When Newcity asked me to interview my daughter, Elly Fishman, in advance of her upcoming book, “Refugee High,” I knew I wanted to ask about the drama in making the book. When Elly talked about her work she related what she was learning about the people she was getting to know. And “Refugee High” focuses so completely on them that I still didn’t know how she got so close to them and on what terms. The book is about refugee students at Chicago’s Roger C. Sullivan High School, which today has one of the highest proportions of refugee students of any high school in America, all from the world’s worst troublespots. Our family also has a history as refugees, and many settled on Chicago’s North Side not far from Sullivan. One of Elly’s grandfathers fled with his parents and siblings from Germany when Nazis threw his brother over a bridge and killed his cousins. Naturally, our whole family has been following Elly’s work at Sullivan closely and getting to know the students, their families and the school staff through the stories she witnessed and collected during her three years of reporting.
As a writer who is the parent of a writer, reading how Elly balances the order and disorder of the diverse, messy, wondrous world of the refugee children at Sullivan into “Refugee High” is transcendent. There are few things more deeply personal than the relationship between a narrative book and reader. Okay, parenthood may be one of them. Yet, for me, one of the great gifts of “Refugee High” is that it connects the lives of a school, a neighborhood and these new Americans into the lives of our family. When Elly’s grandfather, now ninety-three, read the manuscript, he said it brought him back to his first years in America and the school that helped him get his footing. I have to think other readers will feel a deep connection, too.
What was your way into the topic of young refugees?
It goes back to 2017 when Trump was inaugurated. Like many people, I was paying very close attention to the rapid shifts that were happening on a national level, and particularly around immigrants and refugees. One of the first things Trump did was to announce his travel ban on people coming from seven majority-Muslim countries. When I learned about that, I attended a protest at O’Hare Airport in Chicago. I remember riding the Blue Line train to the airport. It was filled with people of all ages and all demographics holding signs. They were coming together to protest this draconian and atrocious policy Trump announced.
Once I arrived at the International Terminal I found over a thousand people chanting, “No one is illegal,” “No Trump, no KKK,” “No fascist USA,” and “We are not terrorists.” I asked myself, not only, who are these people who are rising up around refugees and immigrants, but also who are the refugees and immigrants who are stuck on the other side of these walls and currently held up in immigration? I wanted to know where they go after they land in Chicago? And what are their experiences like? Particularly with refugees, their fate wasn’t really something I had been aware of before.
In particular, I was immediately interested in where young refugees might land, and what school might they end up at. I’ve always really loved reporting out of schools. I think schools are some of the most dynamic, interesting, complicated, exciting places to report about and spend time in. You know, all the world’s joys and sorrows and excitements and fears and hopes land at the doors of school.
Several sources told me that Sullivan High School was the place that had become the neighborhood school for refugee teens. So I just called the school’s front office, and asked if I could talk to the principal. That’s how I met Chad Adams. (He now goes by Chad Thomas.)
And what was your conversation with Chad like?
Chad is an easy person to talk to. He’s from the South, and he has that Southern charm. He’s really open. You talk to him and it’s like you’ve known him forever.
He told me that Sullivan had recently been designated the city’s first newcomer center; the first school that was officially for refugees, but Sullivan was also for asylum-seekers and immigrant students in Chicago. That came about because over the last several years, Chad, along with his staff, have made a really concerted effort to make Sullivan the landing place for refugees in Chicago.
So, this was a second or third act for him, right in Chicago Public Schools?
Yeah, this was, and remains, his first job as principal. He’s still there. He had also been an English teacher before that in a few different public schools. But just before Sullivan, he was vice principal at Harper High School in Englewood.
He was at Harper at a troubled time, right?
He was there when the “This American Life” reporting team spent several months reporting inside the school. One of the biggest challenges at that school was gun violence and the cycle of gun violence. Chad experienced the loss of students as both victims and as perpetrators.
And do you think that kind of loss informed his view of his role as a principal when he got to Sullivan?
Definitely. I mean, when Chad got to Sullivan—this is a big part of the book—he was in the midst of a PTSD episode. He left Harper with a lot of trauma that he was working through himself. And in some ways, I think that made him a very sympathetic leader for a school like Sullivan, where so many students are carrying really heavy burdens and have experienced incredible amounts of trauma before they even walk through the doors. He had an intimate understanding of what it meant to deal with personal trauma and in some ways, was still getting a handle on it himself as he was starting in his role as principal.
