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The Newcomers
The Newcomers Finding Refuge, Friendship, and Hope in An American Classroom By Thorpe, Helen, 1963- Book - 2017

This is a fascinating book! The author spent a whole year (2016-7) observing and participating in a beginning English classroom in a large Denver high school that has many refugee and immigrant students. Then she wrote this book to tell the stories of the 22 students who were part of Mr. Williams's class during this school year. These 22 students came from countries all over the world, speaking a wide range of languages, but they all knew little or no English when they arrived. Mr. Williams is the gifted teacher who taught them English during that school year.

The refugee students had endured horrific events in their lives before arriving in this classroom. What they went through in their short lives before coming to the US is far more harrowing than anything most of us have ever had to face in many more years of life. Some saw family members murdered; some lived in huge refugee camps for years; some escaped war and worse with only the clothes on their backs. They all left everything they ever knew to come to a strange country where they did not know the language or the customs. And now they are here, in this US high school, and they have to learn English before their educations can proceed.

At the beginning of the year, the students are nearly mute, afraid to try to speak English, and the classroom is silent. The descriptions of what the teacher does to engage them and bring them out of their shells are priceless. We get to see how it all unfolds. By the end of the year, students have formed friendships and connections, and the classroom is not quiet any more! 

The author has been given permission to visit the homes and families of some of the students, so we learn a lot about what the adults in the families are going through as well. It is not easy to be a refugee in this country.

First, if you have believed the rhetoric about terrorists coming into the US as refugees, that is total BS. It takes YEARS to be admitted to the US as a refugee; only a tiny percentage are admitted (even before the current administration put up new barriers to refugees); there is a ton of vetting; there is no certainty that any particular person will be admitted, or how long it might take. It is laughable to think that a terrorist would choose that long, uncertain way to enter the US.

Second, the financial help given to refugees is minimal. They are encouraged to become financially self-sufficient ASAP. The jobs available to the adult refugees who do not speak English well are hard and pay little.

Third, how many of us have personally welcomed refugees to this country? The author loves the opportunity to get to know the families of these young students. The adults in the families have successes and failures (some tragic). The author notes that one family she is visiting has regular help from an evangelical Christian named Mark, who comes faithfully every week to see what kind of help the family needs, and then helps to provide it. The author notes that she and Mark probably have very different political views, but Mark is living his faith and "welcoming the stranger", while many liberals support refugees in concept (and maybe financially), but do not know any personally. That really hit home.

I found this book both enjoyable and inspiring. It is long (almost 400 pages), but it is well worth reading. As you read this book, I challenge you to put yourself in the shoes of these young students and their families. Could you do as well in their place? Could you leave everything you have ever known and start over (with nothing) in a completely different culture, learn a new language, find a new job, make a new home, find a new community, etc.? It sounds overwhelming to me.

sandraperkins's rating:
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