While American democratic life is certainly standing at the brink of something awful, it can be difficult to hang just the right word on our troubles. The past year has been something more serious and punctuated than simple foreboding. We’re already wading into and through various novel crises each day. And yet, today’s struggle is not cataclysmic.
Disasters may yawn before us, but we haven’t committed any irrevocable national errors. Yet.
Our political upheaval has served as a leading edge for serious cultural turmoil. Nazis march in American streets and make common cause with nostalgists for the most dangerous domestic effort to destroy the union of American states. Members of Congress announce that “diversity is not our strength” here in the land of E Pluribus Unum.
All is not well in our nation of immigrants. Sure, the United States’ long history as a multicultural, multilingual, multi-faith nation has always been less perfect than its ideals, but 21st-century American conservatism is running from those ideals at an astonishing rate. This country was founded by immigrants (euphemized as “colonists”), relied on immigrants’ labor to build its infrastructure and it harnessed immigrants’ ingenuity to power its 20th-century wealth and might.
Yet today’s conservatives have somehow concluded that, right now, immigrants are a threat to some ill-defined notion of American “greatness.”
It’s a tough time to revel in our pluralism. How did our public life come to this? How did revanchism and racism become so emboldened? How did our fellow citizens become so afraid of their neighbors who sound, worship, and/or look a little differently from them?
‘Finding Refuge, Friendship and Hope in an American Classroom’
Helen Thorpe’s “The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship, and Hope in an American Classroom” does not answer these questions, but it is squarely amongst them. The book focuses on a year (and change) Thorpe spent in a Colorado high school classroom for newly arrived refugees. Whatever her original intent, it’s impossible to read “The Newcomers” without hoping it makes the refugee experience more visible, and perhaps comprehensible, to a country that elected Donald Trump as its president.
Instead of explaining the anti-immigrant fears driving conservative populism today, the book weaves a story that challenges them.
“This is a work of nonfiction,” Thorpe announces. And yet, the students are her characters—their struggles and triumphs are legitimate plotlines. Serious, studious brothers Solomon and Methusella come from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Jakleen and her sister Mariam are refugees who fled the Iraq War to Syria, only to be driven to Turkey by that country’s civil war, before ultimately landing in Colorado in 2015.
In Thorpe’s book, they join other refugee students from across Latin America, Africa and Asia to search for stable footing and an on-ramp into a safe, dignified, flourishing American life.
Thorpe tracks them from their early days in school as a crowd of adolescents yearning to be seen and heard, but also unable to communicate.
“Where others might see students with limitations, or students who were lagging behind their peers,” Thorpe says, “Mr. Williams saw a room filled with kids who had lived through titanic experiences, teenagers who could do anything at all, once they accepted whatever sort of history they had brought with them and grasped the full extent of the opportunity lying ahead.”
The English language stands as a common obstacle. “The Newcomers” chronicles the students’ progress from silence towards success. Students’ language learning patterns vary, Thorpe explains, according to a host of factors: their motivation, their families’ education levels, how much the roots of their native languages overlap with English.
The Newcomes’ Offers Answers
What do we owe refugees? Why should they be here? Why should we care? “The Newcomers” offers a range of answers.
First, obviously, the book’s students are relatable. Thorpe stands in as—whether or not she means to be—a proxy for us, the (White, native-born, perhaps middle-class) Americans. These refugee families are recognizable. They’re humans like us. They deserve our respect. She engages with religious organizations serving the refugee community: These families are the meek, the needy.
They deserve our love.
The book offers other answers. Thorpe interviews a refugee father, a man who tries (in vain?) to help her understand what his family has survived to make it to the United States. “In their eyes I saw a question: What are we supposed to do about the terrible innocence of Americans?” she writes.
She doesn’t flinch from describing the heavy hardships that refugees navigate after they’ve escaped violence overseas and arrived in the United States. Refugees deserve our help because they somehow remain humane after having been wronged so badly, so often.
This line sharpens through the book, until Thorpe leaves behind our individual innocence for our collective guilt. She tells how Iraqi students fled violence that spiked in the wake of the American invasion in 2003.
“The United States was directly responsible for the chain of events that led to the destruction of Iraq and the related dissolution of Syria,” she writes. “If there were any refugees this country might have felt a moral obligation to accept, it would be people from some of the very countries listed in [President Trump’s travel] ban.”
American overseas violence lingers throughout the book. Refugees deserve our best because we, the United States, have so often been involved in causing the moments that overturned their lives. We owe refugees realistic opportunities to succeed because we have wronged them.
The Pursuit of Quiet, Stable Lives
For most of the students, the book traces an arc from young lives upended to shocking arrivals in Colorado to gradual mastery of various elements of American life. They slowly acquire English. They learn to navigate transit systems. They make friends. They fall in and out of love with classmates whose own roots could not be more distant. They fight with their parents. They take social baby steps into the United States—then leaps. They dare to imagine, then to wonder, dream, and even hope for futures that suddenly seem both bright and tangible.
This arc carries them from chaos to the quietude of American life. Safety and stability may seem pedestrian, but the ways that newcomer families pursue them certainly aren’t. This is the central paradox: Newcomers go through almost unimaginable hardship in pursuit of quiet, stable lives. They seek nothing dramatic—only enough personal security to live troubled only by the petty, mundane concerns of the American middle class.
And yet, they arrive and find the United States casually demolishing its public institutions and the democratic norms that sustain them. Our leaders flirt with closing our borders, igniting trade wars, demonizing political opponents as enemies to the nation, overturning governing procedures for partisan gains and more (and worse). Nepotism is in fashion. Saber rattling is central to our foreign policy. Internal social strife—complete with mobs of violent, anti-modern nationalists—has leaped from the history books and into daily American life.
One wonders, with Thorpe, how these families, “the most vulnerable people on earth,” make sense of our disregard for a stable status quo and a peaceful common life. “Oh America,” she writes near the end of the book, “land of the brave, here is the Syrian refugee of whom you’ve been so afraid, and he is nothing more than a kid who goes to the library on the weekend so that he can prepare for class.”
These students have survived so much only to arrive, finally, in a country where they can attend school and avoid ethnic violence. They apply themselves, studiously, following every rule and disciplining themselves beyond most teenagers’ wildest dreams—only to face a new political movement stereotyping and dismissing them.
Thorpe marvels at the children’s persistence. Watching some mostly-White, middle-class, native-born peers perform charismatic turns at a student government meeting, she marvels, “One could take any of the well-rounded, assured students who served on the Senate and put them into a similar predicament—bomb their home city until it became unlivable, separate some of them from their parents, force them to witness atrocities, starve them for a while, transport them to a foreign country where they understood nothing, give them a teacher who spoke a language they could not comprehend—and most of them, too, would have fallen quiet.”
We might also search a bit harder for a lesson. Perhaps The Newcomers’ refugees are not only here to instruct us on tolerance, but also on the heedless squandering of our political inheritance. Refugees deserve our help because they remind us that we are strong and stable enough to be magnanimous. We are secure enough to provide safe harbor. We Americans are exceptional because we shepherd our democracy. We are best when we share all of this with those less fortunate. We were already great. Refugees are an invitation to show it.