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Carrie Compton: I’m Carrie Compton, associate editor for the Princeton Alumni Weekly. For the entire 2015-16 academic year, investigative journalist Helen Thorpe ’87 sat in on a high school English-acquisition class for teenaged refugees from across the globe. She watched her subjects’ growth and struggles within their new environment and learned their stories, which mostly included displacement due to war or gang violence in their home countries. As the 2016 presidential primaries gave way to the political ascent of Donald Trump, Thorpe extended her reporting into 2017 and recounts the ways the new administration has affected America’s policy on refugee resettlement. Her book is called The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship and Hope in an American Classroom.
Helen Thorpe is also the author of Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and At War, an account of three female soldiers who saw combat in Afghanistan and Iraq; and Just Like Us: The Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America, which details the lives of four impoverished, young Mexican women living in the U.S.
Helen, thank you so much for joining us.
Helen Thorpe: It’s my pleasure, thanks for the chance to talk.
CC: So, tell us about why you decided to pursue this topic. And a little bit about what you discovered about teenage refugees in America.
HT: Well, I grew up in this country as the daughter of Irish immigrants. My mom grew up on a dairy farm in rural Ireland, my dad grew up on the north side of Dublin, which would be known in Ireland as quote unquote, “The wrong side of town.” His childhood was a little bit like Angela’s Ashes, he says. And I grew up with my extended family in Ireland, but I was growing up in New Jersey, and kind of straddling those two worlds. So, I’ve always been fascinated by teenagers who are growing up in the United States, and yet have another culture at the same time, and are navigating that kind of reality. My first book was about undocumented students, and their search for legitimacy and a path to fulfillment here. And with my current book, I feel like I’ve returned to this subject that I love most, which is you know, young people coming of age in America, yet trying to figure out their place in our society, they come from another country originally.
CC: And what did you find in particular about the students in the classroom that you sat in on? What was their world like at this moment in time?
HT: So the classroom I chose to visit was a very beginner level English language acquisition class. And one of the confounding things at the outset was that I had no way to speak to the students, and they had no way to speak to me in an unmediated fashion. I speak Spanish as well as English, but these kids were from all over the world, and the languages that they spoke, I’d never even heard of in some cases. They were coming from the Middle East, from Africa, from Southeast Asia, many straight from refugee camps. And ultimately, I let the kids settle into the room, I just observed without interviewing them for many months, and then by about midway through the school year, I began bringing in interpreters, so I could speak to the kids in their home language to explain I’m a journalist, you have the choice to participate in my book or not, it’s completely up to you and your family, would you like to tell your story? And amazingly, 21 of the 22 kids wanted to participate in the book. They had this great sense of urgency about wanting to explain who they were. They felt that they were aware of, you know, the dialogue in our country around refugees and immigrants, and I think they felt misunderstood, or miscast, and really wanted a chance to set the record straight, and describe their journeys. And then the kids were just amazing. I just fell for these kids, they were — they had lived through things that were just beyond me. I mean, they had lived through war, and in some cases, car bombings, or with some of the students who came from the Democratic Republic of Congo, you know, years of raids by militia groups on their home villages. They had really seen extraordinary things. And yet, they were showing up here really ready to learn. And ready to go. And eager for the chance to learn English, and to succeed. And they learned an extraordinary amount in the time that I was following them.
CC: You eventually began visiting some of the students at their homes, and with their families as well. You write at one point that doing so helped you appreciate how the classroom served as an almost perfect microcosm of the global refugee crisis on a whole. Talk about that a little, and what you learned from the families, and what those visits were like.
