Category Archives: Coalition for Refugees from Burma

Siobhan: HSPE Prep Update

On March 8, 2013, Coalition for Refugees from Burma held the last HSPE Study Group before the big exam! Based on the ideas and comments of high school aged refugee youth from Burma I was inspired to help students who had not passed the HSPE. The HSPE or High School Proficiency Exam is a high school graduation requirement for Washington State. It is a challenging exam for Native Language Speakers but can pose as a significant hurdle to receive a high school diploma for English Language Learners. This is particularly true for newly arrived refugee youth from Burma whom often experience interrupted formal education and may not have the advanced literacy skills to pass this exam.

I recruited a volunteer tutor, Dave Alefaio, and we began working with students in October of last year. CRB staff and volunteers assisted 14 high school students over the past few months with practice HSPE reading and writing assignments. We explained standardized testing tips and techniques for success, we built vocabulary, and we practiced . . . a lot. The students have worked incredibly hard, and we are confident they did well over the last few days of testing.

I must admit that I was quite nervous during their week of HSPE Tests. I could not help but think about all of our students diligently writing thoughtful responses, erasing answer bubbles, and scratching their heads with the backs of their pencils before being struck, as if by lightning, with just the right word. I am so thankful to the wonderful volunteers, Michelle and Dave, who helped our students over the past few months. They both worked conscientiously to meet with our students every week, answer their questions effectively, and take the time to review countless pieces of practice material. I am so proud of everything the students and tutors have accomplished and wait with baited breath for the results.

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Siobhan: HSPE Prep

Siobhan and Burmese youth in Kent

I am proud of all of the hard work I have put into my service year so far. However, I am perhaps the most pleased with the new component I created for the Kent Refugee Transition Center’s extended learning program. Based on the ideas and comments of high school-aged refugee youth from Burma I was inspired to help students who had not passed the HSPE.

The HSPE or High School Proficiency Exam is a high school graduation requirement for Washington State. It is a challenging exam for Native Language Speakers but can pose a significant hurdle to receiving a high school diploma for English Language Learners (ELL). This is particularly true for newly arrived refugee youth from Burma, who often experience interrupted formal education and may not have the advanced literacy skills needed to pass this exam.

I conducted considerable research on ways to prepare, searched for sources of practice materials, and the rights students have as ELL to ask for assistance and other accommodations. I met with the Seattle Public School’s State Assessment Coordinator, Nancy Steers, to discuss best preparation practices. I contacted the Office of Superintendent (OSPI) to receive the released practice materials. I recruited a volunteer and provided training that explained the different components of the exam, how students were graded, and how we could build on the practice materials and create a curriculum. I conducted outreach efforts to students, mainly high school juniors and seniors, who had not passed the HSPE and discussed their schedules with them. The volunteers and I have held over 10 sessions, and we will continue with these meetings until the Reading and Writing portions of the exam on March 12-14.

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Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service

Coalition for Refugees from Burma’s FAFSA Filing Workshop

The Refugee Support Network celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service with a trip to the Refugee Transition Center in Kent to assist Burmese high school students as they worked to complete their FAFSA applications and begin the process of applying to college.

Each VISTA partnered with a Burmese high school senior and worked through the FAFSA application, taking some time to discuss the student’s plans for college and the future. One student even expressed an interest in going into politics and running for Congress!

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Siobhan: Meeting the Community

It was the weekend before my first day at Coalition for Refugees from Burma, and I received an email from Mona Han, CRB’s Executive Director, inviting me to a Karen Wrist Tying Ceremony. I had just gotten back from AmeriCorps VISTA Pre-Service Orientation and was very excited to have an opportunity to meet the community I would soon be working with, so I agreed. At first I was so nervous. I did not know what to wear or what to say, but as I boarded the bus to the community center, those anxieties melted away. I got off at the wrong bus stop, so I had to walk a few blocks, but it was warm and the sun felt nice on my face and hands. When I finally reached the doors to the community center, parents were rushing in and out with plates of food and children darted around their legs. Most of the people were dressed in colorful woven cotton shirts and skirts. Mona was inside talking with an older community member and the gymnasium was filled with the smells of Karen ethnic food. In the front of the gym was a long table with white table cloths and candles on it. The ceremony began with the Karen youth walking up to the long table and then the elders seated at the table tying a thin red string to their wrists. Mona whispered “It protects the youth from bad spirits through the coming year.”

