The True Story of Refugees in an American High School

The politics of immigration ignores the reality: a classroom of young people adjusting to life in the United States, and a teacher driven to help.

Helen Thorpe | The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship, and Hope in an American Classroom | November 2017 | 14 minutes (3,444 words)

On the first day of school—it was going to be a ninety-degree scorcher—Eddie Williams jogged up the four stone steps at the main entrance to South High School in Denver, Colorado, half an hour before the first bell rang, eager to meet his new students. The teacher was a tall man, six foot four inches in his socks. He was thirty-eight years old, but could have passed for twenty-eight, and he was wearing a short-sleeved purple South High polo shirt. All the teachers had put on purple shirts, that being the school color, so that the students could easily see whom they should turn to if they had a question about how to find a particular classroom, or how to read the confusing schedules they carried. Mr. Williams usually avoided short-sleeved shirts, because they revealed the dark blue tattoo that circled one of his biceps, and he feared his students might misinterpret the inked designs as macabre, given their backgrounds. He worked diligently to communicate in all sorts of ways that he was a person they could trust.

Mr. Williams had inherited his Anglo father’s rangy height and propensity to freckle, along with his Latina mother’s dark eyes and hair. Fluent in both Spanish and English, he was the sort of teacher who devoted an enormous portion of his kindness, vitality, and intellect to his students. Most of the classrooms in the school were crowded with noisy, chattering teenagers. That morning, however, as he looked around his room, Mr. Williams saw many empty chairs and only seven students. The teenagers assigned to him wore shut-door expressions on their faces. Nobody in the room was talking, not even to one another. The teacher had expected. His room always got off to a quiet start.

“Welcome to newcomer class!” he said, in a deliberately warm tone of voice. “My name is Mr. Williams. What is your name? Where are you from?”

The seven teenagers who had reported to Room 142 said nothing. Just the act of showing up by 7:45 in the morning had required enormous fortitude. It was August 24, 2015, and the students assigned to Mr. Williams had spent on average more than an hour negotiating the local public transit system to get here. They lived crammed with other relatives into small houses or apartments located in parts of the city where a dollar could be stretched. Getting from the patchwork zones of cheap housing located on the farthest edges of the city to South via the public transit system took dogged commitment, but that was a quality that Mr. Williams’s students typically possessed in abundance. What they did not possess, for the most part, was the ability to understand what he was now saying.

“Welcome to newcomer class!” the teacher repeated, taking care to enunciate each word even more deliberately. “My name is Mr. Williams. What is your name?”

The students continued to stare back at the teacher without speaking. The technical description for what was happening is “preproduction,” which in the academic literature about language acquisition is also known as “the silent period.” The vast majority of second-language learners begin in a quiet receptive phase, able to produce hardly any English themselves, even as their brains furiously absorb everything being said. That year, about sixteen hundred teenagers attended South High School, and roughly one-third of them had been born in another country. South served as a regular neighborhood school and also the designated destination for students who spoke foreign languages other than Spanish and whose education had been interrupted. This meant South handled the bulk of the city’s teenage refugees, for it was primarily children in refugee families who had significant gaps in their education. War—that was what generally caused children to be unable to attend school for long periods.

Of all the students jammed into the vast five-story building, the seven souls in Mr. Williams’s room had been evaluated as possessing the least English. If any teacher in the building wound up working with a child who had just arrived in the United States as a refugee and did not yet know anything about life on this side of the globe—how to ask a bus driver where to get off, what exactly the Broncos were, and whether to eat “spicy chicken” (the cafeteria served that a lot)—it was Mr. Williams.

Over the coming year, the strife-ridden parts of the planet would dispatch many more students to Mr. Williams. Mr. Williams knew the additional students would come because they always had, and because for many months the front pages of newspapers like the Denver Post, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal had been filled with photographs of refugees on the move. A total of fifty-nine million people around the world had been displaced from their homes as of that year, according to the United Nations—more than at any other point since World War II. If war erupted halfway around the globe, Mr. Williams knew that he would see children from that place.

