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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE: NEAR CHRICAHUA NATIONAL PARK
    2 (20 acre sites): 110 miles from Tucson:AZ Native trees: Birder's heaven: dark skies: Creek: borders State lease & National forest: /13-16 inches of rain...
  • DIRECTOR - SONORAN DESERT INN & CONFERENCE CENTER
    The Sonoran Desert Inn & Conference Center is a non-profit lodging and event venue in Ajo, Arizona, located on the historic Curley School Campus. We...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field Seminars for adults: cultural and natural history of the Colorado Plateau. With guest experts, local insights, small groups, and lodge or base camp formats....
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Methow Valley Citizens Council has a distinguished history of advocating for progressive land use and environmental values in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County...
  • ACTING INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS DESK EDITOR
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
  • GRANTS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
  • ALASKA SEA KAYAK BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND EVENTS PROGRAM COORDINATOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
  • PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT FACILITATOR
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
  • LAND STEWARD, ARAVAIPA
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
  • DEVELOPMENT WRITER
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • SPRING MOUNTAINS SOLAR OFF GRID MOUNTAIN HOME
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
  • MAJOR GIFTS MANAGER - MOUNTAIN WEST, THE CONSERVATION FUND
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
  • NATURE'S BEST IN ARAVAIPA CANYON
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....
  • HEALTH FOOD STORE IN NW MONTANA
    Turn-key business includes 2500 sq ft commercial building in main business district of Libby, Montana. 406.293.6771 /or [email protected]
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.