In the summer of 2015, Helen Thorpe was wracking her brain. The longtime journalist, award-winning author, and former First Lady of Colorado knew she wanted to write her next book about the refugee crisis. But she didn’t want to repeat all of the stories she’d already read about the issue. And she needed to find an angle that embodied the specific challenges refugees were facing in her Denver community. Alan Gottlieb, cofounder of the education news site Chalkbeat, gave Thorpe her way in. Over lunch, he asked innocuously, “Have you been to South High School?”
In the past few years, Washington Park’s Denver South High School has become known for its diverse environment, welcoming kids of all skin colors and ethnicities—including refugees. Thorpe snagged a front-row seat to their struggles and triumphs when she spent the 2015-16 school year embedded in South’s beginner English Language Acquisition (ELA) class, where students with little understanding of English begin to master its basic tenets. Her resulting book, The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship, and Hope in an American Classroom (out tomorrow), tells the story of 22 teenagers who speak 14 different languages, many of whom endured bombings, kidnappings, and assault before they ever set foot on American soil. We sat down with Thorpe to talk about hiring translators, navigating trauma, and how the election of President Donald Trump made this story even more crucial to share with the public.
5280: How did you decide to write a book about South High School’s English Language Acquisition class?
HT: I had this really unusual experience where I sat down with the principal of South, and she immediately said, ‘I read your first book [Just Like Us, which follows four Mexican-American women through adolescence in Denver]. You can spend as much time as you want here, and any classroom in the school is open to you.’ That kind of access never happens basically.
What expectations did you go in with?
Eddie Williams [the ELA level 1 teacher] didn’t even have that many kids at the start of the year, and they were saying nothing for a couple months. At the outset, I just wasn’t sure it was going to work. My editor kept saying, ‘This is going to be great; I’m intrigued.’ I was like, ‘I don’t know.’ Not until the kids started talking and I could envision what the rest of the year was going to be like did I write a book proposal.
You ended up hiring translators to help you communicate with the kids. How did that come about?
Initially, I was imagining that the kids were going to start talking to me. After a few weeks and then a few months, it became evident that wasn’t going to be possible. In fact, I couldn’t even alert the kids that I was not an employee of South. I tried; I would pantomime writing a book. I know they got something, but I couldn’t really tell them who I was.
It was in that trial and error, where I was trying and failing to communicate, that I realized I’m actually going to have to hire translators. It took a while for me to figure out where to go; some of the languages in the room are obscure enough that it’s really hard to find a translator. But the Spring Institute ended up being able to supply translators in all the different languages.
What did President Trump’s election do to shape the book?
The outcome of the election seemed more and more in question as time went on. It seemed critical to follow them through the end of the election. We think of refugee stories as difficult, but the truth is, once a family is chosen for resettlement, it becomes a really happy story—a story of hope and transformation and starting over and being given a second chance. The book is very joy-filled, but it’s pretty hard when Trump is elected to then suddenly have the refugee pipeline to the United States become much more constricted and to see him making decisions that mean we can’t resettle as many people. It seemed like the wrong end for a story. Instead of resolution, the election brought the opposite of resolution on this issue. It took me a while to figure out how to say that.
We’re living in a time where journalists frequently get flack for writing about topics that they don’t have personal experience with—and you’re not a refugee. Was that something you considered at all?
I wanted to make myself stand in for the ugly American, if you will, who doesn’t understand the world at large. This is a book about refugees, but on another level, I think what I’m hoping happens for the reader is they come to understand their position as an American better. I feel these refugee families taught me a lot about the world. The reader can look over my shoulder in those moments as I confront my own ignorance about the Congo or exactly what happened in Iraq after we invaded. The reader can say, ‘I don’t know that much about the Congo either. Hopefully I can be humble and learn from this refugee family, by paying attention on a deep level.’ If people know the facts—that we have so much and they have so little—and that refugee families are not here to attack us, the impulse is to say, ‘What can I do to help?’ I hope to inspire that.
What is the biggest misconception about refugees and immigrants, particularly refugee and immigrant children?
I feel the biggest misconception is the idea that refugees are a burden. These families were just a gift; spending time with them was enjoyable and enlightening and funny and the kids made me laugh. People have an assumption about a set of emotions they’re going to experience when interacting with refugees, and the actual emotions you experience are the opposite.
