book excerpt

How one word bound together a classroom of Denver high school students learning a new language — and a new country

Eddie Williams's classroom at Denver's South High School (photo provided by Helen Thorpe).

Eddie Williams felt a sense of kinship with students who struggled to determine their place in American society. The English Language Acquisition teacher had been born in a tiny border town in southern California. His mother had grown up nearby, in a Spanish-speaking household. Her parents had immigrated from Mexico, and when she was a child, Mr. Williams’s mother had learned English in ELA classes. For her, the experience had been searing. As an adult, she had not taught her children Spanish, for fear they would encounter the sort of virulent prejudice she had experienced in school. When her children were small, she did not even share with them the complete story of her own background, because of the degree of prejudice toward those of Mexican descent. She had married an American, and when her children were small, they believed they were Anglo.

    This is an excerpt from the new book, “The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship, and Hope in an American Classroom,” by Denver journalist and author Helen Thorpe.

One day, while we were standing on the front steps of South, chatting about his background, Eddie Williams recalled that when his mother had finally revealed her Mexican identity, his sister had cried. In her mind, to be Mexican was to be dirty or unlovable. It was not something she wanted to be. Although he did not say so, I thought perhaps he, too, might have struggled to embrace fully the part of himself that had been treated as inferior by white society. I could see why teaching the beginner level ELA class to newcomer students at South High School might make him feel more whole.

With the advent of spring, as more and more interactions were taking place, I found myself able appreciate in an entirely new fashion how all of the different languages represented in the room converged in ways I had not previously recognized. I glimpsed this convergence one afternoon in the middle of April, when I was sitting with Shani, Jakleen, and Mariam, who had teamed up to work together. They were talking about a book that Mr. Williams had started reading out loud with the class. The book was called Cesar Chavez: Fighting for Farmworkers, and it was a nonfiction graphic novel, told in cartoon strips.

For Mr. Williams, the story of Cesar Chavez held tremendous power. He got a little emotional, trying to explain the significance of this guy his students had never heard of—trying to put into words why Cesar Chavez mattered. At one point, as I was listening to Shani, Jakleen, and Mariam discuss a poster they were making about the book, I found myself wondering how the three girls were managing to communicate. Shani spoke Tajik, Russian, and a little Farsi, while Jakleen and Mariam were Arabic speakers—in other words, they did not share a common language. Yet they seemed to understand one another, and they were not using Google Translate, nor were they speaking in English. How were they interacting? I could hear all three of them saying the word kitab. What was that? “Book!” Shani told me. “My language, their language, same.”

In their home languages, the word for “book” was virtually identical. In Arabic, it was kitab; in Tajik, kitob. In Turkish, it was kitap, Jakleen pointed out, and in Farsi, Shani hastened to add, the word was kitab, just like Arabic. Initially, I thought this kind of convergence existed only in the Middle East, but as I spent more time with students from Africa, I came to realize my mistake. Dilli told me that that in Kunama, the word for “book” was kitaba, and Methusella said in Swahili it was kitabu. That was the moment when I grasped my own arrogance as an English speaker. I mean, the arrogance harbored by someone who knew only European languages, which rendered the well-laced interconnectedness of the rest of the world invisible. I was starting to see it, though—the centuries-old ties that bound Africa and the Middle East, born of hundreds of years of trade and travel and conquest and marriage. Once the students grasped that I would exclaim with delight if they found a word that had moved through many of their countries, they started coming to me to share loanwords and cognates. More than one-third of Swahili comes from Arabic, meaning the links between those two languages are as powerful as those between English and Spanish, but it was also possible to chart the reach of Arabic across the African continent, into Kunama and Tigrinya as well.

Helen Thorpe

As the kids began to discover these commonalities, I began to feel as though I was watching something like the living embodiment of a linguistic tree. The classroom and the relationships forming in it were almost a perfect map of language proximity around the globe. Generally, students chose to communicate most with students whose home languages shared large numbers of cognates with their own, which meant their first friendships often developed along language groupings. As this took place around me, I could see my own position on the world’s tree of languages more clearly. English speakers can easily grasp the vast coterminology of all the Indo-European languages—our own limb of the global language tree—but we are generally deaf and dumb to the equally large influence of Arabic, or Chinese, or Hindi across parts of the globe where English does not dominate. And we cannot hear or see the equally significant coterminology that has resulted among various other language families, such as between the Arabic and the African languages. It was to our detriment, not understanding how tightly interwoven other parts of the world are. When we make enemies in the Middle East, for example, we alienate whole swaths of Africa, too—often without knowing.

