Chronicling a year in the life of Sullivan High, which has aimed to become the go-to public high school for refugees in the Chicago area, journalist Elly Fishman looks at the highs and lows of teaching kids from 35 different countries who speak 38 different languages. As she follows students from Myanmar, Iraq, Syria, Guatemala, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as their school principal and several teachers and administrative staff, Fishman does a great job bringing the players to life and documenting the pressures from families to marry early, gangs to affiliate, and jobs that provide financial security but eat up study time. Some students will succeed while others will struggle, mirroring the program itself, which is under pressure from a reduction of refugees allowed into the country as part of a former president’s policies. Refugee High is an enlightening and valuable reading experience.— Daniel Goldin
Lit Hub's Most Anticipated of 2021
A year in the life of a Chicago high school that has one of the highest proportions of refugees of any school in the nation
"A wondrous tapestry of stories, of young people looking for a home. With deep, immersive reporting, Elly Fishman pulls off a triumph of empathy. Their tales and their school speak to the best of who we are as a nation--and their struggles, their joys, their journeys will stay with you." --Alex Kotlowitz, author of There Are No Children Here
Winner of the Studs and Ida Terkel Award
For a century, Chicago's Roger C. Sullivan High School has been a home to immigrant and refugee students. In 2017, during the worst global refugee crisis in history, its immigrant population numbered close to three hundred--or nearly half the school--and many were refugees new to the country. These young people came from thirty-five different countries, speaking among themselves more than thirty-eight different languages.
For these refugee teens, life in Chicago is hardly easy. They have experienced the world at its worst and carry the trauma of the horrific violence they fled. In America, they face poverty, racism, and xenophobia, but they are still teenagers--flirting, dreaming, and working as they navigate their new life in America.
Refugee High is a riveting chronicle of the 2017-8 school year at Sullivan High, a time when anti-immigrant rhetoric was at its height in the White House. Even as we follow teachers and administrators grappling with the everyday challenges facing many urban schools, we witness the complicated circumstances and unique education needs of refugee and immigrant children: Alejandro may be deported just days before he is scheduled to graduate; Shahina narrowly escapes an arranged marriage; and Belenge encounters gang turf wars he doesn't understand.
Equal parts heartbreaking and inspiring, Refugee High raises vital questions about the priorities and values of a public school and offers an eye-opening and captivating window into the present-day American immigration and education systems.
About the Author
Elly Fishman worked as a senior editor and writer at Chicago magazine. Her features have won numerous awards including a City Regional Magazine Award for her article "Welcome to Refugee High," her first report on the students and faculty at Chicago's Roger C. Sullivan High School. Refugee High: Coming of Age in America (The New Press) is based on the article, and won the prestigious Studs and Ida Terkel Prize for a first book in the public interest. A Chicago native and graduate of the University of Chicago, Fishman currently lives in Milwaukee with her husband and their dog and teaches in the Journalism Department at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.