize young readers with the refugee experience. But outside of the novel, the complex reasons why people leave their homes and families to undertake a dangerous journey need to be considered, even by young people. We don't see the mass migration of people from Europe to Yemen or Syria because of the West's values that focus on justice and rights and our democratic political systems. It would be helpful to encourage young people to think in a critical way as to why this is. What are the political, social and economic realities in these countries? Refugees generally don't want to leave their homelands with all the risks and loss that entails, so how can we in the West help them to stay and effect positive change in their own countries? What is the role of countries in the region? And for those who do want to leave how might we assist them?
Nevertheless, Fountain's portrayal of the refugee experience seems realistic in the most tragic of ways. Through Shif's eyes we experience many of the dangers refugees face on their journeys toward safety and freedom. Shif himself endures cold and heat, starvation, and loneliness. Clues in the story suggest that Shif has travelled from his home country of Eritrea (where injera is a main staple, where the women wear a white netela and the coinage is silver with the words Liberty, Equality, and Justice) into Sudan (where the women wear brightly coloured headscarfs and the coinage is gold around the edge and silver in the middle. Later on in the story he also greets the mother and daughter with the phrase "Kemay hadirkin" which means "Good morning" in Tigrinya, a language spoken in Ethiopia and Eritrea. ) In this new country (likely Sudan which lies north of Eritrea), Shif cannot speak the language and receives only the barest of help. He doesn't know anyone, that is until he meets a family from Eritrea, Shewit, her husband Mesfin and their daughter Almaz.
But if Shif and the other refugees thought they were safe in Sudan they quickly discover the opposite. There is a new danger the refugees now face; human trafficking. Shewit warns Shif that he mustn't go to the refugee camp to the south because human traffickers lie in wait outside the camp. Almaz tells him this is also the reason they do not wear their white netela: the white scarf marks them as refugees who can be targeted by traffickers.
Refugee 87 also portrays the special risks that women and young girls face. In the market, Almaz is grabbed by a man who intends to sell her. She is rescued by Shif but this now marks them as targets for the traffickers.
Refugees are also at risk of physical injury and death. Shif badly sprains his ankle during his escape from the prison. Genet, a older woman refugee was injured by shrapnel when a land mine exploded. Without proper medical care, her condition worsens. By the time Shif resumes his journey, Genet is likely dying from sepsis. On their journey to the coast, Shewit breaks her leg when the truck they are traveling in crashes. She and her husband Mesfin are left by the roadside along with many other injured refugees, likely to die. And Fountain also portrays the harrowing boat trip across the Mediterranean during which Shif and Almaz almost drown.
Refugee 87 will help young readers to empathize with the plight of refugees who often leave everything and everyone familiar to them behind for the hope of a new life. Shif briefly explains what this means to him. "Inside my head I carry the stories of what went before. Those stories are the threads that will tie me to my other life. I am still Shif. But from now on there will always be two parts to me."
Fountain's well-written, moving novel proves that writers write best about those topics dearest to their heart and it's obvious the plight of those in Ethiopia is important to her. Highly recommended.
Refugee 87 by Ele Fountain
New York: Little, Brown and Company 2018