Refugee High

Coming of Age in America

A year in the life of a Chicago high school that has one of the highest proportions of refugees of any school in the nation

”In Refugee High, Elly Fishman creates this wondrous tapestry of stories, of young people looking for a home. With deep, immersive reporting, Fishman pulls off a triumph of empathy. Their tales and their school speak to the best of who we are as a nation—and their struggles, their joys, their journeys will stay with you.“ —Alex Kotlowitz, author of There Are No Children Here

Winner of the Studs and Ida Terkel Award

For a century, Chicago’s Roger C. Sullivan High School has been a landing place for migrants. In recent years, it boasts one of the highest proportions of immigrant and refugee students in the country. In 2017 around half its student population hailed from another country, with students from thirty-five different countries speaking more than thirty-eight different languages.

Some had arrived having only lived in refugee camps. Nearly all carried the trauma inflicted on them by the world at its most hateful and violent. Life is not easy for them in Chicago. They cope with poverty, racism, and xenophobia, with overburdened social service organizations and gang turf wars they don’t understand. But above all, they are still teens, flirting, dreaming, and working as they navigate their new life in America.

Refugee High is a riveting chronicle of the 2017–8 school year at Sullivan High, a time when anti-immigrant rhetoric was at its height in the White House. Even as we follow teachers and administrators grappling with the everyday challenges facing many urban schools, we witness the complicated circumstances and unique education needs of refugee and immigrant children: Alejandro may be deported just days before he is scheduled to graduate; Shahina narrowly escapes an arranged marriage; and Esengo is shot at the beginning of the school year.

Raising vital questions about what the priorities and values of a public school like Sullivan should be, Refugee High is a vital window into the present-day American immigration and education systems.


“Beautifully written, deeply reported, and bursting with humanity, Refugee High is a book you will read in a hurry and remember forever.”
—Jonathan Eig, author of Ali: A Life and Luckiest Man
“Elly Fishman’s Refugee High takes readers inside one of the most remarkable schools in the country, a large Chicago public high school with hundreds of students who have recently emigrated or fled from an odyssey of different countries. Fishman brings to life the individual experiences of the school’s teenagers, teachers and administrators, their struggles and joys. Through these intimate accounts, Refugee High shows the widening conflicts—of a city, a nation and world—that concern us all.”
—Ben Austen, author of High-Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing
“A riveting immersion into the world of Chicago’s Sullivan High School, where half the students are immigrants or refugees. Through the lives of four young people from different corners of the globe, Elly Fishman vividly portrays the perils and possibilities that confront those who come to the United States in search of a better life. No reader will be able to forget these students and the almost unimaginable hurdles they struggle to surmount, and no reader will forget the teachers who dedicate themselves to preventing the American Dream from becoming a betrayal.”
—Drew Faust, President Emeritus, Harvard University

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