Kathleen Sanow

Kathleen Sanow has enjoyed a rich and rewarding career in the human resources profession. Boston, Denver, DC and Dallas are some of the locales which she and her husband Dennis Runkle have called home over the past three decades. But after two years of volunteering at the Hope Center, Building Hope In The City’s refugee ministry, Kathleen has a new calling – helping refugees and immigrants become U.S. citizens.

“Most of the people I come into contact with have virtually nothing, but their attitude is amazingly positive,” she explains. “Some have been living in refugee camps for many years, and they are ready to learn English and to get their lives going in a happier direction. They will do anything to make certain that their children are in a safer and better place.”

While living in Dallas in 2008, Kathleen first became aware of the need to help those from other countries learn English. “I taught English as a Second Language (ESL) courses as part of a Texas Workforce project, and found that I loved doing it,” she recalls. “When Dennis and I retired to Lakewood in 2013, I went looking for the opportunity to continue teaching ESL.”

Fast forward to 2015, when Building Hope in the City launched its Hope Center in the West Park neighborhood.  New director Eileen Wilson got a call from Kathleen, wanting to help. “She was passionate about assisting us,” Eileen recalls. “Once she got here, it was apparent why. Kathleen is an unbelievably compassionate volunteer who puts her heart and soul into teaching immigrants and refugees, preparing them to become U.S. citizens.”

Before long, Kathleen became known at Building Hope as the citizenship tutor. She took on a major task of helping take refugees who’d been through a citizenship course, and then preparing them for the immigration examination.

It’s not an easy process. There are 100 civics questions on the written portion of the test. If the applicant passes, next they are asked up to 10 questions on the exam’s oral portion. Applicants must answer as least six of those correctly to succeed in that portion as well.

Here is a link to the U.S. Customs and Immigration Servies (USCIS)’s written citizenship exam. Take a look and ask yourself how well you would do on the exam:


“Nowadays, USCIS wants to make certain applicants for citizenship can be conversationalists in English,” Kathleen explains.  “This means you should be able to explain the neighborhood where you live, or talk about the school where your children learn. It’s a test to see if the applicant can use the language well. That’s a challenge for some immigrants and refugees, one which we practice to overcome,” she adds.

sanow with infant
Sanow with the infant of one of the refugee moms in her citizenship class.

At times, Kathleen is the final person in a chain of volunteers who helps transform refugees’ lives from tragedy into triumph. “We worked with a former Iraqi police officer named Michael who fled the country because he knew an upcoming ethnic ‘cleansing’ drive would probably result in his imprisonment and death,” she explains. “He’d been here for five years, and although wasn’t quite literate he wanted to take the citizenship exam. He was really smart, and ended up memorizing all the answers to the written exam. So we practiced and practiced on the conversational end until he mastered the oral skills necessary. He passed both portions, and now he’s a U.S. citizen working at a local restaurant.”

The Cleveland and Northeast Ohio area is also home to refugees from Nepal who have been forcibly expelled from Bhutan in an ethnic cleansing movement that began there nearly 30 years ago. Some of these refugees have scraped by, barely surviving in refugee camps in Nepal for decades.

“I worked with a woman in late ‘40s who had been in a camp for 23 years, about half of her life,” Kathleen recalls. “She, her husband, and her two children had no jobs, no schools, and no hope while trapped in that camp for so long. They just waited and waited and waited some more until their immigration number came up. Then, years later, they end up here with me helping them become citizens.”

So far, Kathleen has been able to help about a dozen refugees become citizens. “It’s a special day when they get to go to the Federal Courthouse and become sworn in as U.S. citizens,” she says. “My husband comes to the ceremony with me, takes pictures, and we share the moment with them. For some it’s the culmination of months and even years of hard work. Through that process, many of these refugees and immigrants almost become a second family for me.”

Kathleen remembers giving one refugee who lacked transportation a ride home to an apartment in the Birdtown neighborhood of Lakewood. “The lady insisted on inviting me in,” she remembers. “They had virtually no furniture or anything of value in that place, but it was so clean you could eat off the floors in the rooms. Many of the immigrants we assist are proud, hard-working people. This woman had virtually nothing, yet she gave me a bracelet as a way to say ‘thank you’ for the ride. Her generosity  made me cry.”

Kathleen Sanow sees the Hope Center as both an emotional and programmatic lifeline for immigrants to NE Ohio. “There a closeness, an intimacy, at this place which is far stronger than anything I’ve ever done before,” Kathleen explains. “The people we serve here are so desperate, so longing to help themselves, and we form tremendous bonds with them. We will do anything in our power to help them succeed.”

“One of the most wonderful things about Kathleen is her willingness to give so much of herself, and to open her own heart to the messiness and challenges of immigrants and refugees struggling to succeed here in Northeast Ohio,” Eileen Wilson says of Sanow. “She sees the possibilities of a better future for them, and she helps turn their lives around.”

Kathleen Sanow is at the Hope Center two days a week, counseling up to 10 immigrants at a time preparing to the USCIS citizen exam. Here’s a link to more information about the Hope Center:  http://buildinghopeinthecity.org/cleveland/the-hope-center/

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