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A Window to the World Through an American Classroom

In her new book, Helen Thorpe explores how a group of teens who came to the U.S. as refugees adapted to their life in America.
In her new book, Helen Thorpe explores how a group of teens who came to the U.S. as refugees adapted to their life in America.
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Writer Helen Thorpe spent one school year in a classroom in Denver, Colorado. There, she observed immigrant and refugee students who had come from different cultures. All the students were just learning to speak English.

Thorpe saw the young people deal with problems and work hard to succeed at Denver’s South High School. She shares their stories in a new book called The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship, and Hope in an American Classroom.

Tearing down barriers

Sitting in room 142 at the high school, Thorpe had a chance to meet students from all over the world. She said the class included 22 foreign students. They came from countries such as Mozambique, Burma, El Salvador and Iraq.

"They had the ordinary struggles of teenagers everywhere, plus this extra added burden of being in a new country and trying to figure out a new culture and trying to figure out a new language, all at the same time."

The 22 students spoke 14 different languages.

"Many of the students were the only one in the room who spoke a certain language," Thorpe noted.

"The majority of the students were very isolated in the classroom and just in general, in their new life in America. They weren't able yet to make friends because they were just starting out learning English. And so that loneliness was something that they all were struggling to overcome."

But as time went by, the students were able to overcome it.

“I watched that loneliness … go away as they figured out they could use Google Translate to send text messages back and forth from their home languages to another person's home language," Thorpe said.

What these students were hungry for, she said, was to learn how to speak, to feel they were accepted at their new high school, and to feel that they belonged to a community.

Comfortable in their own identity

In her book, Thorpe writes about some of the issues many of these students faced.

Iraqi sisters Jakleen and Mariam struggled with difficult memories. Thorpe learned they had witnessed a car bombing.

"When their family fled Iraq, they went to Syria and they survived the Syrian civil war as well as the Iraq war. Their father vanished during that time. Their mother became a single parent, and then she struggled to keep the girls safe. They fled to Turkey. And then she got the chance to resettle here in the United States.”

Coming to the U.S. was the first chance the sisters had in 10 years to live in a safe home. However, they had a problem: how to define their identity.

One of the two girls covered up her hair with a headscarf, and because of that she faced prejudice, Thorpe said. However, as her classmates got to know her, they started to understand, accept and respect her, which helped her to express her identity.

Second chance at education

Many students in The Newcomers class had missed a lot of school before moving to Denver. So, they had to work hard to succeed now that they were back in a classroom.

Solomon and his brother Methusella grew up in the eastern side of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Armed conflicts forced their family to flee to a refugee settlement in Uganda.

"They stayed there for seven years," Thorpe remembered. Then the whole extended family joined them in Uganda, she said. Solomon, Methusella, their siblings and their parents were the only members of the family to get an invitation to go to the United States. They were excited and happy for a chance to stay in school, Thorpe said. “But they felt guilty that the rest of their family didn't get the same chance they were given."

Methusella is expected to complete his high school studies next year. He gives thanks to classmates and his own willpower for his success.

His brother Solomon says that wasn't easy. "I wasn't speaking any English. I couldn't even say, 'Hi,' Solomon recalled.

A gifted teacher

Solomon says one of their teachers, Eddie Williams, was friendly, patient, and kept them interested in school. Williams is an English Language Acquisition teacher and a very special teacher, Thorpe said. "His greatest skill was working one-on-one with individual students."

In her book, she explains how Williams kept each student interested in learning.

"He really wanted to make sure that all the kids in his care understood that if they didn't know English when they walked into his room, that was perfectly OK with him." She added, "And he understood that they, nonetheless, were highly intelligent and possibly speaking other languages and he would appreciate them and show them respect and dignity."

Thorpe notes that South High School gave the newcomers the chance to gain knowledge. In return, the newcomers gave their classmates the chance to learn about the world.

I'm Alice Bryant.

And I'm Lucija Millonig.

Faiza Elmasry reported this story for George Grow adapted the report for Learning English. Mario Ritter was the editor.


Words in This Story

ordinaryadj. usual or normal

burdenn. something oppressive or hard to take

figure outv. to discover or solve

isolate – v. to set apart from others; to keep separate from others

overcomev. to defeat or successfully deal with

vanish – v. to disappear

headscarf – n. a piece of cloth worn over a woman's or girl's head

siblingn. a brother or sister

appreciatev. to recognize the worth or importance of something

dignity – n. the state of being worthy or honored

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