Giving Them a Voice

Thursday May 17, 2018

By John Dickson

Review of The Newcomers, by Helen Thorpe

“Give them a voice” is the mantra of those who work closest to refugees.  That is precisely what Helen Thorpe has done in her account of her year and a half spent in a Denver classroom.  In The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship, and Hope in an American Classroom, Thorpe gives voice to a dozen or so students – refugees, migrants and asylum seekers – as they land in an American high school, adjust, resist, adapt, settle in and eventually learn English and the ways of their new world without losing their own identity.

Their voices are needed to get beyond the impersonal statistics: 65 million people “forcibly displaced,” the highest recorded number ever; U.S. acceptance at 45,000, the smallest intake in 30 years; refugee camps holding over 65,000 people.  The numbers make us numb.  The image of a single three-year old boy lying face down in the sand on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea grabbed us and shook us out of our complacency more than all these numbers.

Helen Thorpe, with the permission of the students she tracks, has given them a voice.  We come to know and appreciate the vibrancy of Lisbeth, a young girl forced to flee El Salvador because of gang threats to her police mother and held in federal detention for over a year.  Or the two reticent Iraqi sisters, Jakleen and Mariam, whose journey took them through Syria and Turkey, along the way losing their father who had worked for the U.S. during the invasion.  Or Solomon and Methusellah, two brothers from eastern Congo, who had never gone to school before.

Thorpe goes to their homes, talks with their parents, traces the admission and entry process, and even travels to Congo and Uganda to see first-hand the largest refugee camps in the world.

The voices echo what 2018 Teacher of the Year Mandy Manning did at the White House.

In her recent award ceremony at the White House, Manning handed the President letters from her students, who tell their stories and aspirations to the man who calls them rapists and terrorists.  Manning, and Thorpe writing about the Denver teacher, Eddie Williams, want to change the narrative, want to show the human side of this crisis, a side we now know best through those playing on our fears of the outsider, of the unknown.

There is much in here for former Peace Corps volunteers, who have also landed cold in a foreign environment, without the language, the context or enough bug spray.  Thorpe lays out a path forward for our Peace Corps Community for Refugees, describing the volunteers in the U.S. English and math classrooms, who provide one-on-one support for teachers trying to manage a dozen different languages and students in varying stages of trauma recovery.  She describes another target population for our efforts: mothers at home, lonely, without the language, friends, a job and money.

The book takes place in the course of the 2016 Presidential election, an irony that Thorpe raises, but not with a cudgel.  She goes to ground-level in a school which is one-third immigrant and paints a reality that we face in this country and will not go away with fear mongering.  She tells the story of a teacher who “lived to build bridges between people,” while a candidate for President attracts followers with promises of building walls.

Throughout, Helen Thorpe struggles to see the broader lesson for her readers.  Midway through the year, as she is learning of the horrors that these students went through, she sets up the central question.  Speaking for the teachers, she may as well have been speaking to me, to this Peace Corps affiliate, to the country: “Will we be worthy?  …… Can we rise to meet the challenges presented by such a room?”

She answers her own question later with a sentiment that every Peace Corps Volunteer, probably every volunteer anywhere, can appreciate.  To turn away from the most vulnerable people in the world, we turn away from our own humanity.  There is a “joy of interconnectedness with the rest of the world” where we find our own humanity.

Reading Thorpe’s book reminds us of those joys, but also of the needs faced by so many in the world.  In order, though, not to be overwhelmed by the enormity of those needs, it’s best to focus on one classroom at a time.

John Dickson was a TEFL teacher in Gabon ’76-’79 and is active in two NPCA affiliates, Friends of Gabon and PCC4Refugees. He also volunteers in Gabon annually with Encore de la Paix, the social service arm of Friends of Gabon, taking on projects to repair schools, build latrines and distribute mosquito nets.   

Encore de la Paix

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