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Coming from nothing makes giving all the more important to refugees at Whitehall Place

| Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Refugees from two of the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council’s adult education classes show off the items they donated to Catholic Charities to be given to newly arrived refugees this holiday season. Individuals pictured live in Whitehall Place, formerly Prospect Park housing complex.
Submitted photo
Refugees from two of the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council’s adult education classes show off the items they donated to Catholic Charities to be given to newly arrived refugees this holiday season. Individuals pictured live in Whitehall Place, formerly Prospect Park housing complex.

Tulasha Rimal remembers the day four years ago when she came to the United States as a refugee from Bhutan. She struggled to understand the culture and language of her new land.

Yet the kindness and generosity of others made all the difference, she said, and now it's her turn to help others in a similar situation, settling into a new country.

“I came to the United States. It's home now,” said Rimal, 45, of Whitehall. “It's important to help others.... I understand now. Now I help new people.”

About 90 English as second language students participating in 11 Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council classes at Whitehall Place, formerly the Prospect Park housing complex, donated more than 200 items during the last several weeks to be given to Catholic Charities to help support newly resettled refugees.

The students, mostly refugees themselves who came to the U.S. within the last three or four years from Bhutan, Burma, Turkey, Thailand and south Sudan, donated toiletry items, trash bags, clothing and toys.

“I think our students really like having the opportunity to help and give back,” said Beth Kocsis, family literature coordinator with the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council. “It's important to know that you don't have to have a lot of money to give back.”

The idea to have refugees in the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council's classes at the Whitehall complex give to others during the holidays started three years ago, when program services manager Many Ly saw a poster in the Whitehall Public Library seeking donations for military service members.

Ly said she pitched the idea to Compass AmeriCorps members who were teaching ESL classes at the time. They had concerns at first, she said, about asking those who had been through so much and still have so little to give. But the idea moved forward.

The first year, the donations started small. Refugees brought in pens and pencils. One woman even donated loose peanuts and a $1 bill, and a small box was given to the Whitehall library for its donation drive.

Last year, the holiday giving project became much larger. It was incorporated into students' learning activities where, as items were donated, they were counted and sorted and the refugees learned about poverty in America.

This year, that idea was expanded and the project became personal for the students. They were helping people going through something they once experienced.

When refugees come to the United States, organizations such as Catholic Charities have apartments set up with used furniture, basic toiletries, an outfit and even a cultural dinner to welcome them, said Sarah Nimeth, a family literature and adult education teacher and Compass AmeriCorps member.

“It's a huge cultural shock,” she said.

Teachers asked students in the literary council classes what they liked having when they arrived.

“We said, ‘Do you remember the first time you came to the U.S.? There are other people that are still coming to the U.S. What do you think they might need?'” Nimeth said.

They talked about who helped them when they arrived, what it was like getting off the plane and coming to a country they knew nothing about. Many didn't know how to read or write in their own language.

“It was amazing to hear their stories of, when you walked into your apartment for the first time what did you see?” Kocsis of the literacy council said.

There was cereal and macaroni and cheese, for example. The students now laugh at the story one woman told of throwing away the macaroni and cheese after taking a bite out of a hard noodle, and thinking the food was bad, Kocsis said.

“They didn't know you had to cook it,” she said.

Coming from nothing makes giving all the more important for the refugees.

“The act of giving is a very empowering act, which is something that our students frankly don't get very often” said Alex Norman, adult and early childhood education teacher and Compass AmeriCorps member.

“They do it openly,” Ly said.

Stephanie Hacke is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5818 or

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