An Interview with Helen Thorpe
Words By Dani Hedlund
What inspired you to write The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship, and Hope in an American Classroom?
My first book was about immigration and my second was about veterans returning from conflict overseas. I see writing about refugees and refugee resettlement as a natural extension of those two subjects. But specifically, I found South High School when I was doing background informational interviews. When I went there, the principal invited me to spend a year inside the school. The principal knew her student population and really had faith in the kids. She had read my first book and knew I wrote about undocumented students and would treat her students sensitively. I think she was trying to broker a marriage between me and the kids in the Newcomers Center. It was just an incredible opportunity; getting invited to spend a year inside a school is very rare.
Talk to me about what it was like going into the school, from the first day to a year in. What was the process like for you?
In the beginning I was so confused by the environment that I found myself in. I spent a year inside the beginner level English language acquisition class which is called the Newcomers Center, and it’s designed for kids whose lives have been interrupted by war and haven’t been able to go to school continuously because of that. There were twenty-two kids in the room who spoke fourteen different languages and used five different alphabets, some of these languages I had never heard of before. For me, I was trying to make sense of the English language acquisition curriculum, but I was trying to understand the backgrounds of all these different kids who were coming from countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Iraq, Burma—a lot of places where there has been conflict for several decades.
At the outset, I frantically tried to get up to speed on the histories of all these different countries and, at the same time, tried to get to know the kids. They didn’t speak any English; I didn’t even have a way of introducing myself to them. We had such basic communication issues, and I could see these students were in the middle of a big transition so I just decided to observe the room. I wasn’t even sure if I could successfully write about what I was seeing or if it was a story I could even tell. It felt like I was in a room where the kids had very big journeys but I didn’t have any way of accessing that. There was no dialogue happening. It was just the teacher talking.
The room transformed over the course of a year. About halfway through, I began bringing in interpreters and introducing myself to the kids, speaking to them in their home languages, and they began sharing their stories. That was incredibly powerful for me, the experience of learning what all of these kids were carrying. As we began communicating and they started opening up, the stories were just jaw-dropping. I was surrounded by kids with amazing stories, even though they couldn’t tell me those stories very easily.
What was it like interacting with these students through a translator? Did you feel like something was lost there?
First I had to find an interpreter, and it’s not easy. I began hearing about this nonprofit based in Denver called Spring Institute, and they work with former refugees and train them to become interpreters. I ended up hiring 14 different interpreters from the Spring Institute, and one from a different agency. For the most part, the interpreters had arrived as refugees ten or twenty years ago. At first, I found it very clumsy. I felt slowed down in my ability to get to know the main subject I was trying to speak with. But over time, the interpreters and I became close, and sometimes they ended up telling me their stories, educating me about their homelands. I learned as much from the interpreters as I did from the students and their families.
I became very close, in particular, with my Arabic language interpreter, a very warm woman named Nabiha from Iraq. She helped me with the Iraqi family with two daughters in the Newcomers Center. They had lived in two war zones, they fled, they went to Syria, and they endured the Syrian Civil War. They had to flee again, they had seen terrible car bombings, and they arrived here with post-traumatic stress. This family wouldn’t have opened up just to me; they opened up because of the interpreter in the room who was able to say, “I’m from Iraq. I’ve lived through difficulties as well, and I came here as a refugee.” She was able to signal to the family that she shared their journey. She paved the way for me to connect with them emotionally.
Has working on this book—and working with so many different people from so many different backgrounds—changed the way you think about language as a writer?
Absolutely. I had studied French in high school, I had tried to learn Spanish as an adult, and I spoke a miniscule amount of German because we lived in Austria when I was little. But all of those are European languages that are very closely related to English. Before this book, I had no appreciation for other languages around the world and the difference in their structures, or even the different scripts that are used. With Arabic, for example, I knew that it used a different script that is written from right to left but I didn’t know that Arabic sentences are structured differently. They put the verb in the beginning of the sentence and the subject comes later. All these surprises about language were really amazing to learn, but I fell in love with just the idea of cognates and loan words—words that have a shared origin and travel down through languages simultaneously or move from one language to another.
At a certain point, the students began telling me that many of the students from the Middle East and Africa shared the same word for book, and then for heart. The kids were able to start speaking to each other when they had cognates in their two languages. I began to grasp that languages are much more fluid than I realized. They evolve as we share trade, conquest, and marriage. We start intermingling words, and words migrate.
What was it like to see these students bloom in front of you?