Qalb was the word that the students wanted to teach me about most of all. One day over lunch, Shani got very puppylike about this concept, bouncing around in her chair as we were sitting with Rahim, Jakleen, and Mariam. “Qalb! My language, qalb! Arabic, qalb! Farsi, qalb!” Shani announced. Okay, I thought, I get it; they’ve found another cognate. But what was qalb? “Qalb means ‘heart,’” Rahim explained. “This word, it is the same in all our languages.” I tried to get a better sense of this concept, which the students and I discussed over a series of days, first with Rahim and later with Ghasem. Could you say that their English Language Acquisition teacher, Mr. Williams, had a qalb that pumped blood through his body? Yes, Ghasem confirmed. Could you ask, “How much qalb did it take for Mr. Williams to do this, year after year, with such infinite patience, for room after room of newcomers?” Yes, the students agreed. When two people fell in love—was that qalb again? Yes.

I left South High School that day thinking that qalb and heart were one and the same. I used one word to refer to a muscle in my body and the concept of falling in love and the idea of what it takes to raise a family or to teach an entire classroom full of teenagers from all around the world, and the students from the Middle East would use one single word for all of that, too. Qalb and heart seemed identical. Then I looked up qalb on Google Translate one weekend, while the kids were missing me and I was missing the kids. When I asked Google to translate “heart” into Arabic, it gave qalb, as expected. But when I asked Google to translate qalb into English, I got transformation, conscience, core, marrow, pith, pulp, gist, essence, quintessence, topple, alter, flip, tip, overturn, reversal, overthrow, capsize, whimsical, capricious, convert, counterfeit. In addition, the word meant: substance, being, pluck.

I am in love with this word, I thought. What is all this movement about? My own concept of heart did not include flip, capsize, or reverse. Our two cultures did not seem to have the same idea of what was happening at the core of our beings. There was something reified and stolid about my sense of heart, whereas the idea of heart that these kids possessed appeared to have a lighter, more nimble quality. Whatever it was, qalb seemed more fluid and less constrained than anything I had imagined happening inside of me.

Newcomers

Trump’s immigration policies leave empty seats at an Indianapolis school

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Amanda Clayton with a student in the Indianapolis Public Schools newcomer program.

When the Indianapolis Public Schools newcomer program opened its doors last year, there was a burst of enrollment, with new students trickling in throughout the year.

But with the Trump administration’s months-long ban on refugee admissions, the school — and the students it serves — are facing new challenges this year. Fewer students than expected are enrolling in the program, and many of the families at the school are living in fear of deportation.

“We felt like kids were coming out of the woodwork because this place had been built for them,” said Amanda Clayton, who runs the program. Now, she said, “I feel like a lot of our families are having to go back into the shadows.”

The changed circumstances of the newcomers program — the district’s attempt at making immigrant children feel more welcome, as well as improving their chances of success in the system — is a reflection of how much the immigration picture in the United States has shifted since the election of President Trump. For some, it is a window into the lives of immigrant children and their families at a time when the country is riven over how wide to open its doors and what to do with those already here.

The newcomer program is designed to help students who are new to the United States acclimate and learn English before transitioning to other IPS schools. Most of the students are Spanish speaking immigrants and asylum seekers, but a large minority are refugees from around the globe. Now in its second year, the campus added elementary grades this year, expanding to include students in 3rd to 9th grades.

The program prepared for up to 300 children, Clayton said, but this year enrollment has been slower than staff expected. Currently, it has 160 students. (It admits new students throughout the year, however, and its enrollment has grown by about 42 children since July.)

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Students in the Indianapolis Public Schools newcomer program finger paint.

It’s hard to predict enrollment at the school because it depends heavily on immigration to the city, Clayton said. There are other reasons behind the low enrollment, she said, such as lower than expected interest in the elementary program because many families are happy with neighborhood schools. But one of the most significant reasons enrollment is unexpectedly low is because there are far fewer refugees resettling in Indianapolis.

Since President Trump took office, the number of refugees admitted to the U.S. has plummeted. From January through September 2017, about 28,000 refugees were admitted to the country — fewer than half the number that were admitted during the same period in 2016, according to State Department data.

The decline in refugees coming to Indianapolis steepened this summer when the administration stopped processing new refugee applications, said Elizabeth Standiford, director of development and communications for Exodus Refugee Immigration of Indianapolis. Although some refugees were still allowed in the country, resettlements in Indianapolis fell drastically, she said. Last October, for example, Exodus resettled 164 refugees. During the same month this year, the agency resettled just seven people.

In an interview in September, Jessica Feeser, who oversees English language learning for IPS, said she expected to see enrollment grow again with the admission of more refugees to the U.S.

“When that, hopefully, ban is lifted, we will be able to welcome families to IPS,” she said, referring to the halt on refugee processing. “I think this is temporary.”

In fact, President Trump lifted the suspension on admitting new refugees on Oct. 24. But the administration is imposing additional restrictions on refugees from 11 countries, and it has also drastically lowered the number of refugees it plans to admit.

It’s unclear how those changes will affect Indianapolis or the newcomer program. Exodus is expecting the number of refugees resettled in the city to remain relatively low over the next few months, Standiford said.

“We don’t really know how quickly the program will get going again with the new restrictions,” she added. “We have the worst refugee crisis the world has ever seen, right, and the U.S. has pulled back on welcoming refugees.”