HT: Sure. In general, I tried to let the students settle in, and then conducted short interviews, but I was speaking to them in the middle of their school day, and in many cases, these students had lived through extraordinary things, like armed conflict, war, car bombings, militia groups raiding their home villages, things that, you know, would be disturbing to speak about at length with a journalist, and so I was very mindful not to dig into that with these young people, in the middle of their school day, but instead to say if your parents are willing to meet with me, I would love to speak with them. And many of the students invited me home. I ended up focusing on three families in particular. And I tried to choose them because I thought together, they illustrated the full scope of the crisis. The news media often focuses just on what’s happening in the Middle East, and certainly that’s a huge part of this story. I chose to write about two sisters from Iraq, to exemplify that region, and what’s happening there. When I visited them at home their mom, Ebtisam began you know, cooking amazing Middle Eastern feasts for me, and sometimes I would bring food in return. We shared many meals, and over the course of getting to know one another, I came to empathize with her a great deal. She was a single mom, she had lost her husband during the Iraq War, after he cooperated with the U.S. military. Then they had fled to Syria to seek safety there, but had lived through the civil war in that country, and had essentially been turned into double refugees. They had to flee Syria as well. So, they wound up in Turkey, where they were, they didn’t have legal status in Turkey. They were seeking asylum, and like many asylum seekers in that country, you know, she couldn’t get a legal job, she couldn’t participate in the formal job market, and only found informal work. So life was a constant struggle, and for her, the chance to resettle here was an opportunity for her to thrive economically, and also an opportunity for her daughters to go back to school. Like many Iraqi refugees in Turkey, they had dropped out in order to work to supplement the family income, and really, they were overjoyed to get the chance to finish their high school education, and try and get a degree. Another family that I focused on, there were two brothers from the Democratic Republic of Congo. That’s the country that has actually sent the largest number of refugees to the United States in recent years. The news media doesn’t focus on the Congo because it’s been producing refugees for so long that you know, news editors don’t think of it as news anymore. But to understand the refugee crisis in full, it’s important to remember that Africa and Asia are producing huge numbers of refugees in addition to the Middle East. And I try to show that, by visiting families from each of those regions at home. I think that Burma is another country that has sent large numbers of refugees to the U.S. in recent years. And I share this story of a young woman from Burma originally, who not only resettled in the United States, but then because of domestic abuse at home, wound up in our foster-care system, and being adopted by an American family. Which as you can imagine, you know, as a young person coming to a strange country, not yet mastering the language, and then finding yourself changing homes from the Karen culture which she knew, and the Karen language, which she spoke at home, because she’s an ethnic minority from Burma, into an English-speaking American family, it was a huge adjustment for her. But she did thrive in her new family environment; she’s incredibly proud of her adoptive parents, she feels today that they saved her from a life of great hardship and difficulty, and she has nothing but praise for the experience of being adopted by an American family in the midst of her resettlement.
CC: You talk about a really remarkable educator in light of all of this that you experienced in your time in the classroom with the students. Talk a little bit about Mr. Williams.
HT: I felt incredibly grateful to be in a classroom with Eddie Williams. He’s an amazing man, he’s 6-foot 4-inches tall, he’s a soccer player and an athlete, he has that kind of optimism that you know, many sports players have. He is half Anglo, half Latino. His dad’s Anglo, and his mom is Latina. His mom actually grew up in a Spanish-speaking household on the border in California, and when she was young, she was in English-language acquisition classes, and she shared with her son, who went on to become the teacher that I observed for a full year. She told him when she was growing up, that she was made to feel ashamed that she didn’t know English, and embarrassed of speaking Spanish. And he really wanted his students, no matter what language they spoke, never to feel inferior because they didn’t know English yet. He really wanted them to feel that he respected their dignity, and he wanted them to feel as much self-confidence as possible. So, he was always encouraging the students. And his manner of teaching was to constantly praise them for what they were doing right. And if they made mistakes, not to criticize them too harshly, but to very gently maybe suggest an alternative way to articulate that without telling them oh, you’re doing this wrong or, you know, he really taught by praise, and by example. And it was an extraordinary thing to see. I try to celebrate, you know, this heroic work that he’s doing, teaching 22 kids who speak 14 different languages and use five different alphabets. And miraculously, by the end of the school year, he had them all speaking, reading, and writing in English, and able to hold basic conversations with one another and exchange quite a lot of information. And really, to form friendships, and relationships, and find joy in their lives here, just within a span of nine months. I thought it was extraordinary.
