ORLANDO | Tharmini Umakaran came to the United States in 2018. She left her homeland of Sri Lanka at the age of five, fleeing civil war. Thirteen years later, as the nation celebrates World Refugee Day, June 20, Umakaran is thankful to those who helped her and her parents along the way.
This year’s theme, “Every Action Counts”, acknowledges the efforts of men and women from small church schools that help educate refugee youth about pivotal agencies like Catholic Charities of Central Florida (CCCF).
Today, there are nearly 26 million refugees across the world according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The need for everyone to do their small part is greater than ever. It is the actions of numerous people along the way that transforms the lives of refugees and offers them hope. As a Catholic Agency, CCCF works to “love thy neighbor” as God commands by helping refugees find equal footing in their new homes.
Umakaran’s family left for Malaysia on a tourist VISA in 2007, thinking they would remain in the country a short time before moving to Canada. Yet the process was not swift and their move to the United States would not happen for another 11 years, until March 2018.
“Imagine a kid waking up every day and not knowing what to do, while other kids are waking up and going to school. I was sitting there doing nothing. No education was the hardest part for me,” she said of her time in Malaysia. The first three years there, Umakaran only received tutoring in English, Math and Science. Then nothing more, outside of reading, until she was 12 years old, when she was placed in a small school run by a local church in partnership with the United Nations. “They were prepping us to go to the U.S. We attended three days a week for six hours,” she remembered. Thanks to her teachers and her avid desire to learn, she was prepared to step into her junior year at Poinciana High School with little catching up. To get on track, she took classes at school and online – taking English 1 and 2 simultaneously.
Coming through the United Nations, her family worked with Catholic Charities of Central Florida. As a part of their Refugee Youth Program, Umakaran was assigned a mentor to help familiarize her with American schooling and ways of life. Despite her sporadic education during her years in Malaysia, she said adjusting was not too difficult. Her teachers were impressed with her grades. Umakaran was lucky. Her family lived with lifelong friends from Sri Lanka who took them in. They had a computer, so when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and schools went virtual, she was able to stay on task.
Other students were helped by Catholic Charities, through a special anonymous donation of computers for refugee youth in need. CCCF case manager Kim Latt’s actions also bore fruit. Latt took Umakaran , and several other students in the program, on a tour of the University of Central Florida (UCF) in Orlando and Stetson University in Deland. She applied to both and was accepted, but chose to attend Valencia State College in order to avoid causing her family the hardship of dealing with transportation. She plans to complete her associate degree, then transfer to UCF for her bachelor degree in business management. Although unsure of how she will use her degree, she said, “I really like talking to people and helping them, so I’m exploring the possibilities.”
CCCF’s Refugee Youth Program began in 1999 and Latt, herself an immigrant from Burma, started at CCCF the same year the Umakarans left Sri Lanka. “I know and understand the path of the refugees who arrive in USA,” said Latt. “Especially I empathize with the adjustments and struggles of the refugee youth in their first years. Most of the time, they are clueless or upset and they don’t quite comprehend why they have to come to the new country, leaving their families… It is not easy for them.”
Umakaran is currently one of 24 students assisted through the program. Latt explains, “We initially assess the youth to see what their strengths and areas they need to improve; what are their goals and we discuss how they could reach their goals.” She noted that, depending on the youth, they may choose an academic or career track. CCCF then facilitates the process through business partnerships and school visits with teachers and guidance counselors.”
Umakaran’s goal was to graduate on time. “I am very happy to help Tharmini to reach her short time goal – high school graduation,” said Latt. “She is a very smart, hardworking girl with the great attitude. It is a pleasure and honor to support her, and I am very hopeful that she would continue to do well in college and land a career.”
“I’m just glad that I made it through,” said Umakaran, who graduates in July, a delay due to COVID-19. Her advice to other students in similar situations as hers, “You should not be afraid to ask questions because here someone will always help.”
By Glenda Meekins of the Florida Catholic, June 24, 2020