Meeting for Reading is a quarterly column from the Friends General Conference “Book Musings” newsletter. It will review new and forthcoming books intended to nurture spiritual deepening among Friends. The books selected are particularly useful to Meeting book discussion groups.
The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship, and Hope in an American Classroom. By Helen Thorpe. Scribner, 2017.
How do these newcomers survive? How do they acclimate? How do they preserve what was good and just and life-giving in their own cultures yet find their way through the confusing labyrinth of expediency and greed that defines our own in the era of Donald Trump?
By Ellen Michaud
Against a backdrop of perpetual terror, desperate flight, overcrowded refugee camps, and families shredded by violence, thousands of children have fled from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia in the past few years and made it to the United States.
Most of them do not speak English. They don’t know how to count dollars, buy food, pay rent, look for work, or catch a cross-town bus to school. Yet, with the best of American intentions, these children are deposited into communities across the country where they are often crammed into small apartments with what remains of their families, enrolled in a local school, given a few bucks for food and bus fare, and---except for a regular check-in with those affiliated with a government or nonprofit refugee program—left to sink or swim.
How do these young newcomers survive? How do they acclimate? How do they preserve what was good and just and life-giving in their own cultures yet find their way through the confusing labyrinth of expediency and greed that defines our own in the era of Donald Trump?
While most mainstream media were fixed on the horrific events that marked so many attempts by refugees to escape the violence rampaging across the globe two years ago, Denver Quaker and New York Times’ journalist Helen Thorpe quietly began to look for the answers to these questions among 22 teenage refugees from 12 countries who had been allowed onto our shores.
Beginning on the day the young people arrived at South High School, a 100 year-old institution that stands on the edge of a park in Denver, and continuing until she concluded her work 18 months later, Helen watched as the students met in a single classroom and worked with Eddie Williams, the competent and compassionate teacher who was to guide them through digraphs and diphthongs in his English as a Second Language (ESL) classroom.
Since most of the students each spoke a different language, the work was particularly challenging. But Thorpe persevered, determined to get to the truth of what the kids were experiencing, how they were evolving, what they were preserving from their native culture, and how they were navigating the landmines of being a both a teenager and a newcomer in the United States. Eventually, she hired 14 translators to explain what she was doing, translate her questions, talk freely, and ask the newcomers’ permission to include their stories in her book. All but one agreed, and Thorpe proceeded to hang out with the kids at lunch, after school, in their homes, with their families, and even riding the Denver city bus.
Eighteen months later, her questions had been answered, the students had emerged into a vibrant young adulthood, and the result of Thorpe’s meticulous research is a deeply sensitive portrait of young newcomers—and their gift to the United States. As Thorpe writes:
The kids were at South to learn English, but in the process they were sharing with me and with the school’s staff and with their American-born peers all kinds of lessons—about fortitude, about resilience, about holding on to one’s humanity through experiences nobody should have to witness. About starting over, and about transformation.
As Thorpe told her publisher once the book was written, “[these] children are a gift. We should feel honored to know them.”