Few schools can say the demographics of their student body are directly impacted by the biggest international news.
But that’s the norm at Sullivan High, the North Side school nicknamed “Refugee High” for the high number of students from families that have been forced to flee their homelands due to conflict or political upheavals.
The Rogers Park school has students that hail from more than 50 countries and speak more than 40 languages.
As Chicago Public School students return to class this week, WBEZ’s Reset spoke with Elly Fishman, who first reported on Sullivan for Chicago Magazine in 2017. That reporting evolved into the newly-released book, Refugee High: Coming of Age in America.
“I went to high school in Chicago. I’d reported out of schools for many years, and I had never stepped into a school like Sullivan before,” Fishman said. “[The book has] been four years in the making, so it’s amazing to … finally get to share these incredible stories that I witnessed.”
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
How did you first come to write about Sullivan High School?
I first visited Sullivan shortly after Donald Trump was inaugurated. He had announced a travel ban from seven majority Muslim countries, and I had attended a protest at O’Hare Airport where thousands of people gathered to protest these draconian new executive orders.
And I wondered, “Who are these refugees landing in Chicago, and what community do they enter? What community do they build?” I’ve always been interested in stories of young people, so I looked for their schools, and I was quickly pointed towards Sullivan in Rogers Park on the North Side.
The first time I walked into the building, I was completely in awe. There are 40 languages spoken at Sullivan, so it was this wall of incredible sound from Rohingya to Arabic to Swahili, Spanish, and the walls are covered with flags from around the globe. There are fashions from around the globe, young women wearing hijabs with high tops, colors from every flag you can imagine. And I thought, “There’s definitely a story here, and I want to figure out what it is.”
In your book, you focus on four kids at the school. Why was it important for readers to get to know them first as individuals, before learning about the troubles and burdens they’re carrying?
Before I ever even sat down to talk to them about their flight or their trauma or the difficult things that they had experienced, I wanted to know who [these students] were at school, who they were as teenagers, what kitten videos they were watching … what music they were listening to. What was the latest gossip? Who did they have crushes on?
That felt really important because so many of the stories we read about refugees really do focus on trauma. And I wanted to tell a story that focused on resilience, how multifaceted these young people are, and how much hope there is in their journeys and in those stories. While trauma is part of what they are carrying and how they move through the world — and it’s an incredibly important element in their lives — it doesn’t define them.
How did you navigate the language barrier as you spoke with students and their families?
[In the book] I follow four different students: one from Guatemala, one from Iraq, one from the Congo and one from Myanmar. So if I couldn’t communicate with them, even on a somewhat basic level, I would require a fleet of translators with me at all times and that felt really intrusive.
I focused on students who I could communicate with because I really wanted to have relationships with them. I wanted them to feel like they had agency in this process, and they could understand what I was doing and what the final goal was.
When it came to working with their families, I did often need translators. Many of the translators themselves came to Chicago as refugees, had their own incredible stories and were excited to meet these younger refugees, these families, to connect with them and connect them to the Chicago community. I felt really lucky that was part of the process of reporting this book.
It’s hard to forget the life these students were fleeing. How did you grapple with their personal stories as you were hearing them?
They stick with you, you know, the stories I heard inside the walls at Sullivan and in people’s homes. They’re in my marrow now; I carry them with me, and I will forever.
But in many ways, I’m so grateful for that because it makes me a more empathetic person. It makes me understand my community better, and it allows me to then share those stories with others. That’s why I wrote this book, because I feel like these are the stories that need to be heard. These young people are so incredible, and so are the adults working with them inside Sullivan. They’re complex, and they’re messy, and they’re wonderful, and they’re deeply, deeply human, as we all are.
What did you learn in the process?
These are the new Americans. These are the next generation. These kids are going to be an incredible generation of Americans who are multilingual, who are multifaceted, who are going to do incredible things. We’re so lucky to have these young people here, and we’re going to be a better country because they’re here.