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74 Interview: ‘Newcomers’ Author Helen Thorpe on a Year in the Life of America’s Refugee Students — and Why Public-Private Partnerships Are Essential

By Conor Williams | March 20, 2018

See previous 74 interviews, including 2017 Teacher of the Year Sydney Chaffee, former education secretary John King, and former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice. The full archive is right here.

Helen Thorpe is the author of the recently published The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship, and Hope in an American Classroom. While writing the book, she spent a year embedded in a high school classroom of new refugee students from Africa, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Central America in Denver, Colorado.

In its January 2018 review, The New York Times called the result a “delicate and heartbreaking mystery story, as Thorpe slowly uncovers the secret catastrophes in the lives of young immigrants at South High School in Denver.” Thorpe’s book explores how these traumatized teens find their place in America at a time of increasing anti-immigrant fervor coming from first candidate and then President-elect Donald Trump on down to some of their fellow students.

The 74 contributor Conor Williams recently interviewed Thorpe about her deep dive into the lives of the students and their families and her own immigrant experience. The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and space.

T74: How did you decide to write The Newcomers?

Well, I was particularly interested in refugee resettlement as it was happening here in the United States. And I wanted to find some way to tell that story in a way that it would be both a local story describing what was happening in my community, but also a national or international kind of story, so I found a classroom at South High School filled with newcomer students who were a perfect map of the global refugee crisis. And that way I was able to show them, these separate journeys, that converged on a single classroom in Denver, Colorado — how they all arrived here, but also what it was like to learn English and try to become friends with one another when at first they couldn’t even say “Hello” or “How are you?” You know, what it was like to be a teenager under those circumstances.

Do you have an immigrant story?

I do. My parents immigrated twice. They both left Ireland to move to England to find work in London, where they met. My dad grew up in Dublin, my mom grew up on a farm in rural Ireland, and when they met in London, they got married and had me. Then, they immigrated a second time, to the United States with me when I was 1 year old, and my brother and sister were born here.

So I grew up in the United States feeling very American, but also having a green card and going back to visit my grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins most every summer. And I grew up with my mom constantly telling me stories of growing up on a dairy farm and how much more challenging things were, what she remembered from her upbringing, which was so different from mine. Like, the classic story she told us was getting loaned out to another farm by her dad — a farm owned by one of his sisters who had never had children — so she could do all the chores on that farm, and then being left there for two or three years before she got to come back home. So she would tell us stories like that, so I felt like an immigrant, even though really I was growing up in the United States for all of my waking, conscious memories.

Introduce us to Room 142, South High School’s newcomer room. Who was there?

The newcomer room is a place where students settle if they have arrived in the United States in the last 12 months, if they arrived speaking a foreign language other than Spanish (but sometimes Spanish also), or if their schooling has been interrupted for a lengthy period — generally the reason that this would happen is that they were living in a war zone.

There was an incredibly talented teacher in the room the year that I was there, the 2015–16 school year. His name’s Eddie Williams. His dad’s Anglo, his mom’s Latina, and she herself had been educated in an ESL classroom when she was growing up. That left Eddie with this desire to make sure that all his students felt they were treated with dignity and respect. His mom felt she was not treated that way, and he really wanted to do everything he could to make sure the kids in his care felt that he understood their struggle and humanity.

The kids in the room almost perfectly mapped the global crisis in the following way: The Democratic Republic of Congo is the number one sender of refugees to the U.S., and there were four kids from the DRC. The next largest sender of refugees to the U.S. is Burma, also known as Myanmar, and that country sent two kids to this room. The next largest sender of refugees here is Iraq — two sisters from Iraq showed up in the room. There was nobody from Somalia or Sudan, which send large numbers here too, but those students were represented elsewhere in the high school. And then there were four kids from Eritrea, which also sends really big numbers here.

So in that way, the room was just mapping almost exactly the countries that were producing large numbers of refugees who were getting resettled in the United States.

What’s South High School like?

South High School is a little unusual, because it not only offers specialized curriculum to newcomer students and English language acquisition curriculum that’s as good as it gets, but it’s also a regular large urban high school that excels at advanced placement. So it’s a place where you have a two-thirds native-born, one-third foreign-born student population.

What that means is, because it’s very good at serving both the native-born population and the foreign-born population, you get more integration or social mixing of those two student groups inside South than you typically see anywhere else. A lot of school districts are more segregated, and the advanced placement kids are in one school, you know, the sort of high-achieving, native-born families are in one location, and the kids from other countries are concentrated elsewhere. But South is unusual because you’ve got those two groups mixing. What you see, therefore, is kids like the ones I met inside Room 142, two brothers from the Congo, Solomon and Methuselah, you see them serving in the student senate by year two or year three [in the United States]. You see those kids playing on the sports teams, along with their native-born peers — just full social integration between native-born and foreign-born kids. You see that some places elsewhere in the country, but it’s kind of rare, I think.

