"A hopeful story about recovery, empathy, and the bravery of young people." —Booklist
"This well-crafted and suspenseful novel touches on the topics of refugees and immigrant integration, terrorism, Islam, Islamophobia, and the Syrian war with sensitivity and grace." —Kirkus Reviews, starred review
Fourteen-year-old Ahmed is stuck in a city that wants nothing to do with him. Newly arrived in Brussels, Belgium, Ahmed fled a life of uncertainty and suffering in Aleppo, Syria, only to lose his father on the perilous journey to the shores of Europe. Now Ahmed’s struggling to get by on his own, but with no one left to trust and nowhere to go, he’s starting to lose hope.
Then he meets Max, a thirteen-year-old American boy from Washington, D.C. Lonely and homesick, Max is struggling at his new school and just can’t seem to do anything right. But with one startling discovery, Max and Ahmed’s lives collide and a friendship begins to grow. Together, Max and Ahmed will defy the odds, learning from each other what it means to be brave and how hope can change your destiny.
Set against the backdrop of the Syrian refugee crisis, award-winning author of Jepp, Who Defied the Stars Katherine Marsh delivers a gripping, heartwarming story of resilience, friendship and everyday heroes. Barbara O'Connor, author of Wish and Wonderland, says "Move Nowhere Boy to the top of your to-be-read pile immediately."
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They had purposely waited for a cloudy, moonless July night. It was less likely, the smugglers had said, that the Greek Coast Guard would spot them.
But now their invisibility was a problem. The top of the inflatable rubber dinghy bobbed barely ten centimeters above the Aegean, several centimeters lower than when they had started. There was no land in sight. The captain struggled to restart the motor while the silhouettes of eighteen men, three women and four children huddled together. Some had ill-fitting life jackets; only a few knew how to swim.
"If the motor doesn't start, we will drown," one of the women said, her thin voice rising in panic.
No one disagreed.
Ahmed Nasser hugged his life jacket against himself. It was too small for a boy of fourteen, especially one nearly as tall as his father. He remembered the stories he had heard in Turkey of smugglers selling defective life jackets that made people sink instead of float.
A hand touched his shoulder. "Ahmed, my soul, don't be afraid."
Ahmed looked at his father, his large frame crammed against the side of the boat. A black inner tube was slung over his shoulder and he smiled calmly, as if he knew they'd be okay. But the smell of bodies, unwashed and sweating, the terrified gazes, the sickly toss of the sea, told Ahmed otherwise.
"The lady is right," Ahmed whispered. "The boat's deflating. If the motor won't start —"
"Hush," his father said.
His voice was commanding yet gentle, as if he were soothing a child. But Ahmed was old enough to know the powerlessness that lay behind it. He thought about his mother, his sisters, his grandfather — would his death be worse than theirs had been? His father had assured him theirs had been painless. Surely theirs had been quicker than this. There had been no time for false words of comfort.
Less than ten kilometers separated the coast of Turkey from the Greek island of Lesbos. Ahmed tried to make out lights from land or even from another boat, but he could spot nothing. Where was Europe? Where was the rest of the world? There wasn't even a star to promise a better elsewhere existed. The sky was as dark as the water below it. He could barely see the face of the stainless-steel watch his father had worn until earlier tonight, when he'd fastened it around Ahmed's wrist. It had been Ahmed's great-grandfather's Omega Seamaster, a name that seemed ironic now.
"Baba, you know I can't swim," Ahmed whispered.
"You won't have to," his father said.
But water was soaking Ahmed's sneakers. He could feel it rolling back and forth across the bottom of the boat. People tossed bags into the sea, trying to lighten the load. Ahmed watched the bags bob, then float away or sink. A few people tried to bail the water out with plastic bottles, but it hardly seemed to make a difference. The woman in front of them started crying. For the first time, Ahmed noticed she was holding a baby in a sling.