That’s the perfect term for what happened. At the outset of the year, the students were scared and apprehensive. I was slow to understand that there was a lot going on beneath the surface; they were silently listening to all of the English being spoken around them. They were furiously absorbing the sound of it and making sense of what those sounds meant. It was a lot like a fallow period or the time when a seed is gestating before it actually pokes through the surface of the soil, becomes a plant, and starts to bloom. The teacher was carefully cultivating these students, and then around the midway point, they began to speak more. About three quarters of the way through the year, the whole room was filled with this hubbub of noise and activity. The students were flirting and fighting. One student from El Salvador proposed to a young woman from Iraq during math class. I became much more appreciative of the individual personalities. It was such a joy to get to know them in their particularities. The teacher and the paraprofessional teacher who worked closely with the teacher were remarking on how much affection and gratitude was in the room. It was really scary for the students, moving to a new country, not speaking a word of the language there, and having to adjust to a big urban high school. As they were given the tools to acculturate, they became so grateful.
When I first started reading the book, I thought language would be the biggest barrier. But there are moments where people don’t understand how the mail works, or grocery stores—basic societal things. What was it like to see that integration and look at what our society is like in comparison to others?
As the year went on, I began to appreciate the extent of the transition that the kids were going through, but I didn’t fully understand it until I traveled to the Democratic Republic of Congo after the school year had ended. Some instructors from the Air Force Academy were traveling there and invited me on their trip. I then felt safe to go into a part of the Congo that is very conflict-prone. While I was there, we had a chance to understand more about life in the Congo and then I traveled to the refugee settlement. Two boys from the Newcomers class had lived with their families in this settlement. I actually found the house where the boys had lived and I was able to look at a structure that the family had built out of mud and a tin roof. It was a one-room hut; nine family members had been living there. I could see in an instant that there was no running water, no electricity, no light switch, no major appliances, no stove. Dirt floors. No glass windows, no doorknobs. Some of the huts just had a curtain. The extent of the differences between the lifestyle these boys had led in the refugee settlement versus what they had once they arrived in Denver, was monumental. They were getting used to the way people dress, snow and other weather patterns, the bus system, but also electricity, light switches, how to use a stove, what a fire alarm is, why it might go off in the middle of the night, food shopping in a grocery store as opposed to growing crops. In some cases, the kids in the room had witnessed violent conflict and were simultaneously struggling to put the trauma behind them.
At the same time, I was becoming more and more cognizant of what it means to be American, all the things we take for granted. I was in a room surrounded by students, many of whom had never been able to take a hot shower prior to coming here, had never lived in a safe place. I take my own safety and things like taking a hot shower completely for granted.
When I was in this classroom, I was meeting kids who represented the global refugee crisis, but I was meeting them on American soil and I needed to see their lives firsthand, to see a refugee settlement in order to really understand what they had lived through. While I wanted to describe the American chapter of their lives first and foremost—their resilience and transformation—I had to understand what they left behind in order to celebrate their strength fully and appreciate the enormity of what they were doing in starting over.
What was one of the biggest things that really shocked you before you started going into the classroom?
I want to be a quiet presence in the book, in the background, describing my own naivete, discovering my naivete as the kids educate me about these other parts of the world that I don’t fully understand. I tried to describe that process using the first person for the readers so they could have a journey similar to mine. I’m assuming my readers have never been to countries like Iraq, where I have never been. Through getting to know these students, like I did, the readers can have the same journey of discovery.
For me the big “aha!” moment was when the kids from the Middle East and Africa revealed to me just how many words their languages had in common. I could start to see how interconnected the Middle East and Africa are, linguistically and historically. It was a moment where I felt an awakening about those parts of the world that share a different heritage, and it revealed to me how ignorant we are of those cultures.
What is it like to write such transformative prose yet stay true to reality?
Part of what becomes important is to learn what to omit if you’re a reporter. You come away from a year of reporting with reams of material. If you include all of those details, the reader will be snowed under. I had to decide what to emphasize. In the opening chapter I describe the teacher so you can see him, but I’m really focused on showing how skilled he is at putting these scared students at ease, how sensitive he is to their predicament, and how gifted he is at building trust.
I looked at Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief because I think she’s brilliant at characterization, but I could have opened a novel just as easily. I wanted a very streamlined portrait of the teacher that didn’t get into too much right away, that gave you a really good feel for him as an introduction. Then with the students, especially because there were 22 kids, I couldn’t give you everything about every kid or you would never be able to differentiate them. Lisbeth emerges as a main character; she’s from El Salvador. She arrived in this country without a guardian or parent. One of the most amazing things about her is her incredible gregariousness and sociability. She is constantly making friends around the classroom and she’s very bubbly.