So he did not brood about having too few students; more were on their way. Nor did he fret when the students did not answer. Several years might elapse before certain students would come back to tell him in unbroken sentences who they really were. He was consistently staggered by how much his former students had to tell him, once they got hold of enough English. That was his job, to help them find the words. First he had to get them settled. Loss of all kinds had robbed these students of certitude, and his main job at the start of the school year was to show these teenagers that they were in a room where they would come to no further harm. It was hard, convincing them it was safe to hope.

Mr. Williams walked over to one of his students, extended his hand, smiled warmly, and repeated his questions.

“What is your name? Where are you from? What language do you speak?”

“I am Stephanie,” the girl responded. “I am from Mexico. I speak Spanish.”

Mr. Williams nodded at her while she spoke. Stephanie had a heart-shaped face, straight bangs that fell over her forehead, and a shy smile. She had good pronunciation, and answered with confidence; clearly, she had some basic English.

The teacher walked over to another student and greeted her in the same emphatically friendly manner, smiling widely, giving her all his attention.

“I am Nadia,” she said. “I am from Mozambique. I speak Portuguese.”

“I am Grace,” said the next student. “I am from Mozambique. I speak Portuguese.”

“Are you sisters?” asked Mr. Williams, with an even wider smile.

“Yes,” said Grace and Nadia at the same time.

Mr. Williams thought for a beat. According to his roster, the two girls did not have the same last name. Their facial structure was also quite different. Were they biological sisters? Possibly. But a few of his prior students had arrived with makeshift families, after cobbling together sibling-like relationships somewhere along the road. Those were some of the hardest stories that he had heard. On the other hand, African naming habits were quite different from American ones, and the whole matter of what constituted a last name varied around the world. Mr. Williams did not ask the girls any more questions. Maybe someday they would tell him the whole story.

Mr. Williams' class at South High School in Denver.

Mr. Williams’ class at South High School in Denver.

Mr. Williams moved toward the next student, smiling kindly again.

“My nay, Hsar Htoo,” the student said haltingly. “Froh Thailand. Spee Karen.”

Students who spoke the Sino-Tibetan languages often had trouble saying English words. Words in Karen generally do not end with hard consonants, so it was difficult for Hsar Htoo to make the final sound in English terms. But Hsar Htoo offered the teacher a huge, shy smile, which made Mr. Williams think the boy possessed a sunny disposition. The majority of the Karen people came from the mountains or the river deltas of Burma, but they had been subjected to such extreme forms of persecution by the Burmese military that they had vanished in huge numbers over the mountain passes and down into neighboring Thailand. During fiscal year 2015, Burma was the country that sent the largest number of refugees to the United States. Many Karen families had lived in Thai refugee camps for so long that their children or grandchildren had been born in them. Mr. Williams wondered whether that might be true for Hsar Htoo. If so, everything would be new—running water, appliances, grocery stores, snow, freedom.

A student named Saúl seemed to understand the least English of anybody. He was fifteen years old and had just arrived from El Salvador. He wore track pants and a T-shirt, and his hair was mussed as if he had just rolled out of bed. Only when Mr. Williams brought up parent-teacher conferences a few weeks later would Saúl mention that neither of his parents lived in the United States. He did not explain why he was here, at age fifteen, parentless; he just asked if his older sister could come to the conference. That would be fine, Mr. Williams told him. He was curious to know more, but to quiz Saúl on the whereabouts of his parents would have worked counter to his main priority, which was to build rapport. He couldn’t teach the students English if they did not trust him.

The final two students, Rahim and Ghasem, were both from Afghanistan. Later that year, Rahim and Ghasem would describe their shared odyssey to their classmates—the two families had followed the same route to Eastern Europe and wound up spending many months together in a refugee camp before resettling in the United States. For the moment, what registered with Mr. Williams was that their English was surprisingly good.

Mr. Williams turned back to Stephanie and pointed to something on the wall.

“Stephanie, do you recognize this? What is this?”

“The flag of Mexico,” Stephanie replied right away.

Mr. Williams saw that with her he could speak more quickly. He handed out sheets of paper, distributed plastic boxes of markers and crayons, and asked the students to draw pictures of the flags of their home countries. Stephanie drew two flags—the flag of Colorado and the flag of Mexico. Underneath, she wrote: “I am from Denver. I am from United States. I am from Mexico.”

“You’re originally from Colorado?” asked Mr. Williams.