"Don't cry," Ahmed's father said to her, his tone light. "There is already enough water in this boat."
But this only seemed to make the woman cry harder.
"Allahu Akbar," several people prayed.
"The woman is right," his father interrupted. "We must keep this boat moving. But you will not sink. Nor will the others."
Ahmed noticed him glance at the woman and her baby, then at the rest of the desperate, frightened strangers in the overcrowded boat. Baba pulled the inner tube off his shoulder and slipped it over Ahmed's head and around his torso. Then he leaned over and whispered in his ear.
"Forgive me, my soul. For a moment, I must leave you."
"Leave me? Where?"
But his father had already turned away.
Ahmed tried to reach for him, only to realize that his arms were pinned to his sides by the inner tube. By the time he'd freed them, his father's leg was already over the side of the boat.
Ahmed lurched forward to grab him, but it was too late. His father slid into the dark water like an eel. A moment later he reappeared, treading water.
"What are you doing?" Ahmed shouted after him.
"We need to pull the boat." His father's eyes searched the passengers. "Can anyone else swim?"
They were from a medley of places — Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq — but Ahmed realized from the helpless way they looked at one another that they had one thing in common: none of them could swim.
But then a voice behind him said in Iraqi-accented Arabic, "I can."
Ahmed turned around. A slight, wiry man took off his jacket, then his shirt. He handed them to the woman beside him, who folded them neatly, as if to make a point that she expected him back. A little girl sat between them, half swallowed by her life jacket.
"I can, too," said the captain. He looked ashamed about the motor, but Ahmed felt it wasn't his fault. He wasn't even really a captain. He was just an engineering student from Homs whom the smugglers had chosen from among the refugees to pilot the boat. This thankless duty had earned him an oblong orange buoy. He tossed it into the sea, then dove after it.
Ahmed tried to give his father back the inner tube, but he refused to take it, claiming it would slow him down. The men swam to the front of the boat and, as a passenger shined a flashlight across the dark water, they looped the boat's towrope around the buoy, conferring in tones too hushed for Ahmed to hear. Then each grabbed onto the rope with one hand, kicking with their feet and paddling with their free arm. Ahmed's father swam in front, the two men behind him.
The boat jerked forward, as if a giant hand had given it a shove.
Cheers and shouts of "Praise be to God!" rose up from the passengers. Those in the center of the boat scooped water from the bottom into bottles and passed them to those on the edge to pour out. As he emptied bottles, Ahmed felt his fear ebb, replaced by pride that it was his father leading the swimmers. It reminded him of long-ago weekends before the war, when his family had barbecued and picnicked with friends outside of Aleppo. Late at night, his father would lead the dabke, whirling the line of dancers as they held hands and stamped their feet to drum and tambourine. Ahmed would stare up at the star-filled sky and let himself be dragged along wildly, knowing Baba was in charge.
But a half hour later, he was jolted from his memories as the wind picked up and choppy waves rocked the dinghy. Occasionally they spilled over the sagging sides, and Ahmed could hear the water slosh in the bottom. He looked anxiously out into the beam of light that illuminated his father and the other swimmers. Whitecaps broke over their heads, slowing their pace, but their free arms continued to pinwheel around.
A hard summer rain began to fall. Within minutes, Ahmed was drenched. He told himself that rain this heavy never lasted long, but it stirred up the sea even more. The swimmers pulled the dinghy straight into the waves. It pitched and bucked, pulling the swimmers' rope taut, but it stayed afloat.
Then came the sideways wave.
Ahmed didn't see it, but he felt it. It tipped the dinghy to one side and seemed to hold it there, as if considering the worth of those inside. Ahmed sucked in air, expecting to be flipped. But the wave let the dinghy slide down its side and instead swept over the swimmers so that they vanished completely. Then it ripped the buoy off the rope and tossed it into the darkness.
There was a second of silent shock before everyone started shouting, shining their phones' flashlights across the water.
