American media reports about the initial arrival of more than a hundred thousand Afghan refugees, and the expectations that the number might rise to a quarter-million, or a million, generated a variety of responses, some welcoming, and some critical.
But, for the US Office of Refugees Resettlement (USORR) that helps refugees – all refugees – “integrate into their local community”, the issue has been about being realistic.
In coordination with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and private agencies and groups, USORR has been, for decades, arranging for the livelihood, health, and education of the refugees.
This new book, “Refugee High”, illustrated an important, but mostly neglected, part of the issue: how do children of the refugees, young strangers in a strange land, fare?
Journalist Elly Fishman, the book’s author, angered by former President Donald Trump’s campaign against immigrants, particularly Latinos from across the borders with Mexico, and Muslims, millions of whom Trump shamelessly, prevented from coming to America, spent three years studying children of the refugees in a Chicago high school.
At Roger Sullivan High School, she interviewed teachers, administrators, and students; and she also interviewed children’s parents, education officials, and refugees’ officials, few of whom worked for the USORR.
The number of the school’s immigrant students was close to three hundred--nearly half of the school’s overall students. They came from about 35 countries and originally spoke about 30 languages.
In their native countries, they faced discrimination, violence, and wars, and in the US, they faced poverty, racism, and xenophobia. But, as the book said, they were “still teenagers--flirting, dreaming, and working as they navigate their new life in America”.
The students came from different backgrounds and cultures: from a Rohingya refugee camp that sheltered Muslims running away from Thailand; from a camp in Tanzania for refugees from nearby Somalia, Kenya, and Uganda; and Afghan from camps in Pakistan who came long before the withdrawal of the US troops from their native country.
There was Mariah from Basra, Iraq, who tried to kill herself because of family pressure on her to keep the family traditions, and pressure from fellow Muslim students who told her she was not Muslim enough because of the way she dressed and behaved.
There was Alejandro from Guatemala, who came illegally to the US, by crossing border after border after border. At the school, he faced deportation despite having watched 10 people gunned down in his country of birth.
There was a female student from India who was forced by her parents to quit school to get married.
There was a student from Congo who was shot outside the school.
And more than one student suddenly stopped coming to the school, without prior notice – apparently because their families decided to move to another city or state.
The book illustrated kind and sympathetic teachers who seemed to honestly go out of their way to help the students, and to introduce them to American culture.
Teachers who taught them how to celebrate Halloween; gave them advice on birth control; took them to the DMV for driver's licenses, and even washed their clothes when they couldn’t afford the Laundromat’s fees.
Teachers, who more than once, arranged an international Thanksgiving where students brought foods from their native countries, like Fufu rice from Ghana, Maqlubeh from Syria, Sambusa from Somalia, and Byriani from Pakistan.
In addition to personal stories, the book argued about the general issue of refugees, particularly in the light of recent Trump-led campaigns against admitting refugees. The book asked questions like: “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?”
The book advised against the fear of foreigners, and encouraged welcoming refugees, reminding both the refugees and the natives that America has been a nation of refugees.
Book: “Refugee High: Coming of Age in America”
Author: Elly Fishman
Publisher: New Press, New York
Paper pages: 265
Price: Paper $26.99; electronic: $12.99