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SunLit Interviews

SunLit interview: Author Helen Thorpe

The author's experience as the daughter of Irish immigrants provided the impetus for this intimate look at a classroom of refugees

Helen Thorpe

The author’s powerful and moving work describes how refugee students at a Denver public high school learn English and become Americans in the care of a compassionate teacher. “The Newcomers” follows the lives of 22 immigrant teenagers throughout the course of the 2015–2016 school year as they land at South High School in Denver, in an English Language Acquisition class created specifically for them. These newcomers, from 14 to 19 years old, come from nations beset by all manner of catastrophe. 

Helen Thorpe was born in London to Irish parents and grew up in New Jersey. Her journalism has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, New York magazine, The New Yorker, Slate, and Harper’s Bazaar. Her radio stories have aired on This American Life and Sound Print. She is also the author of Just Like Us and Soldier Girls and lives in Denver.

What inspired you to write this book?

My parents. They emigrated to this country in 1965, when I was one. I grew up in the United States with a green card. Every night when we were little, my mother told us stories as we were going to sleep. All of her stories were about growing up on a dairy farm in rural Ireland. For example, she was loaned out to a neighboring farm belonging to her aunt for two years, so that she could do all the chores there, because her aunt had no children of her own. We heard that story over and over. And many others that illustrated how different life had been for her, before moving to the U.S.

Thanks to my mother’s stories, and my parents heritage, and the fact that they took us back to Ireland every other summer while we were growing up, I identify strongly with fellow immigrants. I wanted to write The Newcomers to give refugee families back their humanity, which was being taken away from them in the toxic nature of the public debate over the questions about whether to continue our longstanding refugee resettlement program. The hope was by telling individual stories of students gathered in one English Language Acquisition classroom, that American readers might learn more about the rest of the globe.


Who are your favorite authors and/or characters?

Favorite authors: George Orwell, Lillian Ross, J. Anthony Lukas, Ted Conover, Susan Sheehan, Ian Frazier, Susan Orlean, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc.

Why did you choose this excerpt to feature in SunLit?

This is the opening chapter of the book, and it introduces the reader to Eddie Williams, the teacher who worked with the newcomer students at South High School during the year that I spent there, observing his classroom. The students are shell-shocked, lonely, and confused at the start of the book, as they have just arrived in the US and they don’t yet know much English. It’s a very hard time for them. By the end of the book, they are filled with exuberance and joy and behaving like teenagers behave all over the world, but at the start of the year, they are frightened and alone. I hope the reader can identify with their struggle.


What was the most fun or rewarding part of working on this book?

Getting to spend time with refugee families in their homes was the most rewarding part of working on this book. Two families in particular took me into their homes on a regular basis. One family was from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the other was from Iraq. Those are the top two senders of refugees to the United States. I learned so much from spending time with the parents and siblings of Eddie Williams students—their generosity to me was extraordinary. They fed me meals every time I came to visit, even though they had very little money and were struggling to live on poverty-level budgets. They also shared their stories, their hopes, and their fears. As hard as it was for the students to learn English while at South, it was even harder for their parents to master that language, and we spoke with the help of interpreters. Their parents were making enormous sacrifices, working incredibly hard at difficult jobs (washing dishes, working in factories, cleaning hotels, working in meat-packing plants) so their children could graduate from high school and have a better life.


What was the most difficult section to write in this book? Why?

After spending a year in Eddie Williams’ classroom, I traveled to the DRC and to Uganda, to visit the Kyangwali Refugee Settlement where two of his students had lived previously. It was an important trip and I worked hard to capture what I witnessed while I was there. It was important to describe the settlement in a way that would help readers understand that the people living there had experienced tremendous hardship but were also resilient, capable, and possessed all kinds of potential. I didn’t want readers to underestimate the internal strength of the residents of Kyangwali, simply because they had lived through armed conflict and had wound up displaced. I met extraordinary people while I was there and I tried to convey this as best I could to readers who might not ever have the chance to visit a refugee settlement themselves.

What was one interesting fact you learned while researching this book?

Few people living in the United States understand that when we invaded Iraq, we precipitated the Iraqi refugee crisis. And that in turn tipped off the Syrian refugee crisis. In fact, many refugees from Iraq lived through the Iraq War and then fled to Syria, only to experience the Syrian Civil War as well. They are double refugees, in essence. This was true for two students in Eddie Williams room. I believe this country was responsible for their double displacements, by our actions in starting these related conflicts in the Middle East. War impoverishes people and it upends society, and so after we invaded Iraq, and precipitated the Syrian Civil War, we essentially destroyed the educational systems in both of those countries. The story of the Iraqi students illustrates this, for they were no longer able to go to school, after conflict broke out in Damascus. But Americans don’t really know that we have caused an entire generation of young people in the Middle East to be unable to attend school. We are not much aware of our own responsibility in their un-schooling.

What project are you working on next?

I am writing essays about immigrants and refugees and about my own family. I hope these essays can be published as a collection. At the moment, I’m writing about an undocumented mother who lives here in Denver. She is a single mom and she works harder than anybody I have ever met. I think she is heroic. I’m trying to celebrate her strength and her devotion to her son, and am also trying to show how invisible she is in our society, how unknown and how unheralded. Those of us with legal status overlook people like her all the time. I made that mistake myself, early in our friendship, and I try to describe my own incapacity to see her well at first.

Buy: “The Newcomers” at Book Bar.
Excerpt: “The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship and Hope in America”

Produced in collaboration with the Colorado Book Awards, a program of Colorado Humanities & Center for the Book. Learn more at coloradohumanities.org.