nonfiction

Book Review: Refugee High: Coming of Age in America by Elly Fishman

It was a segment on NPR that clued me in to the existence of Refugee High: Coming of Age in America by Elly Fishman (New Press, 2021). Located about forty-five minutes from me, Roger C. Sullivan High School in Chicago, the focus of this book, has one of the highest populations of immigrant and refugee students in the country. It’s a fascinating place, and the author gave a wonderful interview. As soon as I parked my car in the grocery store parking lot, I grabbed my phone and smashed that ‘want-to-read’ button on the Goodreads app.

For an entire schoolyear, author Elly Fishman followed the students and teachers and administrators of Roger C. Sullivan High School in Chicago. Increasingly known as a school that serves a population of immigrants and refugees, its students hail from thirty-five countries and speak at least thirty-eight languages. These students have been through and are still experiencing immeasurable trauma; they and their families are struggling to adjust to not only a new language, a new culture, and a new country, but also brand-new dangers in the form of gangs and street violence. Their setting may have changed, but often the levels of the students’ stress has stayed the same, or worse, increased.

While Ms. Fishman focuses on just a small handful of students and professionals at the school, it’s easy to see both the determination and the dedication of both, and the difficulties they all face. The increasingly hostile-to-refugees political climate has absolutely affected the school; fears are up, both for the safety of the students and for the funding that allows the school to stay open, continue to improve, and best serve their population of new Americans. It’s an incredible look into a world few long-time Americans often aren’t aware of, though they all should be.

What an amazing book. At times, it’s heartbreaking; the students have already been through so much before even arriving in America, and more often than not, their lives here continue to be terribly unstable, with poverty, family violence, and insane amounts of stress affecting everything. And with Chicago having the problems it does with guns and gang violence, this bleeds into the lives of these students. With great respect and humility, Ms. Fishman documents their stories, the ups, the downs, the pain, the joys. This can’t have been an easy task, but it’s a masterful account, and respectful every step of the way.

I’m so grateful to authors like Ms. Fishman, who take us as readers into places we would never get to see otherwise. In Refugee High, we sit with students struggling with the language, communicating with each other via Google translate, fearful of the gangs that roam their streets and are targeting them, engaging in a tug-of-war between cultures, between the person they want to be and the person their parents are demanding they become. With all the refugee crises raging across the world, it’s imperative that we develop a better understand of why they’re here and what they go through when they arrive. Refugee High is an incredible look into the world of teenage refugees and what it takes to help them integrate into their new world.

Such a wonderful book. Highly recommended.

Visit Elly Fishman’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: Refugee High: Coming of Age in America by Elly Fishman

    1. It’s SO good. I also really enjoy reading books that are local-ish to me. There’s not a ton of books that are set in Chicago or about the Chicago area (or at least, far fewer than I would expect), so it’s always really neat to be able to read about places I know. 🙂

      Like

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