Changing Lives One Conversation at a Time

Two women seated at a small table in a crowded west side Panera Bread appear to be visiting and enjoying lunch.  If you were able to look a bit closer, though, you would see that one of these women is an Afghan refugee who knows only a few English words like “hi,” “hello,” “sorry,” “bye,” and “thank you.” The other woman, a Cleveland resident, is a tutor from The Refugee Response adult tutoring program and is helping her companion to expand literacy and language skills.

The Refugee Response (TRR) was founded in 2009 by two local Clevelanders, Paul Neundorfer and David Wallis, to help refugees adjust to life in Northeast Ohio.  In 2010, ground was broken on the Ohio City Farm ,the first of the Refugee Response programming.  They began by recruiting mentors to support refugee students, established the REAP program and sold organically farmed fresh produce to some of Cleveland’s best restaurants. Over the years, their unique programming has grown and now includes The Farm, Youth Mentoring, Teen Response, and Adult Tutoring.  TRR works to empower the area’s growing refugee population by providing opportunities for them to learn skills and succeed in their new communities.

Tutors from the Refugee Response program are encouraged to meet the learners where they are, providing a way forward and the opportunity to experience success through growth and reflection. Such meetings happen weekly and can develop, over time, into citizenship study sessions and driver’s license study sessions. Together, the women learn, grow, and bond, sharing a human experience that enriches both learner and tutor.

The Adult Tutoring program boasts thirty-seven adult tutors, serves forty Afghan women, and recently extended services to the Karan-Burmese community.  Eleven new Karan-Burmese learners are now enrolled, for whom TRR is seeking male and female tutors from the community.

In October of 2014, when Rana, a TRR client, arrived in the United States with her family from Afghanistan, her education had not been completed.  She had lived in a country torn apart by war and was forced to put her education on hold, as her homeland was extremely unsafe.  Upon arriving in America, she couldn’t write or speak English.  “I felt how important that really was. I wanted to learn the language and immerse myself into the American culture and community as well as to solve my problems,” Rana says.

Resettled refugees are expected to acquire English language skills and become self-sufficient within just months of arriving—alone, this task seemed daunting.  But once she was paired with her tutor, Sandra Sauder, in the TRR adult program, Rana knew she “would achieve a lot from the opportunity.”

Learners spend two hours per week with their tutor over the course of a year, working closely together to strengthen basic literacy and communication skills. In addition to home sessions, tutors and learners are encouraged to attend social gatherings as a large group every two months. These gatherings are an opportunity for program members to connect with each other while celebrating culture and creating an enjoyable setting to practice English language skills.

Sandy Sauder, volunteer and the first tutor in the program/creator of the program, fell in love with her learners Rana and Anita and their culture and hospitality. She was inspired by their determination to learn English and gain independence in the United States. She says that the hours spent with them have been the best hours of her week.  “Rana and Anita have their driver’s licenses now. They can manage doctor’s visits, school meetings, and shopping without a translator. Next year, they will be eligible to become citizens. Sitting with these young women for a couple hours each week, I have experienced joy and fulfillment beyond anything I’ve ever known,” Sandy says. She adds that she has also learned much in the process, explaining, ”I can make a real difference in the world with nothing more than my willingness. I’m convinced that if lasting bridges are to be built across cultures and religions, it will happen like this– woman to woman, one conversation at a time.”

How can I help?

If being an adult tutor is something that interests you, please reach out to Thomas Kate,  Program Coordinator of Extended Services, at

Adult tutor volunteers undergo screening and receive training and support from the Refugee Response staff before and throughout their tutoring assignments. Interested volunteers must submit an application, complete a phone interview with TRR staff, pass a background check, and attend a general program orientation.

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