The United Nations estimates that there are more than 103 million refugees world wide today. This is a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions, an issue so overwhelming that it is impossible to process. What can one do? What can one’s government or community do? Who are these people? And what are our appropriate responses to this massive problem? Sometimes it is easier to get a handle on such a complicated topic by reducing its scale. Refugees are not a global issue alone; they can be a local concern, too.
In 2017 journalist Elly Fishman penned an article for Chicago Magazine about students in Roger C. Sullivan High School. Sullivan, a public high school in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago, is near several organizations that support refugees. The article piece justifiably won several awards. Fishman decided to expand it into a year-long study that became a book, Refugee High: Coming of Age in America. It is a moving and very personal account of the extraordinarily difficult challenges faced by these young people and the school pledged to support them. Refugee High helps us understand the crisis in a very accessible and immediate manner.
The book looks at a select group of students, teachers and administrators during the early years of the Trump administration. Partisan concerns and xenophobia are in the air. Six years on with a different president, those same stressors remain. Refugees are coming to Chicago, now often bussed from other states. The city and key organizations work hard to provide housing, healthcare, education and means of support. In other words, the problems covered in Fishman’s book are very much problems of today.
Fishman gives us a good overview of Sullivan High School. Sullivan’s population is extremely diverse. Designated a “newcomer center” by the Chicago Public School system, approximately half of its students are foreign born. More than thirty-five languages are spoken and getting students up to speed in English is a major priority. Along with it are all the other difficulties with coming to America, figuring out how to live in Chicago, and navigating adolescence.
Trust and close research ground Refugee High. Fishman goes deep on a small number of students, describing their lives in school, at home, in work and at play. She gives us enough information, but Fishman does not go into great detail about the traumatic back stories of the students and their families. This is not a look at the many global forces that dislocate people and bring them to Chicago. Instead, the focus in on people and what is happening to them in Chicago, in the day-to-day and the month-to-month. The students in the book are wrestling with unfair burdens, high expectations and limited resources. It is a very compelling read and one’s heart goes out to the students. They have faced so much. While life in America has many advantages, their journeys are far from set. They face all manner of challenges. For example, what are the right ways to help a teenage girl who is being pressured by her family into an arranged marriage with a man a decade her senior? The students’ lives, particularly at this complicated juncture, do not fall into neat narratives.
Fishman balances these accounts of global travel and heroism with compelling portraits of young people simply trying to grow up. They are, after all, young people. They care about appearance, status, friendship and finding their way. We come to appreciate that despite their many different stories, the students of Sullivan are so very human and recognizable. Their struggles – with relationships, bullying, schoolwork, social media, parents – are ones faced by adolescents throughout the US.
The pressures on the teachers and administrators who work at Sullivan are extreme. Refugee High gives a window into their lives and their commitment. Teaching at Sullivan, with high rates of students’ acting out, is not for the faint of heart. The patience and care of the employees is admirable. They are exemplary educators. Fishman does not offer a big-picture view of Chicago Public Schools. Nor does she go deep into the politics of running such a high school. It is important to remember, though, that CPS serves many students who have very difficult childhoods in a city that struggles to provide support to all. There are concerns about safety, trauma, healthy home life and so much more. This is no easy task.
The small window that Elly Fishman opens on the story of refugees is extraordinarily illuminating. Humanizing refugees, making sure that we come to know them as people and not by status, is vital work. The book makes the abstract real. While Refugee High is not about making recommendations, it goes far in offering understanding and appreciation of how we can help. The students deserve our care and consideration.