Jan. 22, 2014

Students - Once Refugees Themselves - Give Back

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Before Dhan Adhi Kari started taking the English class for refugees, she had never written the alphabet of her native Nepalese tongue. She had never even held a pencil.

Her father died when she was young, and she never attended school. Her family then spent 25 years in a refugee camp in Nepal, with no opportunity beyond its borders.

Seeking a new life, Kari and her husband brought their children to America a year ago. At Mary's Place in Rochester, N.Y., she and her husband are just beginning to speak and write their first phrases in their new language. They learn how to ask and pay for a loaf of bread; that a nickel is 5 cents.

"I used to be very scared, but now I have hope," said Kari after a lesson. "I feel like even I can study."

That's because, Kari said, she often feels overwhelmed, but with help from Geneseo students, she finally sees progress.

Tsering Ukyab '15 and Shikha Jha '14, both international students from Nepal, translated for Kari and other refugees from their country during class. Along with Nathalie Kalumbwe '16 and Estefania Trujillo '14, they served as volunteer tutors, helping to ease their transition as their service project for the Real World Geneseo experience.

They know what it's like to struggle to make a new life. Kalumbwe and Trujillo also came to the United States as refugees.

"I've been there," said Trujillo. "I've experienced being a refugee. I know what it is like, and to not be able to speak English."

Trujillo and her family left Colombia after her father survived being kidnapped by the separatist rebel military, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia People's Army.

Kalumbwe's family fled the war in Congo when she was 5. They spent one year in a refugee camp in Zambia, before moving to a Zambian city, and finally being resettled in Rochester, in 2010.

Kalumbwe and Trujillo are thankful for the families who helped theirs make the most of the opportunity in Rochester. Like volunteers at Mary's Place, families tutored them and helped them navigate the essentials. They made them feel at home.

Kalumbwe extended her volunteerism through the summer and collected clothes for Mary's Place.

"I know the struggles of refugee people. It's not just language. It's so much more. Trying to adjust to a new country ... It makes me thankful and it opens my mind," says Kalumbwe. "I am a refugee but I am also privileged because I can communicate. I am honored to reach out. What I do here can mean a lot."

— By Kris Dreessen