What strategies seemed to work best for the kids in Room 142? How can teachers working with refugees help them?

One of the main things I saw happening in his classroom was good public-private partnerships. I can give a couple examples of that. First off, Jewish Family Services was providing school-based therapy in that room and elsewhere in the building. So students who had just arrived from war zones, and may have had traumatic experiences, found in their classroom a trained therapist who was expert in working with refugee populations. She was taking half the class away for group therapy, bringing those kids back and taking the other half for group therapy. Eddie Williams was facilitating that by repeating his lessons twice to accommodate half the kids being gone and the other half returning. This therapist was able to work with the kids so they were more able to express all the difficult emotions they were carrying. She helped ease their transition.

Similarly, you saw Goodwill Industries in the room. They were providing volunteers that freed up the teacher to provide much more differentiation and working with individual students. Also, you had parent volunteers, the PTA, and the student senate manning a food bank that was operating out of that classroom so that these students and the students elsewhere in the building could come to get food for their families. Many of these families desperately needed it because they’re living at poverty level. So in all these different and additional ways, the school was working to support these students and their parents as they were transitioning into the U.S. They needed all of these supports to have a successful transition that was less prolonged and more swift.

Who are the heroes of your book?

There are many heroes in the book. Eddie Williams is, in some ways, the main character who holds the whole book together. But I have to say, at the end, it was the sacrifices that the parents were making outside the classroom in order that their kids could go to South High School and be with Eddie learning English all day long that seemed to me to be the greatest sacrifices of all. I watched the Congolese family, the dad and brothers, take jobs cleaning hotels, washing dishes. I watched the Iraqi mom work in a factory so that their kids could be in this classroom. The families from Burma, they were typically working in meatpacking plants about an hour’s commute away so their students could be in this classroom. The parents were sacrificing everything — working very hard jobs, very low wages, not getting the chance to sit in a classroom and learn English all day long — so their kids could fully assimilate, get a high school degree, get a college degree, do a different kind of work in the long run. I thought that was heroic.

You allude to a challenge in the book: How did you manage the tension of observing and reporting on one hand … and, frankly, falling in love with the kids on the other?

Well, I had many conversations with my editor about this, because it was a hard balance to strike and it was important to get it right. I needed to maintain enough objectivity to write the book and give the reader all the information the reader needed to have and to treat everybody fairly, both to write about their flaws as well as their incredible attributes. And at the same time, it was so moving to me, the loneliness of the students when they first entered the room, the joy that they experienced when they could finally become friends with one another. To watch this unbelievable teacher work so hard, toil day after day for not enough money and not enough recognition. You know, he deserves twice the salary and twice the celebration of his work to help all of these 22 kids, who spoke 14 different languages, to help all of them learn English and speak English by the end of the year. It was incredible to see. And again, the sacrifices the parents were making.

So I found all of that so moving, and I did get caught up in the drama of what was unfolding in the classroom and the emotional experience of watching what was happening in the homes that I was fortunate enough to visit. And so what I discussed with my editor was, I said, “I just want to write a more subjective book where I say how caught up in this I’ve become.” And he basically gave me his blessing, permission to do that and said, “Well, as long as you write about all of this, about feeling caught up in these families’ experiences and you’re even offering that emotional support and cheering them on. If you write about all of that, the reader will be able to understand this dance that you’re doing between being a journalist but also being a fellow parent and just feeling for the parents as a fellow mom and feeling maternal towards the students in the room.”

So I deliberately chose to write in a more subjective way. I thought it would draw the reader in more.

Follow-up: I noticed an arresting line in your book, where you imagine the refugee father of one of the students wondering, “What are we supposed to do about the terrible innocence of Americans?” That shook me, and I thought about it throughout the book, which also touches on points of American collective guilt in causing some of the violence that destroyed the students’ lives in their home countries. What do Americans need to know about refugees today, in 2018?

You know, as I go out and speak about this book to different audiences, I find very different levels of understanding. Sometimes there are English language learners’ teachers or English as a Second Language teachers there where I’m speaking, and those teachers will have a very sophisticated understanding of who’s coming here and what they’re living through.

But the rest of America, unless they’re engaged in refugee resettlement or really working with immigrant populations, the rest of America, if we’ve grown up here, many of us really don’t know, really have no idea what life is like in certain parts of the planet. Maybe, if we’re lucky, we’ve traveled to Europe, but maybe we haven’t traveled to any foreign countries at all. And if we have traveled, and we’ve only traveled to Europe, maybe we’ve never seen what life is like in the developing parts of the world.