CC: Yeah, it really sounds like it. And that’s an interesting jumping-off point to kind of link your work in this book with some of the work that you’ve done with Mexican women in particular, and women in the military, and I’m just curious, with your work with these other two marginalized groups, what did you learn about the marginalization of refugees in this country? How does that fit into the picture?
HT: If we have a national debate around immigration, one can think one knows a lot about immigration, because it’s in the news a lot. And yet, the extent to which we do not understand why people choose to come here and what their psychological experience is like when they’re here, it is vast. And so, there’s a big surprise factor, I think, when people actually read the books, and they — my readers generally come back to me and say, “Oh I had no idea what it was like. Oh, I had no idea this was, you know, how it was.” So, for example, with undocumented students, you know, their lack of legal status wasn’t just something that came up when they tried to apply for college, and couldn’t qualify for a certain scholarship, or couldn’t fill out the FAFSA or get aid; it was something that came up every day for them, it was just a daily reality. Like, one of the young women I wrote about, she couldn’t even check out a movie from Blockbuster, because she didn’t have a driver’s license, and later she, you know, couldn’t get into an ice hockey game at a college, because they were, they needed a photo ID to — you know, every time she turned around, somebody was asking for a driver’s license, which she didn’t possess. So, you know, undocumented students, particularly at the time when I wrote that book, which was back in 2009, they were very shy about stepping forward out of fear of being deported. And so, their reality wasn’t very well understood. And the burden of leading an undocumented life is tremendous. It’s a great burden to be hiding your identity all the time in this way. And yet, you know, many of us have things that we’re uncomfortable about, aspects of ourselves that we don’t want to publicize. And so, it is actually an experience we can empathize with very deeply if we understand. And I think coming to empathize then, you can build a feeling or a sentiment that it would be a good thing if we could help these young people rectify their illegal status, and gain legal status, and participate fully in society. And I’m always looking for that opportunity to build a better dialogue, build greater understanding, have a more informed conversation.
The stories of refugees are often portrayed as very grim, or very difficult, and that is true at the beginning, but when they are chosen to resettle, and they get the chance to come to a country like this one, truly it’s a story of incredible gratitude on their part. Thankfulness to be given a safe home, thankfulness for the opportunity to thrive, they are filled with joy, and kind of determination to take advantage of this opportunity once they get here. It’s actually this really joyous experience, the act of resettlement. And bridging cultures, you know, it can be difficult — often I was working with an interpreter — but the extent to which we managed nonetheless, despite the language impediments and cultural differences, the extent to which we managed to both get to know one another, but also form emotional bonds, was to me, pretty astonishing, and I think there’s nothing more rewarding for me than that act of bridging what seems like a big divide between me and somebody else.
Let’s take the Iraqi mom, for example. I’m a single parent, she’s a single parent. Her struggles are exponentially greater than mine, but we got to the point where we could identify mother to mother. She was facing difficulty with her daughters as they were struggling to feel accepted in the United States. Her daughters speak Arabic, they identify as Muslim, though their dad was Christian and their family does go to Christian services. But the conversation about Muslim immigrants and Muslim refugees in this country was making them feel very looked down upon, or hated, or denigrated, and they were acting out a lot. And I have a teenager, so you know, my teenager’s American and doesn’t have quite the same struggle around fitting in or belonging that her daughters had. But I completely get her struggles as a mom, parenting these teenagers around these huge questions of how do they fit in?
CC: You mentioned that the refugees had some support systems, or some systematic levers that were providing them with support that started to go away as the presidential election unfolded, and things that, the climate changed from the time that your reporting began, to when it ended.
