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ESL Alumnus Returns to WS/FCS for Karenni Refugees
September 16, 2022 – Moving to a new country in pursuit of a better way of life is an incredible undertaking full of overwhelming obstacles, especially for a child. Learning a new language, new customs and making new friends and connections can be even harder when you’re also getting used to a new school. Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools teaches many children who have faced these challenges and gone on to succeed in their chosen fields. One such alumnus is Marthalenar Nya Mar, the district’s newest Multilingual Parent Engagement Coordinator.
Nya Mar came to the United States in 2010 from Thailand. A Karenni refugee, she left her home country to escape violence, but life in America presented its own challenges. Fortunately, she enjoyed great support from her teachers and the community at several different schools, including Wiley Magnet Middle School, John F. Kennedy High School, and Reynolds High School. She was also lucky enough to be surrounded by other Karenni students who made her feel less alone while she was acclimating to her new surroundings.
“It was all very new to me, but I had a lot of support,” Nya Mar said. “All of the Karenni people were together, so it was easier for me to adapt.”
After graduation, Nya Mar knew that she wanted to dedicate her career to helping people in similar situations to the one she was in when she first came to the United States. She went to work with the Montagnard Dega Association, a nonprofit organization that provides a wide range of assistance to refugee and immigrant families. Now, she’s taking another step in that mission by joining WS/FCS to help the district communicate with the parents of refugees.
“I’m very passionate about language access for my community,” Nya Mar said. “People are more likely to share their concerns with you when they see that you’re like them.”
As far as she knows, Nya Mar is the only current employee of WS/FCS who speaks Kayah Li, the native language of the Karreni people. While the ESL Department has plenty of options to communicate with non-English speaking families, the importance of having a fluent Kayah Li speaker to engage with Karenni refugees cannot be overstated. Nya Mar has been with the district for less than a month and has already heard from families who say they don’t pick up phone calls unless they recognize her number because the language barrier that they face is so intimidating. That’s a barrier that needs to be broken down so that Karenni children can enjoy the academic benefits of having their parents take an active role in their educations.
“The kids are paying attention to what their parents do,” Nya Mar said. “If they see that their parents are more involved with their education, it makes them more likely to pursue higher education.”
Nya Mar will need some time to fully settle into her new position, but there’s no doubt that she’s come a long way since she first arrived in America. She believes that the next generation of Karenni refugees have the same potential she did, and she’s thankful for the opportunity to help them unlock that potential.
“When I came here, I was scared because I felt like I would have to do things alone,” Nya Mar said. “Now, I can be there for Karenni kids and help show them the way.”
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