The Newcomers

/ posted in: Book ReviewReading The NewcomersThe Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship, and Hope in an American Classroom by Helen Thorpe
on November 14th 2017
Narrator: Kate Handford
Length: 15:09
Genres: Nonfiction, Social Science
Published by Dreamscape Media
Format: Audiobook

Offering a nuanced and transformative take on immigration, multiculturalism, and America's role on the global stage, The Newcomers follows and reflects on the lives of twenty-two immigrant teenagers throughout the course of their 2015-2016 school year at Denver's South High School. Unfamiliar with American culture or the English language, the students range from the age of fourteen to nineteen and come from nations struggling with drought, famine, or war. Many come directly from refugee camps, and some arrive alone, having left or lost every other member of their family. Their stories are poignant and remarkable, and at the center of their combined story is Mr. Williams: the dedicated and endlessly resourceful teacher of their English Language Acquisition class-a class which was created specifically for them and which will provide them with the foundation they need to face the enormous challenges of adapting to life in America.


I’ve often wondered what it would be like to move to the U.S. from a non-English speaking country and have to learn to survive here.  This is a book that answers those questions.  I think this should be required reading for anyone who wants to talk intelligently about the immigration debate in the U.S.  

The author spends 18 months with a group of teenagers who are in a Newcomers class in a Denver high school.  All of them are recent immigrants and have tested at the bottom level of English language proficiency.  They represent most of the major conflict zones on the planet – The Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, Iraq, Burma, Central America, Eritrea.  The school year starts with learning how to introduce yourself in English.  Most of the kids are stumped.

One of the things I found interesting in this book was the transparency of the author’s process.  She is writing about minors who have all experienced a great deal of upheaval and trauma in their lives.  She explains how she approaches the kids with a translator in their home language to ask if she can include their stories in the book.  There are kids who say no at this point and she respects that.  If they agreed, she sent home a letter written in their language to their parents that requested permission to interview the children and requested to interview them.  If permission is given, then home visits are started with an interpreter.  In spite of all these precautions, there are still communication errors and just the plain inability of an American to truly understand the lives that refugees have led.  She discusses her thought process about what questions to ask about their backgrounds.  When does reporting the story just become an excuse to pry into things for the sake of the sensational details?  She talks about when she chose to walk away from lines of questioning that are relevant to the story but would lead to retraumatizing the people being interviewed.

For the families that agreed to participate, it opens a window in to the lives in war zones.  Hearing what they had to endure before fleeing their homes was heartbreaking.  There are Iraqis who worked with the U.S. Army and then were left behind.  A Central American female police officer was targeted for murder after arresting gang members and when they couldn’t get to her they starting threatening her children.  A family with 10 children had to walk out of the DRC to avoid repeated violence.  Some of the kids were born in refugee camps.  Most are already multi-lingual.

Life in the U.S. isn’t easy.  Resettlement agencies help but families are required to be self-supporting within 4 months of arrival.  That’s hard when you don’t speak the language and can’t get a good job.  I’m surprised how many families did it.  Other families’ stories show how one small setback can upset their whole resettlement journey. 

The importance of this story is underscored by the fact that it takes place from September 2015 to December 2016.  Reading about the rise of Donald Trump as it relates to these families was stressful all over again.  Incidents of racism rise on public transport as the election takes place.  Court cases to receive asylum for Central American children are suddenly in doubt.  Family members scheduled to arrive from Somalia are suddenly turned back at the airport.  

The author does go to the DRC to see where the family that she knew from Denver came from.  She traces their route to refugee camp and meets friends and family members who have been left behind.

This is an ultimately hopeful book as you see how far the kids come in 18 months.  Some go from silent observers on day 1 to being a part of the student government a year later.  Others are still struggling with English but are able to have full conversations.  No one who reads about these families would think they are lazy and trying to work the system.  This is a book I’d love to force all Trump fans to listen to in order to see if these people’s realities align with their idea of what immigrants are.  


Reading this book contributed to these challenges:

  • Audiobooks
  • Books Set in Africa
  • Books Set in North America