A Denver high school welcomes the world’s refugees

The Newcomers explores the lives of immigrant teens and what it takes to become an American.


On a warm summer evening in Denver in 2015, the writer Helen Thorpe stood outside with a family from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Tchiza and Beya and their children had recently come to the U.S. from a refugee camp in Africa. Suddenly, the rat-a-tat-tat of fireworks went off, and Beya dropped to the pavement. She got up cautiously, without a word. Another burst erupted, and Beya flinched again. It was almost the Fourth of July, but to her, the celebrations sounded like gunfire.

In the entire year Thorpe spent visiting with the family, that one wordless response was the only statement they ever made about the violence they had endured in their home country, where one of the world’s bloodiest armed conflicts has raged for over a decade. Later, the author wonders how this family could be so joyful. “And were the two matters related, the not-naming and the joy?

Moments like this abound in Thorpe’s book The Newcomers, which chronicles the lives of 22 teenagers brought together in a beginner-level English language class at South High School in Denver. The author spent the 2015-2016 school year at South, which has long served as a magnet for immigrant and refugee students, offering teaching assistants fluent in other languages, therapists — even a food bank stocked by volunteers. She devotes the majority of her time to room 142, affectionately dubbed “Newcomer Class,” where teacher Eddie Williams helps students who speak little or no English gain the language skills they need to graduate high school and build a life in America.

A diverse classroom at South Denver High School, the setting of Helen Thorpe’s recent book.
Andy Cross/ The Denver Post via Getty Images

To get here, many of the students have escaped from some of the most violent countries on earth. But they are also teenagers — like any other teenagers — a fact Thorpe is eager to express through the ordinary dramas of their everyday lives. As she gets to know the students, personalities emerge, crushes develop, and friendships form (and sometimes fade).

In the classroom, the students’ abilities vary as widely as their backgrounds. On one end of the spectrum are Solomon and Methusella, Tchiza and Beya’s sons, talented athletes and students who acquire English at a rate that astonishes their teacher. On the other end are Mariam and Jakleen, Iraqi sisters forced to flee their country after their father, who worked for the American military, received death threats. But unlike the Congolese brothers, Mariam and Jakleen struggle to improve their English. The girls confide to Thorpe that they miss their father, who disappeared after he returned to Iraq briefly for work.

In these moments, we learn that for the students in Mr. Williams’ classroom, learning English is only the beginning of the challenges they face. Upon their arrival in the U.S., refugees have between 90 and 180 days to find jobs before their federal financial assistance stops, at which point they are expected to become economically self-sufficient. Remarkably, all the families in The Newcomers succeed, but it is not easy, and many struggle to pay rent and to put food on the table.

Meanwhile, Lisbeth, a bubbly student from El Salvador, must convince a federal immigration judge to approve her asylum application so she can remain in the U.S. with her mother. Deportation would mean a return to the gangs who threatened her mother. But Lisbeth does not ask for pity. “Es mi historia,” she tells Thorpe, simply. “It’s my story.”

It is impossible, of course, to read The Newcomers without considering today’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, with its talk of building walls, expelling Dreamers, and barring Muslim refugees. By the end of the book, that rhetoric is no longer abstract — its targets are the kids inside Eddie Williams’ classroom.

At bus stops and grocery stores, strangers call Mariam derogatory names when she wears a hijab — particularly galling, Thorpe notes, because Mariam lost her father because he cooperated with the U.S. military in the fight against terrorism.

At times, Thorpe’s earnest observations can become overly sentimental, but her reflections are painfully honest, too. How can the author, whose life has always been safe and secure, protected from the conflicts raging across other parts of the world, begin to understand her subjects’ stories: “Even if Tchiza had wanted to explain, where would he begin?”

That question is an urgent one. Today, more than 65 million people are displaced from their homes; 22.5 million of them are refugees, and of those, less than 1 percent are ever resettled in a third country by the United Nations. Under President Donald Trump, the U.S. will accept just 0.2 percent of the world’s refugees, far less than the historic average. Thorpe does not offer any grand solutions to this crisis, or any cure for the fear and bigotry directed towards those seeking refuge here. Instead, she leaves us with the hope that, inside one high school, at least, America can become the country the world needs it to be.

Sarah Tory is a correspondent for High Country News. She writes from Carbondale, Colorado. Email HCN at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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