HT: Yeah, the climate did change over the course of this book. The way that I saw that unfold — this country historically has been very generous to refugees, particularly in times of crisis. So, after the Vietnam War, when there was just huge numbers of Vietnamese fleeing from the devastation in that country, this country admitted several hundred thousand refugees per year. At the time that I was first inside the classroom in South High School, this country was admitting 70,000 refugees per year, and was talking about increasing that number in response to the global crisis going up to 100, 110,000 refugees. Those numbers were being suggested. After the election, with the change in administration, instead we’ve seen a curtailment, a reduction in numbers. So, we’ve gone — though the need has increased, we’ve gone down from taking 70,000 refugees down to 40,000. And this to me, I feel, is the wrong direction. This country is a generous country, and we’re also really, really good at resettlement. The Department of Homeland Security vets every person with refugee status who is admitted formally into this country, and in all the time the Department of Homeland Security has been doing that, there has not been one instance of somebody with refugee status committing an act of terrorism on American soil. It has not happened. Not once. Which is an extraordinary track record. The Department of Homeland Security’s really good at what it does. And then when refugees are here, we are really good at helping them find jobs, and we’re really good at helping them retain those jobs. The average refugee family is economically self-sufficient in 90 days.
HT: Three months. It’s incredible. It’s an extraordinary thing. And then, their children have the chance to acquire English in our classrooms, and they go on to do incredible things in our society. I watched Solomon and Methuselah arrive from the Democratic Republic of Congo in the fall of 2015, and by the spring of 2017, they had jumped over an entire year of instruction and they were in mainstream classes, reading To Kill a Mockingbird. They’re going to go to college. One of them wants to be a doctor, another wants to be a pilot. They’re going to be giving back to this society and trying to help their home country, the Congo. These young people can do extraordinary things. And they’re capable of immense growth, and watching that unfold, watching them succeed, is just awe inspiring. I know that this country can take three, four, five times the number of refugees that we’re taking today. And I look forward to the day when we can expand our refugee resettlement program, instead of cutting back. The world needs us to do this. And we should do it. It’s the right thing to do.
CC: So, it sounds like you got really close to your subjects in this book. This has most likely had a very lasting effect on who you are as a person, is that correct?
HT: It does affect me, it will have a lasting effect, I can feel that. But also it affected me as a writer, as well as just a human being. And what I mean is, often as journalists, we’re taught that we should have an objective stance, an emotional distance between ourselves and our subjects that we write about. And for most of my career — I started off in newspapers, I wrote for magazines, with my first two books certainly this was true — I very scrupulously tried to maintain that kind of objective distance. In this case, I no longer felt that was the right stance. What is happening with refugees in the world is too great a crisis to remain emotionally distant from. And meeting refugees, I simply was so moved by the fact that they had lost everything, and were coming here with nothing in their pockets, and were ready to start over, and that they were filled with joy at the prospect of being given that chance to start over, transform, learn a new language, make a new home, as hard as that is, that they were filled with gratitude at the chance to do that here. I found it so moving, and I felt compelled just morally to write about it in a different way. So, this book is more subjective, I write about the emotions that I felt sitting in the classroom, observing these teenagers blossom. And getting to know their parents, and being just awestruck by the strength and determination that these families had to make sure that their kids had a chance to thrive.
I decided to just take many steps forward towards the people that I’m writing about, and really to greet them as fellow travelers on this Earth, not me being a journalist looking at my subjects, but much more, you know, me as a human being celebrating what they are doing. Because I just found it an incredible thing to witness. So, I hope, in writing about how moving I found this experience, you know, I hope that readers will be moved equally by what I describe.
CC: Well I’ve read part of the book, and I was very moved as far as I’m concerned. So, thank you so much —
HT: I’m glad to hear it. You’re welcome.
CC: Yeah. Thank you so much for the time today Helen, and —
HT: A pleasure.
CC: Helen Thorpe’s new book is The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship and Hope in an American Classroom.
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