How Refugee Children Thrived in an American Classroom

Editors’ Note: This article is the eighth in a series of articles on books by or about refugees.

Stories of refugees’ journeys to asylum countries no longer attract much attention, however urgent or interesting they might be. In recent years, Arab and foreign media have published numerous stories about refugees, recounting the difficulties and challenges they face—their successes as well as their failures. While armed conflicts continue, however, the decline in the number of refugees arriving in Europe has led to a decline in the number of news stories on the front pages of media outlets. Still, one American journalist persisted in following and documenting the lives of a group of refugees of different nationalities in their new home, the United States, not for a news story but in a 400-page book.

In The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship, and Hope in an American ClassroomHelen Thorpe follows 22 teenage refugees in their first year of high school in the city of Denver, in the United States. These 14- to 18-year-olds arrived from Africa, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Central America to the United States legally but with little command of English or first-hand knowledge of American culture. Some of them came directly from refugee camps, and some arrived without their parents, whom they had lost in tragic ways. But an understanding and experienced teacher helped these young people to gradually integrate into their new society and gave them the confidence they had lacked.

“This is a work of non-fiction. To report this book, I spent a year and a half inside South High School and hired 14 different translators to interview subjects in their home languages,” Thorpe wrote in her book’s introduction. “I changed the names of four individuals, but otherwise, to the best of my knowledge, everything that follows is true.”

I might be able to confirm the authenticity of everything in the book. I have visited Denver twice. I still remember my admiration for the un-exaggerated kindness of its inhabitants, the diversity of its ethnicities and their welcoming of strangers. This is something Thorpe records in her book, without affectation or favoritism. In my experience of covering refugee education in recent years, I have met with many Arab youth and adolescents, documented the suffering and hardship they experienced as they tried to reach a haven from their war-ravaged countries, as well as the difficulties they faced in integrating into new societies where they sought to pursue their studies (see related article, The Lack of Academic Documents is Ending Young Peoples’ Dreams); I saw how they struggled to find decent and legal work, and their battle with racist practices and discriminatory policies (see related article, Little Hope of Jobs for Syrians in Lebanon and Jordan); and I witnessed the psychological and emotional problems that resulted from their separation from their parents, homes, loved ones and memories.

So the stories of the refugees in Thorpe’s book seemed very realistic to me, having heard, watched and written dozens of similar stories. For example, the suffering of Lisbeth from El Salvador is similar in some ways to the problems of Mariam and Jakleen, two Iraqi sisters, and of Methusella and Solomon, two brothers from the Democratic Republic of Congo. While some of them show remarkable ability because of their previous knowledge of English, others have difficulty with learning and making friends in the crowded classroom. Their stories illustrate the need to deal with refugees as a humanitarian issue, and not as an emergency or a political impasse.

I was struck by Thorpe’s account of the work of Eddie Williams, the talented and dedicated teacher who spared no effort to teach his students and embrace them as new residents. The way Williams teaches his students in and out of the classroom shows how important the trained teacher is in educating refugees, helping them feel comfortable, supporting them in integrating into their new society.

Thorpe not only spent a full academic year with the students and their teacher at the school, but she also visited the students at home. The author tells the stories of these young people’s lives before they arrived in the United States, as well as their new lives in the classroom and how they communicate with each other.

At first, communication is difficult. But over time, they begin using Google translation not to translate from or to English, but to translate from their mother tongues to their colleagues’ mother tongues, completely skipping over the English that brought them together into the classroom. At the end of the semester, they are able to communicate in English in a wonderful way thanks to their teacher’s patience and encouragement.

In her keenness to tell an authentic story, the author repeatedly refers to her personal experience as an Irish-American woman and how her family’s story of arrival, living and integration in the United States is not essentially different from the stories of the young people who never chose to be refugees but found themselves overnight seeking asylum. Some have even experienced being refugees more than once. The two Iraqi sisters, Mariam and Jakleen, took refuge with their parents in Damascus at the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Then they had to leave Syria for Turkey because of the war, and from there they left again to settle in the United States.

Thorpe’s account of her experience with the Arabic translator she hired to communicate with two Iraqi sisters also inspires hope. The translator had come to the United States as an immigrant with three children. Life was harsh for all of them, but they managed to overcome the difficulties of integrating into a new and different society. Two of her children later studied medicine, and the third one engineering.

The hope the author conveys through her characters stands in the face of harsh realities in our world today. I finished reading the book just as the Supreme Court in the United States upheld the travel ban issued by the administration of Donald Trump, which bans the citizens of a number of Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States and prevents the entry of newcomers, denying them the opportunity to find refuge, friendship and hope in an American classroom.

We could all use a heaping helping of hope right now. Seek out this book.


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