Teens tutor refugee children from Burma

By Dillon Lerach

Guest Columnist

Teen Volunteers In Action (TVIA) is a service group of approximately 200 boys in grades 7 through 12. We participate in hands-on charitable events working with philanthropies that serve seniors, children, the homeless and hungry, the environment, special needs and other community organizations. I have gotten to know many worthy organizations up close and have been particularly moved by a refugee group we help in City Heights, the Karen refugees.

As a member of TVIA’s Leadership Council, I coordinate tutoring every Tuesday and Thursday after school at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on Fairmont Avenue for a group of 70 Karen children who are sponsored by the United Nations and are new to this country. I also help plan activities to integrate them into life in the United States.

The Karen is an ethnic minority group of three million from Burma who have been savagely attacked, along with eight other minority groups, by Burma’s brutal military dictatorship when they took power and changed the country’s name to Myanmar. More than 140,000 refugees, the largest refugee population in Southeast Asia, fled to Thailand and have lived in closed, crowded refugee camps for more than 20 years. Since 2007, the U.N. has sponsored Karen refugees from these camps to emigrate on humanitarian grounds to San Diego, Bakersfield, Buffalo and New York, as well as other cities in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Western Europe.

The camps, where the children we tutor were born, have no electricity and are located in the jungle. This is obviously completely different from our urban and suburban environment. Imagine yourself taking a plane for the first time, having to learn to use electricity and to cook with modern appliances. Imagine never having seen a car or a paved road. Imagine not speaking English and having to spend all day in a classroom in middle or high school.

For the last three years, TVIA has welcomed the Karen teens and pre-teens. We took them to their first movie, the zoo, bowling, and organize an annual picnic in the park where we play soccer together. This year we will host our annual picnic on May 5. We will also help celebrate the Karen New Year in early January where we will watch our students perform their native dances and sample Karen food and delicacies.

The heart of our program, however, is tutoring. These students need our help learning English and navigating their way through daily homework, because many parents are not available and resources at schools are limited. We provide tutoring every Tuesday and Thursday from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday’s group has the younger students from grades two through six, and Thursday’s group has students from grades 7 through 12.

Tutoring is open to students from any school. Volunteer teachers are available to help us tutor in reading and math and provide all the necessary materials. If you can read a storybook to a young child or help with reading or math at any level, you can tutor. A friend from Canyon Crest Academy has committed to weekly tutoring and is starting a tutoring program at her school. I encourage you to join us or to start a group at your school. It is extremely rewarding.

Please contact me at dlerach@gmail.com if you are interested or if you have any questions. For more information about the Karen in San Diego, visit: www.karenrefugees.com. For more information about TVIA, please visit: www.tvia.org.

Dillon Lerach is a junior at Pacific Ridge School, lives in Rancho Santa Fe and has been a member of TVIA since seventh grade.

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