Do you have training in how to handle trauma? How do you even begin to ask questions about the kind of horrific events your sources experienced?
I’ve written before about people whose lives are difficult and people with post-traumatic stress. For sure, this project brought me into contact with people whose stories were a whole order more difficult. I knew I couldn’t start asking 14-, 15-, 16-, 17-year-olds to describe car bombings or armed conflict in the middle of the school day. It was late in the project that I got confirmation that that was absolutely the right choice. The two boys from the Congo, Solomon and Methusella, had said to me that they had experienced raids in their home village and had to hide themselves from soldiers. Many months later, I found a study that goes on about the different things that teenagers in that part of the Congo have experienced: 90 percent have seen traumatic things; two-thirds have seen homes burn down; a third have witnessed acts of rape; a fifth have been abducted themselves. When I got that information, I was so glad in hindsight that I hadn’t pushed these two kids in their first month in America to talk to me in the cafeteria at South High School about that kind of stuff.
I had to restrain my normal journalistic mode. We’re used to asking questions; a lot of times with this project, I had to not ask questions. That was a hard counterintuitive thing to do, but it was pretty clear to me at the outset that that was the right thing to do.
How did you react to hearing all of these traumatic stories?
A lot of people who do refugee work have to be sure to take care of themselves, so they don’t end up experiencing what’s known as vicarious trauma. There was a moment when the Iraqi family spun into difficulty after a bad car accident, and I was visiting them in the hospital on a daily basis; the cumulative deadline pressure that I was putting on myself and the time in the hospital began to really get to me. Coincidentally, I saw a listing for a seminar on vicarious trauma. I called and tried to make sure that I wasn’t taking a seat away from someone resettling large numbers of refugees; I didn’t want to take a seat in the room that someone else needed more than I did. That was at the Asian Pacific Development Center. It was a wake-up call to not go to the hospital every single day and remember to go for a hike and go to a yoga class every once in a while.
What was the editing process like? How much does this book resemble your first draft? You’re so embedded in the story that it feels very much like your own voice.
The first draft was me just taking my notebook and transcribing. What I needed to do was synthesize the material enough that a reader would feel like a chapter had a shape. In the rough draft, I already had the basic format of the book: a classroom chapter alternating with a visit a family at home chapter. Each family chapter was largely written, but every classroom chapter was just a god awful mess because I spent so much time in the classroom that I had too much material.
What did you learn from your first two books that helped you with this one?
In the first two books, I was taking an objective stance and trying to be very fair-minded and have the standard journalistic distance on the people I’m writing about. As a human being and a mother, I found it incredibly moving to watch these students learn so much and transform from scared and overwhelmed at the beginning of the school year to joy-filled and happy and making friends and feeling a sense of belonging by the end of school year. I was awed by the strength of parents who had lived through things beyond me and my capacity to survive with their grace and dignity. I felt that the refugee stories were so moving to me that to have a journalistic distance and objective stance didn’t feel right. I wanted to just drop that and write as a moral person how moved I felt in the hopes that other people would also be moved in the process.
Are you still in touch with the kids?
I was over at Jacleen and Mariam [two Iraqi girls in the ELA class]’s house for dinner last week! Jacleen has so much English now that she’s just chatting away. The Congolese family, I still see regularly; I have fallen into the habit of driving their son to soccer practices. It’s been totally a joy to get to still hang out with them. Christina, who’s originally from Burma, has gone to Thailand and is there now to teach English; she and I are communicating on Facebook messenger.
If you had to sum up what you’re hoping people will take away from the book, what would that be?
Because we’ve been saturated with stories about refugees that are somewhat superficial, we have this sense that we know the refugee story. From spending time in this classroom, I know it’s a much bigger and more diverse story.
Helen Thorpe will discuss and sign copies of The Newcomers on November 14 at the Boulder Public Library’s Canyon Theater (7 p.m.); November 16 at the Colfax location of Tattered Cover Book Store (7 p.m.); December 2 at Bookbar (7:30 p.m.); and December 12 at the Park Hill branch of the Denver Public Library (6:30 p.m.).