Students travel to Lakewood to tutor refugee children

Katie Nix

Balerkat Be, a 9-year-old refugee student at Emerson Elementary School in Lakewood, Ohio, copies her spelling words four times in a row as she talks about why her family of eight — a mother, father and six brothers and sisters — chose to move to the United States.

“My parents said we should move so we could learn English, which we weren’t learning in Burma,” she said. “I like it better here because we learn new things every day.”

Her family, along with about 1,500 others each year, is receiving help from The Refugee Response , located in Cleveland, Ohio. The group was “formed to help refugees adjust to life in Northeast Ohio,” according to its website.

TRR has also given Kent State students a unique opportunity to help make a difference with Burmese refugee children living in the area through in-home tutoring services.

Every Monday, the volunteer college students take a van to different houses in the area to help the children with their homework.

“I always need help with my homework,” Be said.

These children were chosen based on a needs assessment performed by TRR for Southeast Asia and different parts of Africa.

“We’re just focusing on the Burmese students for right now, but within the next year we plan on expanding it to those from Somalia, Nepal and Iraq,” said Jillian Musarra, education director for TRR.

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The program continues all year, with the summer months spent maintaining basic skills and the school year focusing on homework. Each child receives an individualized curriculum developed from an exam designed to identify holes in academic achievement and ultimately, bring the skills up to grade level.

“It’s a really interesting thing to do and seemed to work well with my major,” said Kristin Mulcahy, junior international relations major. “I feel that’s it’s important to get to know and understand other cultures, and this seemed like a really good way to do that, and the kids are great.”

For the most part, the students are paired with tutors at random based on how they react toward one another, Musarra said. Sometimes, tutors are paired with students based on their majors. For example, an early childhood development major might be paired with a younger child.

“However, I try to set up males with males just so the young men are given a definite positive role model,” Musarra said.

While the tutors become role models for the children, some also become involved in their students’ personal lives, occasionally helping families with issues like transportation.

“However, we don’t want (the tutors) to get in over their heads with things like assisting for paying for food or things like that,” Musarra said. “Distance can sometimes be encouraged, though, to develop personal and academic freedom.”

TRR offers many other services in addition to the tutoring program. The Refugee Empowerment Agricultural Program identifies refugees with a strong agricultural background and provides them with employment opportunities and job training. The Classrooms Connect program reaches out to local classrooms with refugees and provides them with multimedia to help them learn better, while Education and Awareness Presentations teach local schools and community organizations all about the refugees and their experiences.

The tutoring program is a semester-long commitment for students, and Kent State is currently the only university involved.

“The rewarding part of the experience for me is getting to know and understand another culture other than my own,” Mulcahy said.

Contact Katie Nix at [email protected] .