Dozens of refugees attend Chicago’s Sullivan High, where hijabs are as common as high-tops, said Elly Fishman. Teachers say the presence of so many foreign-born students has given the once failing school a new purpose.
Learning to be Americans
SARAH QUINTENZ IS running late. She is due in the front office for a new student enrollment, but first she needs to find someone who speaks Arabic. Second period has just ended, so the teacher scans the crowded hallway outside her first-floor classroom. Finally, she spots a Syrian-born student down the corridor. She shouts to him, telling him to follow her to the office.
When they get there, a small crowd has already gathered. At the center stands 14-year-old Mohammad Naser. Quintenz doesn’t know the particulars of his story, just that he and his family fled Iraq. They have been in the United States for all of three weeks. He is flanked by an older brother and a 4-year-old sister, who can’t stop giggling. A representative of the refugee resettlement agency Heartland Alliance accompanies them.
“Hi. How are you?” Quintenz asks.
Mohammad smiles, bewildered. Quintenz plows ahead: “Are you nervous? Scared?”
The Syrian student begins to translate, but Quintenz cuts him off: “I need to know if he speaks any English.”
It only takes a few seconds to assess that Mohammad doesn’t. “He’s 1A,” Quintenz proclaims to the school counselor nearby.
The conversation continues, Quintenz relying on the Syrian student and Daniel Rizk, an AmeriCorps tutor conversant in Arabic, to translate. “Tell him it’s really important that he get here right at 8 a.m.,” Quintenz says. “Actually, tell him to get here at 7:50.”
The next several minutes are spent showing Mohammad his two uniforms—a T-shirt and a polo with the school’s logo— the Wi-Fi password, and his schedule. Something makes Mohammad and the Syrian boy laugh. “See? They’re already friends,” Quintenz says to no one in particular. She then asks if Mohammad has a ride to school tomorrow. “We need to make sure he has a way here, because we’re filled up on students getting lost on their first day.”
Quintenz says her goodbyes, and as she’s leaving, Mohammad turns to Rizk and asks him a question in Arabic. Rizk points to the insignia on the tile floor. “Sullivan,” he answers. “This is Sullivan High School.”
If Sullivan High School had a motto, it would be “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Its immigrant population now numbers close to 300—45 percent of the school’s 641 students— and many are refugees new to this country.
This academic year alone, the school in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood has welcomed a staggering 89 refugees—nearly three times as many as last year and far more than any other high school in the city. The recent surge, fueled in part by an influx of Syrians, has turned the school into a global melting pot, with 38 countries and more than 35 languages represented. The third most common language, after English and Spanish, spoken at Sullivan? Swahili.
How Sullivan got to this point is a fascinating story of a school that not long ago was struggling for survival. When Chad Adams stepped in as principal in 2013, the school had been on academic probation for eight years running, its four-year graduation rate hovered at a woeful 54 percent, classrooms were barely half full, and violent incidents were common. “It was a place you wouldn’t want to send your kids,” says Adams, 40.
But when Adams first walked through the school’s doors that July, he ran into a group of students participating in a summer program for refugees. “I had never really met kids from all over the world before,” he says. “You get to know these kids and you see that they have an appreciation for a free education that sometimes Americans take for granted. It was really profound to me.”
He filed that experience away and spent his first year observing how the school operated. He noticed a large number of older kids who were regular no-shows. So at the end of his first year, he pushed them out, moving them to alternative schools and GED programs. “What’s your motivation to come to school as an 18-year-old with three credits? Your motivation is to hang out and mess around.”
Since Chicago Public Schools had already allocated funds based on projected enrollment, Adams now had some extra cash to play with. He decided to pour it into the school’s English Language Learner program (ELL), designed for refugees and other immigrants who speak little or no English. In essence, he was creating a new mission for the school.
Still, keeping up with shifts in refugee populations presents a constant challenge for Adams and his staff. New foreign conflicts create new crops of students. What worked for a heavily Bhutanese population (there were some 90 such students in the school when Adams took over) may not work with Syrian kids. “We’re struggling a little bit in the sense that I don’t know exactly how to manage this, but when you see a number like that going up, you know you have to do something,” says Adams. “There is no other place in the world that is doing what we are doing. I mean, this is like what America might be in 50 years.”
AS STUDENTS TRICKLE in just before 12:30 p.m., Sarah Quintenz’s classroom is a cacophony of languages— Arabic, French, Rohingya, Swahili, Urdu. Nearly every inch of wall is covered in flags, posters, or photos of students. Plastic globes hang from the lights, and pictures of Quintenz’s young son dot the walls, each one accompanied with a direction, such as “Clean up after yourself, your mother doesn’t work here!” or “Don’t be afraid to swim in the deep end.”
“Good afternoon. How are you?” Quintenz says to the class, her husky voice booming over the chatter. “Fine, thank you. How are you?” her students reply in unison.
This is Quintenz’s English 2B class, which means that the 30 students, all foreign born, have a competent level of English. Many of them are in their second year at the school. (That’s in contrast to the 1A class, for those, like Mohammad, who speak no English. It’s called the “silent class” because pictures, rather than words, are used as the primary means of communication.)