Stephanie nodded.

“And you’ve also lived in Mexico?”

She nodded again. There it was, the bare bones of a life journey—a few important plot points disclosed, all the details still hidden.

“Which do you consider home, Colorado or Mexico?” Mr. Williams asked.

“Colorado,” Stephanie responded confidently.

High comprehension, the teacher thought.

Grace also drew two different flags, both of which had been used to represent Mozambique. The second flag she drew, a correct rendition of the flag used by that country today, featured an open book, a hoe, and an AK-47. Her sister Nadia drew two flags as well—one was Mozambique’s and the other Burundi’s. The history of Burundi bears parallels to that of Rwanda, its immediate neighbor to the north, including waves of mass killings between members of the Hutu and Tutsi tribes. Grace and Nadia were not alive during those phases, but perhaps older members of their family might have sought refuge in Mozambique after one of the catastrophic episodes of violence in Burundi.

Near his desk, Mr. Williams had displayed an essay written by a former student. It read:

Life was difficult. I was living in the middle of a civil war. 2002 was when the Ethiopians came. They were firing at everyone…. All the kids were running. I was holding onto the back of a truck. It started getting harder and harder to live in Mogadishu. After that I lost my eye. Then we went to Ethiopia and lived in a refugee camp. We went from Addis Ababa to Amsterdam, then to Chicago, and then to Denver. It took 2-3 days. Our apartment here smelled bad like marijuana. My life here is really good now. Compared to my life in Mogadishu it is much better here.

Mr. Williams did not point out that essay to the new students, who would not yet be able to read it. He kept it on the wall for himself—as a reminder of what stark environments his students had left behind, and how much English he could teach them in a single year.

Mr. Williams affixed his students’ crayoned pictures of flags to a bulletin board that hung on the wall right beside the door to his room. The hand-colored flags appeared simple, but they raised complex questions. The world was riven by ethnic conflict, gang violence, armed rebel groups, terrorist organizations, oppressive regimes, full-blown civil wars, and wars between countries. When families lost their homes, children often wound up struggling to find a foothold in a foreign place. What obligation, if any, did the rest of the world have to make things whole again for those children? Around the world, the global refugee crisis was bringing up intense sectarian political forces, centered on this idea of individual nations, and the matter of what obligation one nation might or might not owe to the citizens of another. In the United States, controversial bills to block the entry of refugees had recently been introduced in the House of Representatives, and opponents of resettlement had begun using terms like “jihadi pipeline” to describe the flow of Arabic-speaking people streaming out of Syria and Iraq. In other words, at the very moment when Mr. Williams was welcoming the latest newcomers into his big, mostly empty classroom, and resettlement agency staff were working closely with their parents to find employers willing to hire people who arrived with little or no ability to speak English, political leaders had started asking whether such people ought to be welcomed here at all.

Historically, the United States had taken more refugees than any other country. Barack Obama wanted to admit more, but Donald Trump was calling for the number to be reduced. Should the United States continue to shelter large numbers of refugees seeking an end to hardship? Should a school-age child who arrived unaccompanied by an adult from a violence-plagued country such as El Salvador be given asylum? How many foreign people with strange customs could one country absorb and still retain its identity? What about immigrants who frequented mosques? Was it possible that violence taking place in other regions might be imported along with refugees to host countries?

Those were the sorts of questions preoccupying people in political office. They were not the questions that preoccupied Mr. Williams. His concerns were much more basic: Could his students understand his sentences? Had he sufficiently challenged those who had more English? Did the kids feel safe in his room? Were they going to be able to find their next class? And did they have enough to eat?

Probably not, he suspected. Before the bell rang for their next class, Mr. Williams beckoned to his seven teens and asked them to follow him into a large walk-in closet on the far side of the room. Inside, neatly arranged on wire shelving, the students beheld boxes of pasta, bags of rice, bags of lentils, cans of beans, cans of vegetables, boxes of cereal, and individually wrapped protein bars.

“This is the food bank,” Mr. Williams announced. “You can come here on Friday afternoon and take home bags of food.”

The students stared at all the boxes and all the cans and said nothing. Did they understand that the food was there for the taking?

“On Friday, if you want, you can take food,” Mr. Williams repeated, more slowly.

