Back when I worked with kids and families, I found myself doing a lot of things I’d never really imagined myself doing. One morning I tracked down a kid who hadn’t made it to school on time again — he’d been homeless for months, living with extended family, friends, and occasionally a girlfriend’s family. I had to explain that he needed to leave his jacket in my car or find another coat, because he reeked of marijuana, and I knew someone at school would have to deal with it if he walked in the door with it on. He couldn’t even smell it, but it was strong. He claimed, and I believed him at the time, that his older cousin’s friends were smoking the night before, and he’d slept on the couch in his coat because he didn’t have anywhere else to go. I knew the coat would mean time out of class, which was the last thing he needed at that point in his school career, so on the way to school on the opposite side of town, he had to figure out what to do. This wasn’t even an unusual occurrence back then; every day had some kind of surprise for me.
Before that job, I’d worked with a program that offered English classes and outreach services to immigrant and refugee families. There were surprises like that there, too. I worried about some of the older ladies who came to class without winter coats, wearing flip flops when it was 15 degrees outside. I felt so happy the day one of my favorites came in wearing tube socks with her flip flips – it wasn’t great, but it was so much better.
Why mention these things now? Reading The Newcomers made me relive many moments in those jobs. Being poor and/or a refugee or immigrant is something many of us cannot relate to without some work. Sometimes we’re closer to financial ruin than we might like, but we don’t often imagine navigating our lives in another country with different rules and a completely different language as well.
What makes this book even more powerful is that the central characters are teenagers, kids who have just arrived after traumatic, frightening things have invaded their lives because they’re in the “wrong” group or in the wrong place at the wrong time. We expect them and their families to just take whatever hope they have left and spin it into gold, and they should be able to do that within 90 days, too, if they’re a refugee.
Most of the kids have loving families who support them even as they struggle. They also have amazing teachers and school staff who organize volunteers and donations and go out of their way to help kids, so there are a lot of successes, small and big. The Newcomers chronicles a year in one school, which gives us a nice picture of how much change happens in that time for a small group of kids if they are lucky enough to land in the right place. There are a lot of questions left unanswered and challenges to be faced at the end of the book, but there’s still hope. Definitely worth a look.
The Newcomers: finding refuge, friendship, and hope in the American classroom by Helen Thorpe