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

“If Sullivan High School had a motto, it would be ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.’” —from the Introduction

For a century, the Roger C. Sullivan High School in Chicago has been an engine of education and assimilation for immigrants. In the wake of the election of the Trump administration, Sullivan’s immigrant and refugee student population swelled to four hundred (or 50 percent of the school), with students from thirty-eight different countries speaking thirty-five different languages.

Refugee High is a riveting, high-stakes chronicle of the 2017–8 school year at Sullivan High. As we follow teachers and administrators grappling with the everyday challenges facing many urban schools, we witness the complicated circumstances and unique educational needs of refugee and immigrant children: one student may be deported just days before he is scheduled to graduate; another narrowly escapes an arranged marriage; and another is shot in the beginning of this school year. Through it all, they are teens navigating life in America.

Elly Fishman, an award-winning investigative journalist, raises vital questions about what the priorities and values of a public school like Sullivan should be, what these schools need to properly serve large immigrant and refugee student populations, and what role schools and teachers can and should play in helping immigrant and refugee children adjust and—more controversially—assimilate to America.

Refugee High is a vital window into the present-day American immigration and education systems.


“In Refugee High, Elly Fishman creates this wondrous tapestry of stories, of young people looking for a home. With deep, immersive reporting, Fishman pulls us 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