The Newcomers by Helen Thorpe

34466934Nonfiction — print. Scribner, 2017. 416 pgs. Purchased.

Subtitled “Finding Refuge, Friendship, and Hope in an American Classroom”, Thorpe spent a year and a half in an English Language Acquisition (ELA) class at Denver’s South High School. The twenty-two students she shadowed arrived in America as refugees with little English comprehension from around the world, including Iraq via Syria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burma, and El Salvador.

Over this period of time, these students struggled to adjust to life in America. Some students mourned the middle class lives they had before war destroyed their countries of origin. Others experienced a lifestyle they’d never experience — hot water showers, for one — and stumbled over the price. But everyone of them was supported — and championed for — by their ELA teacher, Mr. Williams, and the larger community of South Hugh School.

My search for a new book club following my cross-country move to Denver led me to a group that focuses on reading nonfiction books about the pressing social and political issues of the day. While the group has a rather pretentious sounding name, their reading list for the upcoming year caught my attention and I decided to give the group a chance.

Their first selection for 2019 dovetails nicely with the group’s focus and my own desire to learn more about the city I’ve moved to. Unlike the city I moved from, people across the income spectrum flock to get their children admitted to South High School, a public high school in the Denver school system. The school has, apparently, become a magnet for both refugees and people wanting to offer their children a multicultural education.

Thorpe offers an window into this school, recounting the experiences of twenty-one refugee students as they try to learn English. (One student did not want to participate in the book.) English language acquisition is a slow process, and the speed at which students adopted the language depends on the similarities of English to the language they know and how well their families have adapted to live in America.

Some students face financial pressure to quit school and take a job to support their families; other students face cultural pressure to live a life like they would have had in their home countries. A less obvious pressure, though, is the lack of community and integration that isolates the students and makes it harder for them to imagine a life in America.

Thorpe focuses on how the students found ways to overcome this barrier. For some, their teacher could connect them to one of his prior students who speaks the same language. For others, the agencies working to resettle them in America employed translators and helped find church communities to welcome them. But the students had their own ways of fostering community.

So many of the ELA students employed Google Translate to overcome the language barriers between them. Others shared music and a love of soccer — commonalities in the face of so much change. And, like Thorpe, I was struck by how well a student from Tajikistan could communicate with a student from El Salvador despite their lack of a shared language.

Much of the book is marked by Thorpe’s reactions and contemplation rather than a direct recap of the events in Mr. Williams’ classroom. Thorpe’s inclusion of herself into the story was bothersome to me at first, and I found the interjection of Trump’s candidacy into the narrative to be rather heavy handed.

But these two aspects pull together in the end to help highlight how and why the rejection of refugees by America is so maddeningly misguided. How the assistance offered to refugees is far lower than Americans, including myself, believe it to be. It’s an illuminating (and uplifting) book about a small group of people affecting real change for a global problem, and I’m glad it was one of the last books I read in 2018.


  1. Jeane

    I’ve read some books about immigrant experiences, but never one that focuses on language which I’m sure must be a struggle for students new to the country. This sounds like a great book.


    • Most of the books I’ve read on the immigrant experience have been fictional accounts, and learning English has never been a focus. I always figured learning English would be hard (I know learning Spanish was for me), but this book really drove that point home for me.


  2. This sounds like a great book, one that challenges misconceptions as much as it offers hope for the future. I honestly don’t know how people learn English; it’s such a complicated language full of quirks and idiosyncrasies. Bravo to those kids who manage to pick it up while adjusting to a new life & country; it must be sooooo stressful for them!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I spent years in a special English language class as kid trying to overcome my dyslexia, so I really felt for these students as they struggled to learn a different pattern of speech and, for some, alphabet. Made me all the more frustrated to read a chapter and then turn on the news only to hear immigrants be derided for not speaking English.

      Liked by 1 person

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