Westword:You were writing your book at the time Donald Trump was running a presidential campaign that floated a possible Muslim ban and spoke of Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals. How did that affect your reporting? Did you see any of that animosity seep into the classroom?
Helen Thorpe: South is a large urban high school in the middle of the country, and you might imagine that due to its location, there would not be a great deal of familiarity with foreign cultures. Because South has been educating refugee students for over two decades, however, both the faculty and the student body are highly knowledgeable about the rest of the world. Teachers and students there have absorbed all kinds of information about what languages are spoken elsewhere and what cultural practices take place in other countries. The school serves as an oasis of acceptance for foreign-born students. Right after the election, however, many of the foreign-born students at South were verbally assaulted by other commuters as they boarded the city buses that take them to and from school. There were many cases of mistaken identity, such as when a Bangladeshi student was mistaken for Arab. A bus driver even denied admittance to one student wearing a hijab, saying she looked like she was affiliated with ISIS. The election seemed to unleash a torrent of hatred, and the student body as a whole was badly shaken.
Refugees and immigrant children have been in our news cycle continuously and at the center of some of the current presidential administrations' most controversial policies. How does your book shed light on these policies?
There is a lot of confusion in our national dialogue. For example, refugees are not the same thing as asylum-seekers. When the president cites security concerns and says we “don’t know who these people are,” he is speaking about asylum-seekers from the Middle East. Those migrants do not have legal permission to enter European countries — they simply show up, much like undocumented immigrants from Mexico in the U.S. But refugees who are admitted to this country have been vetted thoroughly by the Department of Homeland Security. We know exactly who they are. And Homeland Security has done an excellent job, as we have no known instances of refugees perpetrating terrorist activities.
Also, refugee resettlement is an essentially joyful process. The students and the families I write about are overjoyed to have found a safe home. Resettlement workers who help parents find jobs and teachers who help children learn English are continually inspired by the resilience that refugees demonstrate as they start over in a new country. The main theme of this book is transformation. Refugees teach us that it is possible to lose everything and then build a new life. This aspect of refugee resettlement — the fact that everybody involved finds it fills their days with deeper meaning — goes unrepresented in our national conversation. From the tone of the political talk, you would think working with refugees was a terrible experience, when in fact it is hugely inspiring.
Spending a year inside a classroom filled with refugee students taught me all kinds of things about the world that I didn’t know, and I grew in the process. That is what I share with readers in this book: how working with refugees is a transformative experience. Getting to know refugee families personally changed me as a human being and changed how I view the world as a whole. People who have survived the worst catastrophes taking place on our planet have a lot to teach the rest of us. We are deepened and we grow when we make these kinds of connections. To turn away from refugees is to miss an opportunity to understand the times in which we live at a more profound level.
I wanted to write about the refugee crisis in a fresh way. News stories were portraying refugee journeys as being all about loss. That’s true, at the outset. After a family resettles, however, the story is more about transformation. Also, teenagers are funny, and so is miscommunication. For those reasons, I decided to position myself inside an English Language Acquisition high school classroom for the 2015-2016 school year. I describe how one teacher taught English to 22 kids who spoke 14 different languages. I also show what led those families to America, how their parents fared once they got here, and how the kids interacted — their friendships and crushes and relationships. The book ended up being a celebration of the heroic work done by a dedicated teacher and the tremendous joy he derived from working with refugee students. Coincidentally, the kids in his room perfectly mirrored the global crisis, with almost every country that produces large numbers of refugees being represented. Donald Trump was running for office during the same year, and the political backdrop also changed dramatically during the time I was observing these students.
Why did you pick this high school, and how did you gain access to the classroom?
South High School in Denver has a particular expertise in working with refugees. For two decades, they have been a magnet for immigrant and refugee students. The principal of South welcomed me into the school because I had previously written a book called Just Like Us, about undocumented students. She told me I could spend as much time in the school as I desired, and gave me leeway to report on any classroom. I spent the year with Eddie Williams because I could tell he was a highly sensitive man and felt that his background (half Anglo, half Latino) made him an ideal subject, in terms of a figure who would represent America to foreign-born students. That same fall, Trump began making headlines by calling for a wall to be erected along the U.S.-Mexico border. He also called for a ban on Muslims entering the country. The changing political backdrop made me feel only more invested in the project, as I wanted even more badly to make sure these students were understood.
Who are some of your central characters? What surprised you about them?
Solomon and Methusella, two brothers from the Democratic Republic of Congo, reported to school every single day and learned at an astronomical rate. They were always neatly dressed, always prepared, and the most diligent students. On the other hand, Jakleen and Mariam, two sisters from Iraq, were still grappling with traumatic experiences. Yet they were highly compelling — smart, funny, articulate. I rooted for them to succeed despite all the impediments. Meanwhile, Christina, a young woman from Burma, was abused at home and wound up being adopted by an American family; her story exemplifies the level of trauma experienced by some refugees. In each case, I visited families at home to learn more about their journeys. Together, these three families provide a more comprehensive look at the global crisis.
I brought in fourteen interpreters to talk with students. Once we were able to converse, I explained that I was hoping to write about their classroom as a means of mapping the global refugee crisis for an audience from the developed world. I asked if they wanted to participate. If they said yes, we did an interview. If they declined (only one declined), then I did not include them. When students revealed that they had lived through trauma, I asked if I could meet their parents. As we spent more time together, the students and I grew close. By year’s end, students were giving me hugs and high-fives or sharing material from their journals. They blossomed, both in the classroom and in our conversations.
What surprised you over the course of your reporting? What did you find challenging?
The most surprising thing was the extent to which the crisis is not well understood, despite the airtime devoted to the subject. Vast numbers of refugees come from Asia or Africa, yet the only story being covered by the media is the crisis unfolding in the Middle East. The time I spent in this classroom provided constant revelation about what refugees live through, how other languages function, and the nature of other cultures. It also showed me how teenagers are teenagers all the world over.
How did the political climate affect the newcomers? And their teacher?
At the start of the 2015-2016 school year, Hillary Clinton was making a strong showing on the Democratic side, as dozen of Republican contenders were vying for supremacy. Immigration promised to become a big part of the conversation because of the asylum-seekers pouring into Europe. That November, terrorist attacks also took place across Paris and its suburbs, and the subject of terrorism being imported into developed countries began to dominate political discourse in Europe and in the United States. When Donald Trump won the election, everybody at South felt hugely dispirited, because the outcome represented the opposite of the school’s hyper-tolerant culture. Faculty had a hard time maintaining morale, and students of color faced increased harassment. But in the end, the election only seemed to make everybody at South twice as determined as before to succeed at their work.
What do you think Americans misunderstand about refugee children?
We underestimate them entirely. They know things about the world we do not. Getting to know these kids and their parents has completely changed how I see the globe and the people who live on it. These families have given me a much better understanding of American culture and how we misunderstand others.
In other words, after spending a year and change with these refugee students and their teacher, I can say unequivocally that refugees are not a burden. They are a gift. We should feel honored to know them. All those who work with them experience in the process life’s deepest kind of fulfillment and joy.
Helen Thorpe will read from and sign copies of The Newcomers at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, November 15, at Old Firehouse Books in Fort Collins; she'll be at the Tattered Cover at 2526 East Colfax Avenue at 7 p.m. Thursday, November 16. Find out more at tatteredcover.com.