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Oakland Woman Helps Refugees Navigate Life In America

OAKLAND (KPIX 5) Dozens of immigrants from Burma gather each weekend at Karen Christian Fellowship Church in Oakland to teach their children their native language so they don't forget their culture as they build new lives in America.

Kwee Say started the classes, and the families are grateful: she is one of only a handful of Bay Area translators who are fluent in their native tongue, a little-known language named Karen.

"We also teach them how to speak politely, how to respect adults, all those kind of things," Say explained.

Say meets most of the new immigrants while working at Asian Health Services in Oakland. She guides them through the medical maze, from paperwork to prescriptions. In fact, for many of the new immigrants, she represents their lifeline: their translator, their 411 and their 911.

She helped survey the community to figure out what services they community needed most, and started groups to help parents keep their kids healthy. Many of the immigrants may not know the name of their doctors, but they know Kwee, and call the clinic "Kwee's clinic."

"I was in their shoes before, so I totally know how they feel without translator and everything," Say recalled. "They would feel frustrated and lost."

Say herself arrived in the U.S. with her family as an immigrant. She quickly learned English and went on to graduate from U.C. Davis.

So now when her cell phone rings, she's ready for anything, from someone who needs medical help, to Naw Htoo Htoo's family requesting a ride.

"I'm not very good at driving on the highway," Htoo said with a smile. "Those kind of little help goes a long way."

Thar Thermoo Soe says Say is on call 24-7.

"Not only me, for any Karen families, they will call her at night, in the middle of the night, either for child delivery or some other emergency," Soe said through a translator.

When several of the children in the Karen class were born, Say was there.  She'd driven their mothers to the hospital and even got to name the babies.

"It's really a joyful experience," Say said with a quiet laugh.

So for guiding new immigrants as they build their American lives, this week's Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Kwee Say.

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