Quintenz’s class looks like a junior United Nations. The front row is occupied by a quartet of girls from Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, wearing hijabs. In the back sit a group of boys from Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Among the five of them, they speak Swahili, Kinyarwanda, French, and Kirundi, and most conversations—soccer is a favorite topic—move seamlessly from one language to another.
Across the room, beneath the windows, a cluster of Malaysian, Burmese, and Congolese boys hover over their phones, playing video pool. During lunch, they often pile onto the couch in Quintenz’s room, stacking themselves like pancakes. “You don’t see American teenage boys hang off each other like that,” notes Quintenz.
One afternoon, at my request, Quintenz has her students fill out questionnaires that ask for details of their journeys to America. (The assignment doubles as a lesson on grammar and punctuation.) A Rohingya boy explains that as members of a persecuted Muslim minority, he and his family fled Myanmar for Bangladesh, then Malaysia, after his grandfather and uncle were killed. Another student outlines eight countries—Angola, Malawi, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe among them—that her family has lived in since leaving Rwanda. One girl, who has been in the United States for only a few months, says that she misses the smell of jasmine in her native Syria but not the sound of bombs. Trauma is part of the cultural fabric in Room 106.
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network reports that as many as 75 percent of refugee youths experience some level of post-traumatic stress disorder. That’s why Chad Adams had every ELL teacher go through two trauma trainings. For Quintenz, helping students heal comes down to trust: “Kids are only going to talk to you if you build those relationships and they feel comfortable with you.”
Though Quintenz prides herself on her close ties with her students (“They’re my minions,” she jokes), there are some cultural gulfs she can’t bridge. Last year, she had a 15-year-old freshman from Myanmar who was “very bubbly and very happy and driven,” Quintenz recalls, but “over the course of the year, it was like Reviving Ophelia as I watched her just slowly start to decline and become introverted.” After months of this, Quintenz finally asked the student what was wrong. “She just threw her arms around me and hung off my shoulders and said, ‘My parents are making me get married.’”
The student showed up to school only a few more times before the end of the year. Now she’s pregnant and married to a 24-year-old who lives with his father. “I saw pictures from her wedding and she looked miserable,” says Quintenz. “It was totally heartbreaking.”
DURING HER FIVE years as an ELL teacher, Quintenz has had a frontrow seat to some meteoric transformations. She has watched Muslims exchange hijabs for braids. She’s seen girls who never wore makeup before suddenly paint their lips bright red and boys who came in with a buttoned-up look start sagging their pants. “They change really quickly,” says Quintenz. “It’s a crazy thing to watch.”
The poster child is Thang Khan Khup, a 17-year-old from Myanmar. In the three years since Khup, as he prefers to be called, arrived in the United States, he has immersed himself in American culture. He’s on the school’s soccer and volleyball teams and plays guitar in a student rock band. His unofficial uniform is a denim jacket, a wellworn T-shirt, and frayed but fitted jeans (he cites Slash of Guns N’ Roses as a style icon), and his main means of transportation to school is a skateboard.
Which is to say he’s like a lot of American kids. Except for a major difference: Seven years ago, he was living in a small village in Myanmar. After the military tried to recruit his dad and older brother as battlefield porters in the country’s civil war, Khup and his family fled south in the middle of the night. It took more than a week of “walk- ing through the jungle at night, like ninjas,” Khup says, their legs covered in leeches, to reach Malaysia, where the family spent four years before relocating to Chicago.
Two of Khup’s first friends at Sullivan were also refugees—one from Tanzania and the other from Iraq. Their freshman year, the boys were almost always together, playing video games and talking soccer. “There’s a feeling we share,” Khup says. “We are refugees.”
Now that they are juniors, they spend less time with one another. These days, Khup mostly hangs out with his American friends from band and business class. But no matter how much he embraces this country, Khup says, he will never feel fully American: “I am still Burmese. I just live in America for my safety.”
Refugee students often find themselves in a strange middle space, trying to balance life as an American teenager and cultural traditions from their homelands. Every day after school, Samira Ahmed, a Somali student, picks up her 8-year-old sister, Intisaar, from a nearby elementary school. And every day, Samira asks her, in Somali, about her day. Sometimes Intisaar replies in Somali, other times in English. “She’s forgetting our language,” says Samira with a sigh. “She’s so American now.”
Samira, who has been in Chicago for a little over two years, lives with her mother, stepfather, and three younger sisters in a sparse three-room basement apartment just a few blocks from Sullivan. The only things in the living room are a bunk bed for Samira and two of her three sisters, a TV, and a smattering of baby toys and clothes. It doesn’t take long to see that Samira is a mother figure to her siblings: She makes sure that Intisaar does her homework and that everyone has had enough to eat.
Lately, Samira’s mother, who was married at 14, has been bugging the 19-year-old about finding a husband. “Every day she’s asking me if I want to get married,” says Samira. “She brings over old men, young men. Every day she’s asking me.” But Samira has no interest in getting married at this stage. Maybe if she were still in Africa, she says, she would feel differently, but now that she is in the United States, she has other plans: “I want to go to college and become a doctor. I want to show my family that I can take care of them and that I am the brain. Only after that will I get married. Life is not about running. I want to go slow.”
Excerpted from an article that originally appeared in Chicago magazine. Reprinted with permission. ■