Silence.

“Are you hungry now?” he asked.

Silence. They were probably hungry. Mr. Williams handed out protein bars, two per student.

Gracias,” said Saúl.

“Thank you!” said Stephanie.

Grace and Nadia whispered their thanks. Hsar Htoo said nothing, but he gave Mr. Williams another immense smile. When the last bell rang on Friday, boisterous teenagers of all shapes, sizes, and skin colors—some wearing hijabs and others in shirts with Nike swooshes—poured out of the vast high school. Several of Mr. Williams’s students returned to his ground-floor classroom from elsewhere in the building. As he prepared to go home himself, the teacher saw his students line up and wait their turn to be given food. They walked out of his room carrying recycled plastic bags bulging with beans, lentils, rice, all the staples. Yes, they had been hungry.

In the weeks that followed, Mr. Williams gathered new students from around the world until he had an almost perfect map of the global refugee crisis represented in his room. Solomon and Methusella arrived at the end of September. The two boys, obviously brothers, were both shy, quiet, and handsome. They had high cheekbones and wide-set eyes, which lit up when they smiled. They wore the same articles of clothing over and over—sports-oriented T-shirts and track suit jackets in carefully matched colors—but their clothes were always spotless. Methusella’s favorite shirt was a yellow-and-red-striped Barcelona soccer jersey, while Solomon’s was a medium-blue long-sleeved New York Giants shirt. They were from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and they spoke Swahili. The DRC had been the site of the largest conflict anywhere on the African continent, and certain provinces continued to experience serious violence. It was the country that would send the most refugees to the United States during 2016 and 2017. If any of his students had witnessed bloodshed firsthand, Mr. Williams understood, it was likely to be these two striking, well-dressed boys.

Shortly after the brothers from the Congo arrived, Mr. Williams noticed Nadia and Grace chatting with them.

“Do you know Swahili?” he asked the girls from Mozambique.

“Yes,” Nadia said with shy pride.

That was news to Mr. Williams. The sisters had never mentioned knowing Swahili. Mr. Williams thought it also helped explain their rapid learning curve, for in his experience, multilingual students often progressed more quickly than those who were monolingual. At this point, Mr. Williams mistakenly believed that Nadia and Grace spoke three languages—Portuguese, Swahili, and a little bit of English. Later in the year, however, Nadia would confide that she could speak seven languages—the three that Mr. Williams knew about, plus four languages indigenous to Africa.

Two days after Solomon and Methusella arrived, a pair of girls named Jakleen and Mariam walked into the classroom. They stood close together and murmured to each other in Arabic. Both were remarkably pretty, with oval faces, olive skin, and long black hair, and both favored heavy eyeliner painted like cat’s eyes. Sisters, clearly. Mariam wore tortoiseshell glasses and had done her hair in a hip-length braid, which from time to time she flung back around her shoulder so that the braid inscribed a wide arc in the air. Jakleen did not wear the navy glasses that she kept in her backpack, and her black hair was loose, hanging down to her rib cage. They were from Iraq.

Mariam’s face wore a soft, tentative expression, while Jakleen studied everybody in the room with fierce curiosity. Mariam was sixteen years old, and Jakleen was fifteen. They had arrived in the United States at the end of August, but for several weeks they had lived with a friend in a suburb that fell outside the city limits. Only after their mother found an apartment they could afford on the outskirts of Denver did they become eligible to attend South. When Jakleen and Mariam walked into their new school on October 1, 2015, the sisters had missed almost two months of classes, and they had lost almost everything they had once called their own, including their father. They had left Baghdad in 2006, at the height of the Iraq War—nine years earlier—and they had been looking for a safe home ever since. The two girls would later say that they entered Mr. Williams’s classroom believing that the hard times were over. Mariam and Jakleen imagined that by coming to America, they had put any kind of trouble behind them. This idea was untested, however, because they had been in the United States for only a few weeks, and did not yet know what kind of reception awaited them here. Little did they know that their very presence in this country was about to become one of the most hotly debated questions of the unfolding presidential election, and the central preoccupation of the new administration that would take over in Washington, D.C.

***

From the book The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship, and Hope in an American Classroom, copyright © 2017 by Helen Thorpe. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.