Can you say a little bit about his team there that works with these kids?
One person who was important to my reporting, to the story and to the school is Sarah Quintenz. When I started, she played a dual role as a teacher of English Language Learning and as head of the ELL program. She had a lot on her plate.
And there are awesome parts of Sarah’s own history too, which influenced her teaching.
Yes, Sarah was a military kid. She moved close to ten times, I think, before she got to high school. Sarah definitely has an understanding of what it means to be itinerant as a young person and have to start over, build community and adjust to different schools, different settings, different cultures and environments. She did end up living in Rogers Park starting in high school. Her family is still around so she’s deeply connected to the neighborhood. Her mom was a lifelong teacher, so Sarah grew up in a household of educators.
The year before I started my reporting, Sarah had gone through some pretty tough times. She’d separated from her husband and was struggling. And in the book, there’s the story about how, when she took a leave of absence, the students kind of raised her back up and buoyed her in a really beautiful way.
What did you think of that?
Understanding teachers as complicated humans is a huge part of the story because it’s not a savior narrative in any way. It’s not about these teachers saving these kids. I was never interested in telling that kind of story. I was far more interested in showing all the ways in which both teachers and students struggle, support, buoy and challenge each other. I really wanted to emphasize that.
Still, the story of the students is always front-and-center in your book. How did your relationships with the students unfold?
The ethics of reporting around young people, and especially young people with trauma, is something that I thought a lot about. I wanted to be very careful to make sure that the kids felt like they had agency. That they felt comfortable with me. And that they could raise a hand at any time and say, “I’m uncomfortable,” or “I don’t want to do this.” I wanted to make sure that was really clear from the start.
I also didn’t come into the story with any idea of what it was going to be. When I started reporting, I just sat in the back of the classroom for a couple of weeks trying to understand how the school worked. It also gave kids a chance to get familiar with my face and with me. We even did a few exercises to encourage a sense of comfort. One was called “hot seat,” where I sat at the front of the class with a plastic bucket of candy, and kids could ask me any question they wanted. And when they did, their reward was an answer and a piece of candy that I would throw to them.
Sarah also helped me set up lunchtime sessions where kids could come in and just ask me questions or share their stories if they wanted to. And that started to show me who was interested in me, who was interested in what I was doing, and who felt comfortable with it. I didn’t want to push any kid that wasn’t.
Once I started to get a sense of who those kids were, I just started talking to them and not even interviewing them, just talking to them, getting to know them a little bit. I didn’t ask them about the places they fled from, unless they wanted to talk about that. I asked them about who they were in that moment at Sullivan, at school that day. And I told them, they could do the same with me. I wanted them to feel like they could ask me questions, too. It wasn’t a one-way street.
Over time, I took note of who kept coming around to talk to me. And also who I formed a good dynamic with. That was important because we were going to be part of each other’s lives for what ended up being several years and continues to be true even now. I wanted to make sure we could build something together.
How’d you finally choose?
From a narrative perspective, I wanted to have kids from different countries who have different experiences. I ended up following a young guy who’s Congolese, but was born in a refugee camp in Tanzania. He’s “Belenge” in the book. I also changed all the names of the kids in the book to protect them. That way they have the option of whether they want to come forward and identify themselves.
There’s Mariah, who’s from Basra, Iraq. Shahina is from Yangon, the capital of Myanmar. There’s Alejandro, who is not a refugee but is actually an asylum-seeker from Guatemala.
You can tell from this small collection that you just mentioned that this is a very multicultural school.
When Chad invited me to Sullivan, I had no idea what to expect. I spent a lot of time in different Chicago high schools, both public and private, and I had never walked into a school like Sullivan ever. There are thirty-eight languages spoken inside Sullivan. There’s Arabic and Swahili and French and Urdu and Spanish. It’s an incredible soundscape and scene to witness. Over half the school are either immigrants or refugees. You walk down the halls and it’s this amazing mix of global and American fashions. There are groups of girls in hijabs and high-tops, mothers wearing traditional [African] lupita dresses, with their kids and wearing big Beats headphones around their necks and Nike sneakers.
