Refugee High

Coming of Age in America

A year in the life of a Chicago high school with one of the nation’s highest proportions of refugees, told with “strong novel-like pacing” (Milwaukee Magazine)

“A stunning and heart-wrenching work of nonfiction.” —Chicago Reader

Finalist, Pattis Family Foundation Chicago Book Award

Winner of the Studs and Ida Terkel Award

For a century, Chicago’s Roger C. Sullivan High School has been a home to immigrant and refugee students. In 2017, during the worst global refugee crisis in history, its immigrant population numbered close to three hundred—or nearly half the school—and many were refugees new to the country. These young people came from thirty-five different countries, speaking more than thirty-eight different languages.

In Refugee High, award-winning author Elly Fishman offers a riveting chronicle of the 2017–18 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 needs of refugee and immigrant children.

Heartbreaking and inspiring in equal measure, Refugee High raises vital questions about the priorities and values of a public school and offers an eye-opening and captivating window into the present-day American immigration and education systems.


Refugee High may not provide the answers, but it contains important messages. Fishman suggests that we ignore our growing xenophobia at our peril, for these students are creative, resilient, adaptive, and caring. Her book is also a shout-out to the lasting value of public education. Refugee High showcases a school that not only serves as a welcoming landing pad for immigrants and refugees, but also as a launching pad for talented, productive, future generations of Americans. Students can be heroes, too.”
—Martha Anne Toll, The Washington Post
“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. 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
“As the only refugee in an Oklahoma high school in the 1990s, I used to have fantasies like this: what if a school existed that represented the wider world, everyone displaced, everyone applying for the same papers, pockets of society not defined by ill-fitting American markers, but following the precise contours of my own continent, its many faiths and colors? Refugee High is the realization of that daydream, and a riveting real-life answer to those youthful mysteries. A deep dive into an experiment I’ve always wanted to witness, meticulously researched, lovingly written, and rich in revelation.”
—Dina Nayeri, the author of The Ungrateful Refugee and Refuge
“A feat of immersive reporting.”
National Book Review
“A deeply compelling chronicle that brings us the poignant stories of new Americans set against a political backdrop of intense anti-immigrant rhetoric.”
Shepherd Express
“A wondrous tapestry of stories, of young people looking for a home. With deep, immersive reporting, Elly 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
“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
“Educators and general readers alike will find this vividly intimate work insightful.”
Library Journal
“Fishman unearths the inner lives of her subjects with care and precision, and skillfully balances lighter moments (soccer games, TikTok dances) with harrowing turns of events. The result is a powerful portrait of resilience in the face of long odds.”
Publishers Weekly
“Fishman has crafted a compelling and thought-provoking narrative. . . . The strong novel-like pacing keeps the story engaging throughout, and the weight of the issues it addresses leaves readers thinking about the book long after it’s done.”
Milwaukee Magazine

News and Reviews

Washington Post

Read a review of Refugee High in the Washington Post.

Borderless Magazine

Read an excerpt from Refugee High in Borderless Magazine

Goodreads Reviews