Refugee High: Coming of Age in America opens in September 2017. It’s the first day of school at Sullivan High School in Chicago. Mariah, a sophomore from Basra, Iraq, picks out an outfit. Chad Adams, the school’s principal, closes his eyes after he wakes up and repeats a mantra to himself: I am calm. I am calm. I am calm. Alejandro, a senior from Guatemala seeking asylum in the United States, carefully combs his sweeping pompadour into place. Belenge, a sophomore from a refugee camp in Tanzania, starts his first class unable to fully grasp the English that his teachers speak.
These are just a few of the wide range of students and teachers that make up Sullivan, one of the most migrant-heavy high schools in the nation. Roughly half of its students were from another country in 2017 with over 38 languages spoken between them.
Refugee High’s author Elly Fishman lives in Milwaukee and teaches journalism at UW-Milwaukee (and, full disclosure, has written for Milwaukee Magazine). She chronicles the lives of four of these refugee students, their families and their teachers over the 2017-18 school year. The chapters are broken into sections, each following one of the subjects. You learn about their backgrounds, what brought them to America, and the difficulties, both predictable and unexpected, they deal with now that they’re here.
Early on in the book, a shooting involving one of the Congolese refugee students leaves the school shaken. The repercussions effect classmates and staff alike and reflect a city and nation struggling with issues of immigration, crime and education.
Fishman has crafted a compelling and thought-provoking narrative in the mold of the great works of longform, literary journalism, like J. Anthony Lukas’ Common Ground or Matthew Desmond’s Milwaukee-based Evicted. She brings her subjects to life through deep, close reporting – from morning routines and homework troubles to frantic hospital visits and life-changing asylum hearings. The strong novel-like pacing keeps the story engaging throughout, and the weight of the issues it addresses leaves readers thinking about the book long after it’s done.