"Where are they? Can anyone see them?" The captain sputtered to the surface. The Iraqi popped up next with a gasp, his hand still clutching the rope.
But where was Baba?
Far in the distance, through the driving rain, Ahmed thought he saw his father's head bob to the surface.
"Baba!" he shouted.
But there was no response, and when he looked again, all he could see were the endless whitecap waves.CHAPTER 2
Max Howard nearly choked on his waffle.
He knew he should have been suspicious when his parents had suggested a second waffle of the day. They had just left the Grand Place, the enormous square in the center of Brussels where tourists gawked at the ornate gold-adorned buildings. It was their third day in Belgium, and his mother had wanted to take a family photo there. Max had figured she would post it on Facebook with some goofy comment like "Beginning our exciting year in Europe!"
This was Max's first time in Europe, and, like most of what he'd seen so far, the Grand Place didn't seem real. The narrow cobblestone streets around it were filled with chocolate shops, waffle stands and souvenir stores selling beer steins and key chains of the Manneken Pis, the statue of the little peeing boy that was Brussels's mascot. Tourists speaking in a babble of languages passed by their table outside the waffle shop, and although it felt like morning, waiters were beginning to change the café chalkboards for dinner. But even in his jet-lagged fog, Max knew there was something very wrong with what his parents had just told him.
"I thought I was going to the American school. Like Claire."
He stared across the metal café table at his older sister. Had she known about this? But she just tossed her long blond hair and continued texting one of her millions of friends back home. Max felt like ripping the phone out of her hands and shouting, "Traitor!" In Washington, she'd always told him everything their parents were up to; she'd even given him strategies on how to keep them from freaking out about his grades. But she had been even angrier than Max when their parents had announced that they were moving to Brussels for a year so their father could be a defense consultant to NATO, a military alliance founded to protect Europe from Russia. And now, she was making it clear that he was on his own.
His mom leaned in from the chair beside his. She was small, not much bigger than him, but she somehow still managed to make Max feel trapped.
"Claire's in high school. She can't have an adventure like you."
But the word "adventure" didn't fool Max. He knew what she was really saying: Claire is an A student on track to go to Harvard or Yale. You barely passed sixth grade, and we're afraid you're going to end up living in our basement.
Max turned to his father. He was sipping a tiny European coffee, but with his sunburned face, cargo shorts and Marine Corps Marathon T-shirt, he was clearly American. Max hadn't seen a single man in shorts outside the Grand Place.
Max knew his parents rarely agreed. But his father just smiled, as if he knew what Max was up to, and shook his head.
"It's a good idea, Max."
Max stared at his parents in disgust. He would have included Claire too, if she'd bothered to look up from her phone.
"Um, you know I don't speak French?"
"You'll learn," his father said.
"Ms. Krantz said you have a good ear," his mother added.
Max had a feeling the lawyer part of her had been waiting to break out this crushing evidence. What did you say? he almost said. But it was a dumb joke, and he felt too depressed to make it.
Ms. Krantz was the learning specialist his parents had hired in Washington, D.C., after he'd nearly failed every subject but history. She'd told his parents he needed to work on study skills and focus, including on being less impulsive. But that was probably just because of the incident with the bike — after this crazy eighth grader took his friend Kevin's bike, Max had chased after him. It wouldn't have been a big deal except that when Max grabbed him, the crazy eighth grader had lost control of the bike and fractured his arm. The kid's parents had blamed Max, and even Kevin had been mad at him because his bike was twisted out of shape.
But the incident with the bike was nothing compared to this. Here, he was stranded in a weird foreign country where people ate horsemeat (his mother had pointed it out at the store, so he knew it was true) and spoke a language that sounded like someone hacking up phlegm, and he was being denied his basic right to drift off in class to a language he understood. Middle school had been bad enough in English. And forget about friends. At least he'd had a few in Washington, like Kevin and Malik, who liked role-playing games and comic books. But how was he supposed to make friends when he couldn't even speak to them?