It’s just a really exciting space to walk into. It only took me ten seconds to realize there was absolutely a story here to tell.
In your life, you’ve traveled to a lot of places, been through a lot of international airports and hostels and foreign places. How did it compare even to those?
What was amazing was that this place was in the middle of this residential block in Rogers Park. My husband, your son-in-law, grew up two blocks from there. I’ve spent a lot of time in that mile radius around Sullivan and I had no idea that such a place existed just in the backyard of where my husband grew up. Which, incidentally, is the backyard where we had our wedding brunch.
And yes, I have been really lucky to travel, and I love traveling and immersing myself in different places and cultures—especially foods!—but when I thought about refugees, I thought about these images that so many of us see, which are, you know, people fleeing on boats, people in crowded refugee camps, holding their sick children. Desperate images. They’re important to see, but that was not what I saw at Sullivan. It was a completely different version of the refugee narrative and one that disrupts that image in productive ways.
What is different, what is different from the picture and what you saw?
Well, with the young people… they’re teenagers. They’re flirting, they’re on Snapchat, they’re playing pranks on each other. They’re singing the same K-Pop songs that kids all over the world are singing. K-Pop is definitely the great unifier, by the way. K-Pop and anime.
The kids are making bad jokes, they’re obsessed with boys, or girls, in the next row in their classes. They’re studying for exams, they’re not studying for exams, they’re eating less-than-great cafeteria food. At the same time, you really get a sense of their individual cultures that they’re bringing inside the walls of Sullivan. They’re wonderful and messy, and young and learning, and making mistakes, and also making great decisions. It was just this really kind of beautiful thing to see.
Did you encounter anything that you thought was just so overwhelming that you couldn’t shake it?
I spent a lot of time observing the scenes of Sullivan and in the kind of organic spaces, so the library and the hallway and the cafeteria. That’s where you find what they often call the “soft curriculum.” Or, the kind of lessons in American culture outside of curricular learning. And that’s really where most of the book sits, in those spaces.
For instance, there were a few days when the kids were preparing what they were calling a “Winter Market.” The kids were organizing all these donations from people in the community, including clothes, household goods and pantry items for refugee families to come and take. And when they were together, they just started having fun. They each took turns plugging in their phones and playing their own music and dancing together. They’d pull in kids from other countries and cultures and teach them appropriate footwork.
Those were really special moments. More than anything, coming to understand these individual kids and their stories, and spending so much time with them is what really stuck with me. It’s still in my marrow, in a way.
Can you say a little bit about the families of the kids?
It felt really important to me to understand who their families are. Even if the kids don’t always get along with them, because they are teenagers, and even if there are increasing gulfs between these kids and their parents, I wanted their parents to be part of the story.
I was always surprised by how open and generous their parents were. First of all, almost every time I went over to one of their houses, they would prepare me an elaborate meal. And this is coming from people who have so little but are so incredibly welcoming and generous. And I was very moved by that. And also, really excited to eat all of this amazing homemade food and many, many dishes that I had never encountered before. Oh, boy.
I remember sometimes they would say, “I thought you were bringing your husband,” but it was still food for twenty.
Breaking bread with people is such a wonderful thing. It was a way that they could share their world and their culture with me. For many of these families, so much feels out of their control. They’re not people who necessarily chose to land in the United States. They were forced to flee their countries and don’t get to choose where they end up. Cooking and making their home dishes are a way to share a piece of home.
You know, in no way do I think that “Refugee High” is the definitive story about refugees, or even the particular people that I wrote about in the book. I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity to give these young people a platform to share their stories. And to be part of that is something I feel really privileged to be able to do. I hope it creates space for more stories like theirs to be told.
“Refugee High” will launch with a virtual author event sponsored by the American Writers Museum, August 10 at 6:30pm.
“Refugee High: Coming of Age in America”
By Elly Fishman
The New Press, 288 pages
Ted C. Fishman is a Chicago-based writer and the international best-selling author of “China, Inc.” and “Shock of Gray.” His books appear in twenty-seven languages. In addition to Newcity, the many publications he’s written for include The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, GQ, National Geographic, Harper’s, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Chicago Magazine and Chicago Reader.