ASIA In Lakewood

Cleveland has long welcomed immigrants from a variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds. But recently, Cleveland has welcomed a very special group of people, not of immigrants but refugees fleeing violence and persecution from various Asian countries like Myanmar and Bhutan. Lakewood, in particular, has been an important staging ground for helping these refugees get accustomed to life in the United States.

Because these refugees often have very limited knowledge of the English language, they cannot communicate their needs. Asian Services in Action, Inc. (ASIA), a non-profit agency with offices in Cleveland and Akron, helps these refugees with everything from the simplest question, like how to get a library card, to the most complicated legal and medical issues.  Even though ASIA originally worked with refugee communities from Asian countries, the agency turns no one away and so now also works with refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, and Guatemala.

One of ASIA’s services is a citizenship workshop. Volunteers work one-on-one or in small groups with refugees, helping them with their reading, writing, and interviewing skills. In these workshops, refugees who already have green cards but have limited English ability get extra help preparing for the citizenship test.

Kitty Leung, Director of Children, Youth, and Family Services at ASIA, runs a long list of programs, all in need of volunteers. At Emerson Elementary School, in Lakewood, Leung directs and teaches in an afterschool tutoring program for refugee children in grades 2-12. One of the greatest challenges for these children, who attend school in both Cleveland and Lakewood, is that they are given homework that is much above their English language capability and cannot ask their parents, who often have even more limited English ability, for help. Furthermore, refugee children arrive with varying levels of education from their home countries.

At Emerson afterschool program, volunteers work with these students twice a week, helping them with homework that ranges from second-grade reading journals to high-school chemistry and algebra assignments. Along with homework help, these students also receive drug-prevention education and time management counseling. It typically takes a child 5-7 years to acquire fluency in a second language but for Leung, success is having refugee children integrated with their mainstream peers, involved in their schools’ extracurricular programs and happy.

During the summers, Leung also runs a summer school for refugee children in kindergarten-12th grade. This program meets at Emerson Elementary School, Monday-Friday, for six weeks and helps the students retain and build upon what they learned during the school year. Volunteers work with staff in devising lesson plans, teaching classes, working with students one-on-one and in small groups. Volunteers often rave about their summer experiences. Liam Oznowich, a college student who taught playwriting to the high school students, says, “Not only did I love getting to know each of the students and watching their English reading and writing improve, but I also gained more confidence in my own teaching abilities. It was a pleasure to teach this class because the students were all engaged and genuinely interested in what we were learning, which made my own teaching experience so much more rewarding and memorable."

ASIA also offers many services for the adults in the refugee communities. Leung and her program assistant run a parenting program for the Burmese, Karen, Kareni, and Ch’in populations. Meeting at either Faith Presbyterian Church or Madison Library, these parents are introduced to American culture, so that they are aware of the influences their children face. They are taught how to talk with their children about drugs, how to set boundaries, and other parenting questions that arise from being apart from the mainstream community.

In addition, because many of these refugees come from unstable home countries, Leung holds a women-only group to address issues of sexual or domestic violence. She is hoping to get volunteers who are open to working with racial and religious diversity to help organize sewing or knitting circles with these women-only groups as they work through their experiences and move forward. Leung is also in need of sewing machines and any supplies, from fabric and yarn to knitting needles and pins.

ASIA is always looking for volunteers in their wide range of programs. Whether you’re interested in healthcare, legal services, teaching, women’s issues, or even sharing a skill or trade, ASIA would love to share your expertise. If you are interested in volunteering with ASIA or donating any supplies, please contact Kitty Leung, kitty@asiaohio.org or 216-369-7616.

Joon-Li Kim

Joon-Li Kim is a freelance writer and editor.  She recently edited the memoir of a Persian Jewish man.  She also writes a blog on race, ethnicity, and identity.

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Volume 11, Issue 1, Posted 6:16 PM, 01.06.2015