Toward the end of “The Newcomers,” an extraordinary book about a group of immigrant children at Denver’s South High School who are struggling to learn the language and customs in America, author Helen Thorpe tells of her visit to the Congo. There she meets Stivin, the cousin of Methusella, a Congolese boy Thorpe met at South.
She thinks Stivin will by pleased by how well Methusella is doing. Instead, when Thorp shows Stivin pictures of his cousin in America, the boy’s face turns hard. “Tell him to work hard and send me money for a school uniform!” he tells Thorpe bitterly.
Writes Thorpe: “Stivin was almost certain to become one of those children the world was going to leave behind. I believe I caused him real heartbreak, showing him pictures of all that he was missing. Stivin came to stand in my mind for all the children who had not been chosen, all the children who would spend their days collecting firewood and filling yellow jerricans with water.”
Yet for the “chosen” — teenage newcomers like Methusella — life in America is anything but easy. Many cannot speak the language and therefore cannot communicate. They live in poverty, supported by government and charitable aid programs. The students spend hours each day just getting to school and are sometimes harassed and told to go back to where they came from. A few want to do just that.
Most, however, work hard to become Americans — to learn English, complete high school, and find good jobs. It’s a difficult task, and they wouldn’t make it if not for their dedicated teachers. One such instructor is Eddie Williams, an English Language Acquisition teacher at South, which educates most of Denver’s teenage refugees. A third of the students there are foreign-born.
Thorpe spent a year in Williams’ classroom of some 20 immigrant students. They speak almost as many languages, and for some, English is not one of them. Thorpe was there at the beginning of the school year, when they learned their first words of English, and stayed with them until school was out in the spring. Almost all graduated into mainstream classes.
During that year, Thorpe, who was known as “Miss,” becomes the students’ friend and sometimes their advocate. She met their families, helped with their legal problems and provided transportation. From that experience, she wrote “The Newcomers,” a book that is bound to become a classic on integrating young immigrants into American society.
Among Thorpe’s favorite students are sisters Jakleen and Mariam, who left their native Iraq nine years earlier to live in refugee camps in Syria and Turkey. When they arrived in America, they thought their hardships were behind them. Hardly. The girls live in subsidized housing, where they are harassed by a guard. It takes them almost two hours to reach school in the morning.
While the family was living in a camp, the father returned to Iraq and disappeared. The mother is depressed and worried about whether she can find a job before her housing subsidy runs out. When she finally gets work and buys an old car, it’s stolen. Once, when “Miss” chides the girls for spending too much time on an iPhone, they tell her they are checking on friends in a refugee camp where a riot is taking place.
South’s ELA instructor Williams works hard to help Jakleen and Mariam and other teenage immigrants learn English. The first day, he asks the students their names and where they are from. Most just stare at him and don’t speak. Slowly, using pantomime, pictures and other techniques, Williams draws out the students. He pairs them with others who speak their languages or compatible ones. The refugees form friendships with those from similar backgrounds. Some use translations on their iPhones.
Just as the students are drawn to each other, Thorpe was drawn to them. She visited their homes, brought them gifts of food and ate meals with them. She quickly learned not to probe into their backgrounds, because so many of the refugees have had traumatic experiences before coming to the United States.
With politicians today battling over the issue of immigration and many calling for reduced quotas, “The Newcomers” puts a human face on the refugee question. The book is a journalistic triumph. Thorpe, the acclaimed author of “Soldier Girls” and “Just Like Us,” pens a masterful book that lets readers see the humanity instead of the facts and figures and politics of the immigration debate.
Sandra Dallas ([email protected]) is a Denver author.