Saturday, January 12, 2019

The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship, and Hope in an American Classroom- Helen Thorpe

Helen Thorpe is a gift to the world of narrative nonfiction, and her latest work, The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship, and Hope in an American Classroom is another literary work of art.

Imagine you wake up one day to find that society around you is collapsing. Neighbors are pointing guns; soldiers are bombing. In order to stay alive, you must leave everything you've ever owned behind and run. On the way, you lose several family members, at least one of whom is murdered in front of you. You starve; you sleep outdoors in all kinds of weather; you suffer with untreated illness for months, and watch those you love succumb to it. Finally, finally, you receive word that you've been chosen to be resettled in the United States as a refugee, and just when you arrive, thinking that you've finally found safety and stability and that maybe life will get better, someone screams out the window at you that you're a filthy terrorist, and that you need to get out of their country.

It's not an uncommon experience for newcomers to the United States, unfortunately, and Helen Thorpe details the newcomer experience beautifully.

For about a year and a half, Ms. Thorpe followed the teenagers in the lowest level English Acquisition Class at South High School in Denver, Colorado. The students were all new to the US and had varying levels of English- some could make middling conversation, while others just stared blankly at the teacher, having had no prior experience with the language. Most students had seen trauma of some sort, whether being separated from family or struggling with PTSD due to escaping from war-torn nations. Many had lost loved ones, including parents; all had left family and friends behind, and all had lived in, at the very least, less-than-ideal situations (including refugee camps) before being some of the lucky few chosen to resettle in America.

Learning a new language is difficult in the best of circumstances; compound that with trauma and PTSD, struggling with an entirely new culture and way of life (some of these kids had never had electricity and running water), a new kind of poverty, and the constant stress of feeling unwanted in this new place, and it's a damn miracle that any refugee manages to learn even a little English. The newcomers struggled and triumphed, flourished and slumped under the weight of heavy setbacks, but as they learned, they grew together, finding friendship and strength in a unique classroom full of students who understood exactly what their fellow students were going through.

Just following the students alone would have made a fine book, but Ms. Thorpe expands our knowledge of their world by interviewing their parents, their teachers, the interpreters she hired to better understand these newcomers, and their caseworkers. I knew that coming to the US wasn't easy, but there was a lot of information in here that was new to me. While refugees are allowed benefits like food assistance and TANF (the program commonly thought of as welfare), they're expected to be self-sufficient within a matter of months in regards to paying their own rent and other expenses. Imagine suddenly, with little to no warning, you're plopped down in the middle of, say, China (or another country in which you have zero knowledge of the language). How soon could you master enough of the local language in order to be hired and make a living wage? Not within a handful of months, is the answer, I'm certain, in most cases. Refugees commonly end up working as hotel maids  and janitors, or in places like meat packing plants or factories, low-wage jobs in places where language skills aren't necessary to perform (but that also hinders their ability to learn the language- if you're not practicing it, and if you're surrounded by others who speak your language and not the dominant one, your language acquisition will stall). Those low-wage jobs don't have much room for growth built in, and thus, the refugee ends up trapped in a vicious cycle, with their only hope for upward mobility being their children, who tend to pick up the language more readily than adults.

This was a beautifully illustrated example of the wonderment, the hope, and the dark side of coming to America as a refugee, and a deeply moving look at what it takes to leave everything behind and dive right in to a new language and new culture. I used to volunteer as an English as a Second or Other Language tutor, and the students who attend those tutoring sessions are some of the most hardworking people you'll ever meet. My former student had two children, often worked over 70 hours a week (you read that right, more than SEVENTY) at her restaurant job, took care of her apartment, and still managed to come to class and make me cry when she corrected herself with proper use of past tense verbs. When she got pregnant with twins, she cut her work hours down to 55 hours a week (at five months pregnant with TWINS, she was still working 55 hours a week ON HER FEET THE ENTIRE TIME). She and her husband moved out of my area right to a bigger place before the babies were born, and I still miss her. She was an extraordinary example of how hard refugees and immigrants are willing to work in order to make a better life for their families, and I'm all about welcoming these people and helping them do just that. Reading this book made me miss tutoring. I'm unable to fit it into my schedule at the moment, but one day I'd like to return to it.

This is Helen Thorpe's third book, and I've read her others as well. Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War was fascinating. I've passed through some of the areas mentioned in this book and I always think about the women in it when I do. And Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America  was beyond wonderful. I read it this past year and have thought often of the young women featured in the book and wondered how they've been doing, what with all the unnecessary strife DACA recipients have been put through. If you've never read any of these books, you won't be sorry you did. I'm very much looking forward to reading whatever Ms. Thorpe writes next.

Visit Helen Thorpe's website.

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