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New Book Highlights Chicago's Refugee High School Students

Refugee High
Cover of Refugee High

Journalist Elly Fishman’s new nonfiction book, Refugee High: Coming of Age in America, documents the experiences of four teenagers and educators from Roger C. Sullivan High School in Chicago. More than half of the students at Sullivan High School are refugees or immigrants — arriving from places like Iraq and Guatemala.

Refugee High is an expansion of a story that Fishman wrote about the school in 2017. Over the course of three years, Fishman created relationships with Sullivan students and staff, and eventually put their experiences into words.

Fishman recounts what inspired her book: "You know, in Sullivan there are three dozen languages spoken, kids come from 35 different countries, and I had spent a lot of time in different schools across CPS (Chicago Public Schools) and Chicago and I never walked into a school like Sullivan. So, immediately I knew there was a story there, and I didn't yet know what it was, but I knew I had to figure it out."

Sarah Quintenz is the English Language Department lead at Sullivan High School, and she sees first hand how students navigate and manage the challenges of being a refugee student, trying to transition into American life. "A lot of it has to do with the cultures colliding with their home life, with their school life, or their U.S. life with their home country life, and the traditions and customs and everything that they've known, growing up suddenly, is erased or replaced by American culture and American expectations," Quintenz explains.

Nur is a recent graduate from Sullivan High School. Nur explains how Sullivan High School helped her learn English: "So, like being an ESL (English as a Second Language) student for me, I'm not ashamed, ESL ... really helped a lot. ... I've been there and unable to speak any English. Then I joined ESL class. After a few months, I started speaking with English, you know, instead of speaking with my body languages, so it's really helpful."

Fishman recognizes that she had to build trust with the students as well, "You know, with Nur, for example, when I met her, I thought she was so cool," she says. "And I really wanted to interview her, but she made it very clear that she wasn't ready. So that's all I needed to hear, you know, and when students told me something like that, it wasn't a question for me whether I should push them to be comfortable."

As a former student, Nur remembers how Sullivan High School made her feel. "Sullivan is just not a school, it is like a part of family too. When I come to United States, I don't really know how to figure out how my school life is gonna be, how people gonna treat me, anything. But when I went to serve in high school, I don't feel like I'm a stranger there, you know?"

Mallory Cheng joined WUWM as a producer for Lake Effect in 2021.
Kobe Brown is WUWM's Eric Von fellow.
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