At a Public School in Denver, Refugee Children Find Hope and Frustration
South High School is Denver’s designated school for non-English-speaking students whose educations have been disrupted. Here, teenagers uprooted by war, violence and deprivation meet the most generous of Americans. Nice people from churches, synagogues and Goodwill all appear in their lives, brought together by a generously funded public school system and a dedicated English Language Acquisition teacher, Eddie Williams.
A Mexican-American whose own mother hid her roots out of shame and fear, Williams presides over a miniature United Nations of survivors of conflicts across the planet. There’s Hsar Htoo, born in a refugee camp in Thailand to a Karen family from Myanmar. For him, everything in Denver is new: “running water, appliances, grocery stores, snow.”
Williams worries about Iraqi sisters Jakleen and Mariam, daughters of a Christian father and Muslim mother; their father worked for the Americans, and then disappeared in Baghdad as sectarian violence erupted during the American troop drawdown. With their mother and a third sister, the girls spent six years in a Damascus suburb, missed a year of school because of car bombs and are now barely able to get to school on time.
Methusella and Solomon, teenage boys from the Democratic Republic of Congo, were driven out of Goma with their family. The brothers show up at South High School on time every day, “always nicely dressed,” bending over their work with laser focus.
Thorpe gets to know some of the parents, like Methusella and Solomon’s father, a dignified man wearing a collared shirt and navy trousers, working as a dishwasher and studying English out of a creased pocket dictionary he bought at Goodwill for a dollar. He speaks four languages including French, and when he sees dents in American houses, he must remind himself they are not caused by bullet holes, like the dents in houses back home.
Thorpe went deep, hiring 14 translators to conduct repeated interviews. Jakleen shares a letter she wrote to her father. Thorpe runs her hands over the Arabic letters on the page, and it’s “like reading Braille inversely,” because the girl pressed so hard with her pen. Still, some of their sad secrets stay buried. Hsar Htoo asks Thorpe before she interviews him not to ask him about his father’s death. She also never really unravels how the unaccompanied Salvadoran children, fleeing one of the hemisphere’s most violent nations, survived harrowing cross-border trips and made their way from federal detention facilities to Denver.
A year is a long time in teenage years, and frustration mounts. Some of the students are multilingual, and feel smarter than their lack of English allows. The Iraqi girls are so depressed they barely show up for school in the winter, racking up absences. The school encourages them with success stories. Thorpe’s Arabic translator tells the girls that she raised her three children in America, and that they too hated it when they first arrived. Today, one is an engineer, another is a pediatric dentist, and the third is studying medicine.
Thorpe makes fascinating linguistic discoveries. At first, the newcomers can’t even communicate with one another. As the weeks pass, they resort to Google Translate, sometimes bypassing English altogether. Watching them translate Swahili to Arabic and Portuguese, Thorpe notices cognates between Arabic and the African languages, remnants of ancient connections between two regions that to many Americans are as unfamiliar as the dark side of the moon.
“As the kids discovered these commonalities, I began to feel as though I were watching something like the living embodiment of a linguistic tree,” Thorpe writes. “The classroom and the relationships forming inside of it were an almost perfect map of language proximity around the globe.”
Thorpe has an epiphany of sorts when she learns that the word for “book” is “virtually identical” in the African languages and in Arabic. “That was the moment when I first grasped my own arrogance as an English speaker,” Thorpe writes. “I mean, the arrogance harbored by someone who knew only European languages, which rendered the well-laced interconnectedness of the rest of the world invisible.”
In class, the teenagers are like teenagers everywhere. They are dramatic, they preen, they get depressed, they fall in love. One day, the students teach Thorpe a word — qalb — meaning “heart” in Farsi and Arabic. When Thorpe puts qalb into Google Translate, Arabic to English, something surprising happens. She is given a flood of meanings. “I got heart, center, middle, transformation, conscience, core, marrow, pith, pulp, gist, essence, quintessence, topple, alter, flip, tip, overturn, reversal, overthrow, capsize, whimsical, capricious, convert, change, counterfeit. … My own concept of heart did not include flip, capsize or reverse.” She concludes: “Our two cultures did not have the same idea of what was happening at the core of our beings. … The idea of heart that these kids possessed appeared to have a lighter, more nimble quality.”
But no matter how nimble and light their hearts might be, the students can’t help noticing the rising resentment aimed their way. “Xenophobia was not something that was listed formally as a factor that inhibited learning among E.L.A. students,” she writes, “but as the weeks slipped by and the cacophony of the presidential election ratcheted up, elevating all kind of sentiments in the voting populace, including a virulent dislike of people from other countries, I came to think of the fear some people in my own country felt toward foreigners as an issue that itself inhibited the newcomers’ learning. They were acutely sensitive and could detect when they were misunderstood.”
Right after Trump’s election, the long commutes to and from school on Denver’s public transit system become an obstacle course of shame and fear. People call the students “dirty” and tell them to “go home.” A passenger on a bus tells one girl, “We are going to kick your ass out of this country.”
The faculty at South High School struggles to help the students grapple with the new social climate, treating it like an emergency akin to a shooting or an outbreak of flu. The principal brings on nine temporary counselors to help, because the number of children seeking counseling “reached levels that nobody had ever seen before.” Two students had attempted suicide.
Nevertheless, Thorpe’s book is a reminder that in an era of nativism, some Americans are still breaking down walls and nurturing newcomers, the seeds of the great American experiment.