Since Trump took office in January, the administration has waged a campaign to reduce immigration to the U.S., arguing, among other things, that public safety and jobs for natural born Americans are at stake. Much of the resistance also has been focused on concerns about public spending for immigrants, particularly those who have entered the country illegally.

Indiana politicians have supported similar positions in recent years, including under the governorship of Mike Pence, who is Trump’s vice-president. In 2015, Pence refused to resettle Syrian refugees in Indiana, a move that was blocked by a federal appeals court following a case brought by Exodus. In 2011, state lawmakers barred governmental bodies from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

The newcomer school, however, has not been the focus of vocal criticism. Several state lawmakers who have introduced legislation to prevent education institutions from becoming “sanctuary” campuses declined to comment on the program.

In contrast to state policymakers, Indianapolis leaders have vocally welcomed immigrants. The IPS school board approved the newcomer program unanimously, and it has passed two resolutions in support of undocumented students over the last eight months. That support has also been financial: Despite the lower than expected enrollment in the newcomer program this year, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee has maintained the school’s funding and staff.

The support the program has gotten from the district sends a message to the community, Clayton said, including, “We are not going to close our doors on this population.”

But many families are still afraid, Clayton said. Once they turn 18, students seeking asylum in the U.S. routinely come to school with ankle bracelets so immigration officials can monitor their location. One mother’s children missed several days of school because she was unsure where the bus stop was, and she was afraid to leave her home to find it.

“Last week, one of our student’s dads, he was deported,” she said during an interview in September. “She didn’t know that day that she was going to go home and that was going to be the case.”

But despite the challenges that federal immigration policy has imposed on the newcomer program’s families and staff, the slow start to the school year had advantages, Clayton said. Classes were smaller (about 15 students per class in high school), so it was easier to show students how the school works. Teachers were able to get their bearings.

As Clayton walked through the school on a Friday in September, the halls were quiet and calm. But inside classrooms, students were boisterous and friendly.

When Clayton walked through a high school advisory period, students clustered around her to show off their grades. Many of the students at the school aren’t familiar with grades, so the teachers use emojis to help translate which are good.

“B is good?” one boy asked Clayton. “Yes,” she said. “A B is good. Yes.”

The school is designed to be small, so staff can build close relationships with students. And as Clayton walks through classes, it’s clear that she knows what’s going on with most of the teens. She knows why the students came to the U.S., who they are living with, and where they used to go to school.

Clayton comes across another boy who started at the newcomer program last year. His grades jumped this year, she said.

“This is amazing,” she told him. “I’m really proud of you”

The atmosphere is a contrast with the high schools where these students would likely enroll if they were not in the newcomer program, said Katherine Hinkle, a literacy coach at the school. Hinkle used to teach at Northwest High School, a large, traditional IPS campus that serves many newcomer students. The campus wasn’t equipped to support those teens, she said.

At newcomer, students can get personal attention and slowly acclimate to school in America, she said.

“Kids are coming in and this is their first impression of school in the United States,” she said. “The culture is automatically, ‘everyone works. Everyone tries. It’s O.K. to make mistakes. This is how we do things.’ ”

Newcomers

Pulitzer-Prize winning author tells Indianapolis students a story some know well — of the dangerous journey from Central America to the U.S.

PHOTO: Courtesy: javier Barrera Cervantes, IPS newcomer program
Sonia Nazario signed copies of her book Enrique’s Journey, adapted from a newspaper series, at an event Monday.

For some of the students that heard Sonia Nazario speak at Shortridge High School Monday, the story she told of children making a perilous trip on the roofs and sides of freight trains to reach their parents in America was all too familiar.

Nazario wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper series, Enrique’s Journey, about a boy who traveled alone from Honduras to the United States to reunite with his mother.

“Several children today after my talk came up to me and said, ‘I made the exact same journey as Enrique,’” said Nazario, who also discussed her reporting with an audience of educators and community members Monday evening at an event hosted by Indianapolis Public Schools.

“These kids … are hunted like animals all the way as they migrate north through Mexico,” Nazario said. “There are people who are trying to rob them, rape them, beat them, deport them — all the way as they travel north.”

When IPS opened a newcomer program this year, dedicated to educating children who are new to the country and just learning English, enrollment quickly ballooned with teens who traveled alone from Central America. Chalkbeat spent a day with one student who fled gang violence in Honduras to reunite with her mother in Indianapolis.

Nazario highlighted the Indianapolis newcomer school as one example of how the district is helping kids adjust to America.

“I love newcomer schools,” Nazario said. “Those schools allow kids recently arrived to spend a year with other new arrivals, so that they can get their feet under them.”

Teenagers often make the journey to the U.S. to reconnect with parents who left them in their home countries when they were infants or young children, and Nazario called on educators to help parents and children talk about these painful years of separation.

“If there’s one thing as educators you take away from today, you must bring these parents and kids together to discuss this,” she said. “Until they do, (children) are so red with rage towards their parents, they cannot do anything else. They cannot focus on their studies.”