After the ceremony was finished, we moved folding chairs and tables to accommodate families enjoying heaping plates of rice noodles, chicken, limes, and chilies. The food was delicious, and I had to try very hard not to eat too fast. A small boy with a Bart Simpson t-shirt on sat across the table from Mona and me, and we talked about school and the CRB summer school he and his brothers attended. Everyone was so welcoming and kind, and I felt incredibly lucky to be exactly where I was. I still work with many of the children and families I met that day. It was a special way to begin my VISTA service term.

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Introducing three new VISTAs!

Three new VISTAs have recently joined the Refugee Support Network! Here’s an introduction to who they are and what they’ll be doing during their year with the RSN.

Cordelia Revells

Education Services Coordinator

Jewish Family Service

As the Education Services Coordinator VISTA at Jewish Family Services, Cordelia Revells works to increase the scope of educational opportunities for JFS adults and youth.  Since graduating from Oberlin College in 2010, Cordelia has worked in various education settings that serve immigrant communities and at-risk youth, and she is excited to continue this work at JFS.  In her free time, Cordelia enjoys reading, running, and exploring new areas. 

Briana Robertori

Resource Development Coordinator

East African Community Services

Hi, my name is Brie Robertori, and I just relocated from the SF Bay Area to be an AmeriCorps VISTA with East African Community Services (EACS).  After studying Anthropology and International Development as an undergraduate at the University of CA, Berkeley, I have been looking forward to the opportunity to work with international populations, and specifically underserved immigrants living in the US.  With this goal in mind, I’m excited to begin my position as Resource Development Coordinator at East African Community Services, an organization that provides social services and educational programming to East African refugees.  Since EACS’s inception in 2001, the organization has been evolving to fit the needs of its population.  Because navigating the American public school system poses one of the biggest challenges to our population, we have begun providing academic and mentorship programs to refugee youth. 

Working in this small but dynamic community based organization, I often get the question “Resource Development Coordinator . . . what does that mean?”  At the most basic level, it means that I am applying for grants with government, private, and corporate funders and cultivating relationships with funding sources.  Luckily for me, my job is so much more than just that.  I am also working with the Executive Director and Program Director to create EACS’ strategic funding plan.  In order to get to know the organization, my days are full of meetings with community based organizations, school administration, and state employees; self-directed grant research and professional development; and welcomed time away from the computer with the sweet and incredibly out-going kids from the community. 

Although the position will be challenging, I am excited for this opportunity to get to know EACS and the East African refugee population, and I know this year will be a profoundly rewarding one.

Siobhan Whalen

Youth Programs Coordinator

Coalition for Refugees from Burma

As the new VISTA Youth Programs Coordinator at the Coalition for Refugees from Burma, Siobhan Whalen will work with the Education Programs Manager to develop and expand youth programs such as parent workshops, cultural competency trainings for school faculty, and student mentoring programs. She will also be supervising CRB volunteers to support their work with the Burmese community.  By working with the talented staff at CRB, Siobhan hopes to make a valuable contribution to her localized international community.

Siobhan graduated from the University of New Hampshire with dual degrees in Anthropology and Sociology. While completing her undergraduate degrees she studied abroad in Rajasthan, India for four months with a program that emphasized social justice and development. Since graduating in 2010, Siobhan has been developing her communication and problem solving skills in the workforce, moving to a new city (Seattle, WA), and in her free time sewing and making arts and crafts. She is extremely excited and motivated to have a positive learning experience in this year of service.

Coalition for Refugees from Burma

Siobhan will be serving with the RSN’s newest partner organization, the Coalition for Refugees from Burma. The Coalition for Refugees from Burma (CRB) has been helping refugees from Burma since 2006. Established as a Mutual Assistance Association and registered 501c(3) in 2009, CRB’s goal is to provide culturally and linguistically appropriate social support services to improve the living conditions and quality of life of resettled refugees. CRB intentionally reaches across ethnic, religious and language barriers to foster community cohesion and build capacity.

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