Roger C. Sullivan High School in Chicago has been a landing pad for immigrant and refugee students for a century. In addition to Chicago natives, Sullivan’s student body includes a polyglot (more than 30 languages) mixture of young people. Motivated by Donald Trump’s election and the protests against his ban on travel from certain Muslim-majority nations, journalist Elly Fishman spent three and a half years reporting what would become “Refugee High: Coming of Age in America,” her absorbing account of Sullivan’s 2017-2018 school year.
To develop her story, Fishman interviews Sullivan teachers and administrators, as well as students and their families. She highlights families from Iraq; Guatemala; Congo via Nyarugusu, a refugee camp in Kigoma, Tanzania; Myanmar; and Syria. On the staff side, Fishman features Chad Adams, Sullivan’s principal; Sarah Quintenz, director of the school’s English-language learner program; and several others. “Refugee High” is organized around the months of the school year.
To arrive from a Rohingya refugee camp, or a camp in Tanzania, often with no English, and plunge into this intense microcosm of American life is a mind-bending prospect. Fishman does a wonderful job reminding us that even with their myriad, harrowing traumas, these students are kids. They live in the throes of teenage-hood, meaning acne and Rihanna. They are captivated by America’s alluring pop culture, the latest fashions and social media. They worry about homework. They angst over romance, use and sell illegal substances, and struggle with the school’s complex and all-important social life and its unwritten hierarchies.
Fishman ferries readers into these students’ apartments, many of which are sparsely furnished. We meet parents who have suffered unspeakable tragedy and dislocation, and now grapple with grueling night work, and low or no pay. They mourn the loss of everything they once knew, including family and friends.
Students bear outsize burdens. Mariah from Basra, Iraq, tries to kill herself, succumbing to pressure from family and Syrian students at Sullivan who see her as not religious enough. Students leave Sullivan for forced marriages, or their families move, or they simply disappear from the roster. When a Congolese student is shot outside school and another threatened while biking home, one family pulls up stakes for Iowa, and other Congolese follow.
Senior Alejandro, who can be a loner, risks deportation despite having watched 10 people gunned down as he walked home from school in Guatemala City, and his Guatemalan neighbor murdered on her front lawn to prevent her from testifying about her son’s killing. Enter Quintenz, who meets with Alejandro’s father to provide support. (His mother still lives in Guatemala, her safety a constant issue.) By keeping the son’s confidences, Quintenz gains Alejandro’s trust and helps with his appeal when he is turned down for asylum the first time.
Every high school needs a Sarah Quintenz, who updates the English-language learner curriculum because “what worked for Nepalese students didn’t always work for Syrian kids.” Far more than an academic adviser, Quintenz is an unflappable, endlessly creative, tireless advocate for her students. She holds them accountable while offering unconditional love.
Quintenz teaches them how to trick or treat on Halloween and organizes a mouthwatering international Thanksgiving where students arrive with dishes cooked at home. “I am from Ghana,” one student reads from a poem prepared for the occasion. “We live a peaceful life and eat fufu, which is made from . . . plantain.” From the Syrian dish of maqlubeh to Somali sambusas to the Pakistani fast food brought by a Rohingya boy, this Thanksgiving meal nourishes in more ways than one.
Quintenz’s classroom is the “womb” where lovesick students find a tender listen as well as stern advice on birth control. Quintenz has been known to wash students’ uniforms when a laundromat is unaffordable and take kids to the DMV to qualify for driver’s licenses — no small feat for non-Americans.
Adams, Sullivan’s principal, is another hero. He grew up in Mississippi, changing schools almost every year. He was one of a few White students in one of the state’s first busing programs at age 12, and “was often cornered and beaten up.”
After a beloved student was killed at a school where Adams was assistant principal, Adams developed post-traumatic stress disorder. He came to Sullivan not just to turn the school around but for “his chance to heal.” Sullivan was one of the worst-performing schools in the system when Adams arrived. He set to work transforming it from a place of harsh discipline to a school that focused on education and well-being; in other words, a school that was serious about providing its students a productive future.
Under Adams’s leadership, Sullivan has progressed from a “44 percent graduation rate to one where 90 percent of freshmen remain on track to graduate in four years.” With a jump in college-bound students, Sullivan has received a higher budget that translates into places for dozens more students.
In embarking on her research, Fishman aimed to answer four questions: “What does [the] political shift mean for refugees and immigrants who made it off the plane? What kind of America will they inhabit? What kind of America will they help build? And how will America take shape around them?”
These questions go to the heart of American identity. Their answers lie in an unfolding present and future. Although we Americans have a nasty habit of closing the door behind us, we are also capable of responding to our better natures.
“Refugee High” may not provide the answers, but it contains important messages. Fishman suggests that we ignore our growing xenophobia at our peril, for these students are creative, resilient, adaptive and caring. Her book is also a shout-out to the lasting value of public education. “Refugee High” showcases a school that not only serves as a welcoming landing pad for immigrants and refugees, but also as a launching pad for talented, productive, future generations of Americans. Students can be heroes, too.
Coming of Age in America
By Elly Fishman
265 pp. $26.99