When Phoenix High School student Ka Mwee needed to interview someone for a school assignment, her volunteer tutor, Lois Douglass, thought she would choose someone who spoke her own language. But Ka Mwee is not a person to shirk from challenges.

About two and a half years ago, Gayle Hane inquired if B5 could help Ka Mwee practice reading. Gayle is a retired teacher who now volunteers at Phoenix. She specializes in helping those who need the most help. She’s been working with Ka Mwee since she was 15. B5’s Director, Theresa Roosendaal, asked Lois Douglass, a teacher, if she would volunteer to help. Ka Mwee’s reading was well below grade level. She came from her former school in Illinois with little English vocabulary. Lois had experience teaching her own son Nikita, adopted from Ukraine as a teen, to read English.

Ka Mwee and Lois have been reading together ever since. The hardest problem they’ve tackled was preparing for the written test so Ka Mwee could get her driver’s license. The reading level and vocabulary were both obstacles. “I had never realized how ridiculously high that test is. It’s crazy.” said Lois, citing words like “proceed” for “go”, or “vehicle” instead of “car.”

Gayle’s husband, Dan, also helped Ka Mwee learn to drive.

Now that the hurdle of getting a driver’s license is passed, the two are back to academic tutoring. Recently, Ka Mwee had a school assignment to interview an immigrant. Ka Mwee and her family speak Karen, so Lois expected her to choose someone from her own community of refugees from Burma (Myanmar). But instead Ka Mwee asked Lois to help her find someone who didn’t speak Karen. Omkalthom, a B5 English student who arrived about a year ago and speaks Arabic, agreed that Ka Mwee could interview her. Since English is their only common language, they were forced to communicate in the language they are working so hard to learn. Douglass helped as scribe for the interview.

Ka Mwee learned that she and Omkalthom had much in common. Though Ka Mwee’s family came from Burma via Thailand, and Omkalthom had come from Sudan via Jordan, both families had spent many years as refugees. Ka Mwee learned that immigrants have a “push” away from their country of origin and a “pull” to a new home. For both families, the push had been war in their home country, while the pull to the US had come when the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) offered the opportunity for resettlement in the USA.

Ka Mwee is looking forward to a new challenges. Right now, her class on immigrants and refugees is painting portraits of their interview subjects. They are imitating the style of former President George W. Bush in his work, Out of Many: One. Next, she will spend her last year of high school taking welding classes at Tri-Tech Skills Center.

Besides volunteering to tutor Ka Mwee, Lois Douglass is a teacher in the LEP Pathway program that Omkalthom attends, and is B5’s Volunteer Coordinator.

Lois and Ka Mwee