Tharmini Umakaran left Sri Lanka at age five during a civil war. Thirteen years later she graduates from Poinciana High School in Kissimmee thanks to the help of Catholic Charities Refugee Youth Program. (COURTESY)

For immigrants, every action counts

ORLANDO  |  Tharmini Umakaran left her homeland of Sri Lanka at the age of 5, fleeing civil war. After traveling to different nations seeking asylum, she celebrated World Refugee Day in the United States, her new home for the past two years.

Reflecting upon the special day celebrated June 20, Umakaran is thankful to those who helped her and her parents along the way. This year’s theme, “Every Action Counts,” acknowledged the efforts of men and women from small church schools that help educate refugee youth about pivotal agencies like Catholic Charities of Central Florida.

Today, there are nearly 26 million refugees across the world according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. 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. True to its namesake, Catholic Charities 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,” Umakaran 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.,” she recalled. “We attended three days a week for six hours.” 

Thanks to her teachers and her own 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 fortunate. 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. Actions by Kim Latt, one of the agency’s case workers, also bore fruit. Latt took Umakaran and several other students in the program on a tour of the University of Central Florida in Orlando and Stetson University in Deland. Umakaran applied to both schools and was accepted, but chose to attend Valencia State College to avoid hardships in dealing with transportation. She plans to complete her associate degree, then transfer to the University of Central Florida for her bachelor’s 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.”

Catholic Charities’ Refugee Youth Program began in 1999 and Latt, herself an immigrant from Burma, started at the agency the same year the Umakarans left Sri Lanka. Umakaran is currently one of 24 students assisted through the program.

“I know and understand the path of the refugees who arrive in U.S.A.,” Latt said. “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.

“We initially assess the youth to see what their strengths are and areas they need to improve,” Latt continued. “What are their goals and we discuss how they could reach their goals.” 

Youths might choose an academic or career track. The agency then facilitates the process through business partnerships and school visits with teachers and guidance counselors. 

Umakaran’s goal was to graduate on time. Latt said she was very happy the young woman reached her first short-term goal — graduating high school.

“She is a very smart, hardworking girl with the great attitude,” Latt said of Umakaran. “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.”

Umakaran, who graduates in July, a delay due to COVID-19, said she is “just glad” she made it through to graduation. Her advice to other students in similar situations as hers, “You should not be afraid to ask questions because here someone will always help.”