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Jennifer Johnson, Forum News Service, Published November 16 2013

Learning English, Braille ‘new world’ for blind refugee

GRAND FORKS – Jyoti Rai sat slightly hunched over a table Wednesday at Red River High School, fingers clutching a small stylus as she rapidly nicked a piece of paper clasped between two plastic slates.

After a few moments, the ninth-grader removed the paper and flipped it over, running her fingers over the top to check her work. Rai, who was born in a Nepalese refugee camp, is blind and has been using the Braille slate for the past eight years.

Rai represents the district’s first blind English language learner student and is one of a growing number of refugees, particularly ethnic Nepalese from Bhutan, who have been attending area schools. The district has added about 28 refugee students each year since 2008, according to last year’s annual district report.

Still a teenager, Rai has already experienced great tumult. By the time she moved here with her siblings in August, retinal cancer had completely stolen her vision and she had become an orphan. Still, Rai has fully embraced her education and plans to attend college, according to Ivona Todorovic, her ELL teacher.

“She’s very excited to learn and have all of these things that she wasn’t able to have at the refugee camps,” Todorovic said. “It’s a new world for her.”

Rai and her siblings came here from the refugee camp after her uncle, who moved here about a year or so ago, worked with Grand Forks’ New Americans program.

The youngest of five children, Rai now lives with her siblings, the oldest of whom is 25, said Pema Tamang, a bilingual paraprofessional at the school.

A whole team of people – including district employees, special education instructors and a vision specialist – assist Rai with everything from using a cane to working on a science experiment. In the refugee camp, she completely relied on others but now is learning how to do everything herself, her teachers said.

Tamang, a Bhutanese refugee who graduated from Red River, spends every school day with Rai to translate her needs. Shy and extremely soft-spoken, Rai could answer basic questions in English on Wednesday but little else. Although her cognitive abilities are normal, her conversational English is basic and she doesn’t understand idioms, teachers said.

Midge Thompson, teacher of the visually impaired who works with Rai, has been helping the 16-year-old use a modern Braille device that can print out documents and verbalize her writing, among other things. She’s had no problem adjusting from going without electricity to modern technology, she said.

Rai lost her vision at a young age.

She was only about 3 years old when doctors discovered retinal cancer in her right eye, she said through Tamang. Over the next three years, she received chemotherapy, underwent several surgeries that removed both of her eyes, and lost her father, who died of a heart attack, Rai said through Tamang.

No one at her camp knew how to read Braille, so she traveled alone to India to learn the writing system.

“It was so hard,” said Tamang. “She was just 7, and then she had to leave her whole family and move to a different community. They mostly speak Hindi, and so she didn’t understand the language.”

Within a few months, they were able to communicate using very basic English, but after 10 months Rai had to return to Nepal to get more chemotherapy, she said. In 2010, Rai’s mother remarried and abandoned the family, leaving her to be cared for by her siblings and uncles.

Today, Rai is cancer-free. She’ll soon be traveling to Minneapolis for surgery to receive ceramic eyes, which will free her from the sunglasses she wears at all times, said Tamang.

After graduating from high school, Rai wants to attend college and get a job as a social worker or teacher because she likes to help people, she said.

In the meantime, she continues to impress Red River students and staff alike with her grades and proficiency. But she’s quickly picked up skills outside of class, too – she sings and composes her own Christian songs, in part because of her family’s recent conversion to the religion. Her teachers said she’s going to try to take singing lessons next year and wants to learn how to play guitar to accompany her songs.

As one of only a few totally blind students at the school, Rai’s arrival has presented the best kind of challenge to her teachers, who say they love working with her.

“At the end of the day, we are definitely better teachers, and this makes us better human beings,” Todorovic said.