We don’t understand why refugees are displaced. In a very basic way, the bulk of Americans, the majority of Americans, we’ve never lived through anything like that. Even though our country has been engaged in some wars over the last two decades in the Middle East, those wars that we’ve been engaged in have taken place on foreign soil. Every conflict has taken place on foreign soil in my lifetime. Nobody in my generation — and everybody younger than me — has real firsthand experience of conflict unless they’ve served in Iraq or Afghanistan or Vietnam. We as a society don’t know what it’s like to have war on our soil. We fundamentally have forgotten what that’s like and why families are displaced. Unless we work with refugee populations and we hear their stories firsthand and are really paying attention to the news in a specific way and are really following those conflicts and how families are displaced, we’re without much sense of it.

So we participate in a debate about refugee resettlement and we talk about Syria, but we’ve never been to Syria, we don’t really understand what’s happening there, and we don’t even know that the global refugee crisis is much bigger than that and simultaneously taking place in Africa and simultaneously taking place in Southeast Asia. Our debate is impoverished. When I say that word, “innocent,” what I mean is, we just haven’t had some of those terribly hard experiences that the refugee population has had. And they actually have so much to teach us and so much to share with us. They’ve lived through the worst kinds of things. They’ve found as much resilience as any human beings ever have, and they can teach us about why wars happen and how to build peace and how do you survive these kinds of things. They have a ton of things to share with us — if we’re open to learning from them.

Right, that’s our innocence, our lack of awareness of what might provoke flight from a country. And the guilt part is easy, in the United States’ case.

Right. We tend to think about immigration as a purely economic matter. So we tend to think people want to come here to get the good life. People want to come here because we’re a wealthy country. And that’s true for some immigrants, but if you’re talking about the refugee population, it’s a whole different equation. These are people who have had to flee because there is no possibility of living in their home country and staying alive. No possibility of being safe. They have been forced out. They have not chosen to come here for economic betterment. They have been forced to flee and they have no home. It’s different.

I want to ask you a pair of questions that sort of pull in opposing directions: What makes refugees unique and remarkable? And yet, how are they familiar?

In my personal encounters with refugee families, what I noticed were all the commonalities between my family and theirs: parents just doing their utmost, the best they could to provide a safe home for their kids and the best possible future, and then what was different about their families was that that was unfolding at some sort of epic scale, so much exponentially harder than, say, my personal struggle.

So, for example, the Iraqi family that I got to know was comprised of a single mom with three kids. I’m a single mom with one kid. But she had been displaced twice: first from Iraq, after we invaded her country, then from Syria, where she had fled seeking refuge. Then she had lived in Turkey as essentially an undocumented or illegal immigrant, basically. Coming to the United States was the first time she was ever able to successfully find a truly safe home for her daughters. But they encountered epic prejudice here. So in all these ways, her struggle to provide a safe home for her kids was just monumentally more challenging and difficult than me trying to do the same thing on the other side of town.

Similarly, when I would visit the Congolese family that I got to know, I was witnessing an intact family: two parents with nine children. Because they had many children and some were old enough to work, they had four income streams and they achieved economic self-sufficiency in just an incredibly short amount of time. But they had also lived through very difficult things back in the Congo and exhibited extraordinary resilience and grace.

[They were] determined to always speak about what was positive. Even though they had lived through enormous difficulty, they were constantly celebrating what was wonderful about their life right now. It wasn’t easy for them to transition to the United States, but they were always saying how lucky they felt to be here and how grateful they were to be given a chance to start over here. And over on my side of town, I’m trying to celebrate what’s positive about things in my world, but when I would go to their home, and watch them do it, I was just struck by the fact that even though they were living at just above the poverty line in the United States and life was so hard, they were never complaining about the kind of work they were having to do or how difficult the transition was here. They were just saying they felt lucky to have jobs. They felt lucky to be safe.

And, of course, the kids could be so recognizable, right? Those markings of adolescence show right across cultural lines: the flirting, the music, the cynicism and earnestness and despair and excitement all at once, all bound up together!

Well, I love your summary of it. That’s exactly what I was seeing. I have a 15-year-old at home, so I’m living it at home as well. These kids just stunned me with their grace, navigating a new country, struggling to learn English, having left everything they’d ever known, all their friends, their extended family, and in many cases, their culture, behind. They’re trying to navigate adolescence here, even with all these extra burdens that they’re carrying. They were so kind to one another, so interested in one another, so eager to break out of their linguistic isolation and their adolescent angst that was unfolding at the same time, trying to find one another and reassure one another that “Yes, we’re all going through this together.” I thought it was a beautiful thing to witness them develop a sense of community in the room.

The teacher was really facilitating things and kind of brokering and intervening when they were a little mean to one another. There was one student who was a little rambunctious, and he kept having to corral her energy, but she also brought so much life to the room, she got everybody talking. So I think the teacher and the students were doing this dance where he was recognizing that if he let them have some free rein to express their desires to know one another socially, they would feel much more motivated to learn English to talk to one another — it was benefiting them academically as well! Watching it all unfold was really beautiful.

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