That bubbliness is at odds with her grim story of having to travel here on her own, getting arrested by the immigration officials and getting put in a Federal Detention Center. Throughout the story, I focused on examples of her being very exuberant in the classroom despite her difficult history. I tried to summarize the kids, if you will, in a thumbnail kind of sketch so every time you encountered Lisbeth, she remained a presence, and there was a consistency to how I would describe her. Solomon and Methusella, two brothers from the Congo, are very studious. Almost every depiction of them shows them engaged and working very hard. Jakleen and Mariam, the two sisters in the room who are struggling the most with putting trauma behind, pout. They don’t want to participate, they don’t want to go to school, it’s too hard. They want to hunker down at home where they feel safe. That’s a habit they learned during the Syrian Civil War because it was too dangerous to go outside, but you don’t understand that right away in the story. I found myself honing the material down to give you the essence of each character.
When did you start writing?
I spent the 2015-2016 school year inside South and I attended school as often as possible. Sometimes it was every day of the week, sometimes it was three days a week. As soon as school ended, it was time to go to the Congo. I strictly reported until I returned from the Congo that summer. I wrote the chapter about the Congo right away while it was still vivid in my mind because I had only been there for a week. Then I went back to my notes and started writing from the beginning, all the way through the school year up to Africa, and then I wrote the end of the book. I had written about half of the school year when the kids returned for their second year at South. I still attended class about one day a week. I was both reporting and writing at the same time. I find that very hard to juggle but I thought it was important to see their second school year, and also how the presidential election, which was going to take place that November, was going to impact them. I ended up reporting all the way through the midpoint of their second year which is when President Trump was inaugurated and enforced his travel bans.
There’s a great deal of intimacy in this book—even more, I would say, than in your other books. What was it like to write The Newcomers versus your two prior books?
I really wanted to bring the readers into the homes of two families in particular: the Congolese family, with the boys Solomon and Methusella, and the Iraqi family with the two sisters, Jakleen and Mariam. It’s through the parents that we come to understand the families’ journeys. As a parent myself with a 15-year-old, I really identified with Jakleen and Mariam’s mother. Our circumstances are wildly different, but I nonetheless identified with her as a single mom, the loneliness of that role. I really wanted to bring her to life for the reader as somebody to empathize with, and I think I was aiming for that level of intimacy so the reader would really feel a kinship with this woman. When we write about refugees and immigrants, we put labels on them and then it’s really hard to identify with the person and you don’t have real empathy with the struggle. I really wanted people to understand, on a visceral level, just how hard it is to be that mother.
How do you think this book has changed you personally?
My world was enlarged. I have a much different sense of what it means to be an American and how privileged my lifestyle is. Scales fell away from my eyes and I was then able to comprehend my own place on the globe and maybe some of the obligations and responsibilities that come along with so much privilege. That’s the primary piece.
I also found that after a full year and a half of constantly interviewing people without a shared language, I became a lot more in tune with nonverbal communication. In general, it’s changed my ability to get to know people. I find myself absorbing a lot more information. When you’re an English speaker, you can always rely on English. If you’re talking to somebody who can’t understand English and you can’t understand their Arabic, you end up watching them answer the translator, wondering if they’re upset, calm—how do they express emotion? Then you receive the translation from the interpreter. You witness the answer without knowing what the words mean. It’s surprising when you turn off your ability to understand another person’s language and realize how much you still get to know about them. It’s changed me in that way too; it’s made me a much more sensitive observer.
How do you feel about the message of this book and how it’s going to change the way we think?
In my understanding of Americans, we are typically very generous, but I think when it comes to immigration and refugee resettlement, there is rhetoric that stirs up fear and anxiety and causes us to exhibit a different side of ourselves. If the average person living in the United States, regardless of political affiliation, was to spend a year inside this classroom and get to know these students and families, they would have a similar awakening as I did, recognizing how much we have and how easy it is to be more generous. It is so enriching to get to know families from all around the world. I never felt that these families were taking things from us; I felt that they were giving things to me. All this time, they were feeding me, teaching me, illuminating things for me. I grew as a person as a result, and all of us can have that experience if we get the chance to meet one-on-one. It’s just this rhetoric that’s so divisive. I hope that when people read the book, they can have a vicarious experience of being in the room with these students and having that illumination as I did.