Even the weather seemed to be messing with him. A few minutes before, it had been sunny, but now gray clouds covered the sky.
He could feel his mom pressing in on him, a storm front of forced enthusiasm.
"You can sleep in! The school is just around the corner. Claire has to get up early to take the bus —"
"He's not a complete idiot," Claire interrupted.
Max might have thought she was defending him, except for the way she emphasized the word "complete."
His mother shot her a look. "Excuse me?"
"He knows this isn't just some fun adventure. We all do."
"Claire," his father warned.
Max got it. She'd been happy in Washington with her million friends. She loved Walls, the super-selective high school where she had just finished ninth grade. But she acted like the move was somehow Max's fault when he'd had nothing to do with it. And he certainly didn't feel sorry for her now. At least she would be going to school in English.
Max pushed away his waffle. "I won't go."
His mother's voice was gentle but firm.
"It's not a choice, Max."
"How am I supposed to pass seventh grade in French?"
A group of tourists glanced over. He realized he was shouting. He hated the way everyone in Brussels walked around grim and silent, like they'd just been yelled at. Even the little kids were quieter than American little kids.
"Here we go," Claire murmured.
"Oh, shut up," Max said to her.
She looked up from her phone and fixed him with a stare. "You're not going to seventh."
From the nervous glance his parents exchanged, Max instantly knew that Claire was telling the truth.
"We thought it would be easier for you to learn French if you repeated sixth," his father said.
This wasn't a waffle-and-coffee stop — it was an ambush! Max jumped to his feet. "You're holding me back?"
"Just think how great your French will be when we get back to America," his mom said. "You'll be the best in your class!"
The best. Always the best. That was all his parents seemed to care about. Max picked up the soggy remains of his waffle and pushed past his mom to the trash. Then he chucked it in.
"Max!" she called after him.
Max ignored her, his arms crossed over his chest. A drop of water smacked against his face, and he wiped it away with the back of his hand. Perfect. It was beginning to rain. He'd been in Brussels all of seventy-two hours and he was already sick of it — the little cars; the clouds of cigarette smoke; the scrawny, overtrimmed trees that looked like amputees; the greasy snack shops selling fries and kebabs; the surly waiters who refused to do anything in a rush. In a single afternoon, he'd nearly been run over by a tram and stepped in dog poop (the entire city was like some poop obstacle course since no one in Brussels seemed to clean up after their dogs). Parts of the city looked the storybook way he'd imagined, with large windows and flower boxes and steep roofs; others seemed different (Max had never seen so many women wearing headscarves). But none of it felt like home.
A wave of homesickness washed over him. He just wanted a hamburger — not the weird raw beef the Belgians inexplicably called "filet Américain." He pictured Kevin and Malik munching on the greasy ones at the diner on Connecticut Avenue. What he wouldn't give to be sitting in the booth with them, discussing the new Avengers movie and making plans for a sleepover. He thought about texting them, but he was too embarrassed to admit that his parents were making him repeat sixth. Would they even be his friends next year if they were in different grades?
He'd never felt so completely alone.
He heard footsteps behind him and a hand squeezed his shoulder. His father wasn't a big man, but he had a strong, reassuring grip from years of golf and Washington handshakes.
"I know we kind of sprang this on you."
"Which part? Moving to Belgium? French school? Repeating sixth grade?"
"All of it," he admitted. "But like Mom was getting at, it's an opportunity. And it takes the pressure off. All you have to do is learn French —"
"All I have to do is learn French? An entire language. Wow, thanks. I'm glad that's all."
His father laughed and Max couldn't help feeling a little of his anger drain away.
His father's eyes crinkled as he leaned in closer.
"Anyway, there are only four French words you really need to know."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Nowhere Boy"
Copyright © 2018 Katherine Marsh.
Excerpted by permission of Roaring Brook Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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