This article appears in the July 2011 issue of LouisvilleMagazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com.
Imagine that your home becomes so dangerous, you have to leave — not just your house, but your country. Imagine that you and your family have to escape in the middle of the night with nothing but what you can carry. Imagine that another country agrees to take you in, but you don’t speak the language, you don’t recognize anything in the grocery store and nobody else on the street looks like you.
If you’re on a TARC bus near the corner of Cherokee Road and Highland Avenue, you might be sitting next to someone with this very story, on his way to the offices of Kentucky Refugee Ministries. One of the first things a KRM client learns is how to take the bus to the office, because that’s where everything happens: English classes, employment classes, consultations with case managers, and maybe, most importantly, a connection with others on the same journey.
On a recent morning, KRM clients gathered for their weekly cultural orientation classes, which feature lectures on every aspect of living in America: health-care providers, the fire department, police officers, how to save money at the grocery, how to buy a car. The clients act kind of like college students you might find anywhere, hanging out in the sunshine before class, but instead of Tri Delts and Sig Eps, it’s Bhutanese in the stairwell, Cubans by the door, Iraqis around the table. Class is supposed to start at 11:15, but at 11:30 they’re still filing into a small classroom with long narrow tables crammed close together.
“Why are you so late, guys?” says Amal Musa, a Palestinian woman who is an interpreter and den mother for the Arabic speakers. She sits in the front of the room, heckling the latecomers. Two women in bright pink and mustard-yellow tops, both with gold nose rings, look down at their feet and smile as they make their way to the back of the room.
A PowerPoint presentation titled “Watch Your Smile: The Importance of Proper Oral Hygiene” is projected on a small screen at the front of the room, and teacher Steve Worful calls the class to attention and introduces the guest speaker. He speaks slowly and clearly, without condescension but in a simple way so that the new English speakers can understand. After each sentence, Worful pauses to let the various interpreters repeat his words in Nepali, Somali, Arabic and Korean. It’s a funny effect: The room is quiet while Worful speaks, then explodes in a cacophony of languages, each interpreter trying to speak over the other to make sure their group understands.
Across the street, in the fellowship hall at Highland Presbyterian Church, some 50 Cuban refugees sit on metal folding chairs for a presentation on mental health and the emotional challenges of coming to America. Because they all speak the same language, there’s near constant chatter as Susan Rhema, a psychotherapist and acculturationist, explains the normal pattern of elation, disappointment and rebounding that most refugees go through. Somebody asks a question about the health-care system in the U.S., very different from the state-run system that Cubans are used to, and Rhema delivers the bad news.
“I’m sorry to tell you that health care will be a problem for a long time,” she says, to groans in the room.
The interpreter for this session is a KRM success story: Sergio Estrada, a Cuban who came to the United States nine years ago. He spoke no English when he arrived by plane in Miami with his wife and two young children. “My oldest had a fever, my youngest was crying, I had a hundred dollars in my pocket, and a Coke in the airport was three dollars,” he says. “I didn’t know how I was going to live.”
A stranger at the Miami airport gave Estrada a business card with a phone number on it, which eventually connected him to Kentucky Refugee Ministries. KRM brought him to Louisville, signed him up for English classes and helped him find work as a carpenter. Later, he managed an apartment complex, then earned his real estate license. He comes to interpret for the classes — at $15 an hour, much less than he makes selling real estate with Real Estate Unlimited — because he says KRM was the key to his new life.
Estrada’s story is exactly what refugee resettlement agencies like KRM want to witness: A newly arrived refugee takes advantage of services for a short time, then builds a self-sufficient life as a productive member of society. Elizabeth Kaznak, executive director of KRM, acknowledges that refugees use public resources like food stamps and health services, but she says it’s an investment in future Americans.
“What gets highlighted is the resources it takes to get (refugees) started and up and going, but we don’t measure other populations with that same kind of measuring stick,” Kaznak says. “They’re all admitted legally and they have the right to access programs like anybody else, so we try to teach them what those programs are and what’s available.”
These days, Iraqi refugees are one of the largest groups that KRM is resettling. (KRM brought 152 refugees from Iraq to Louisville in 2010.) Isam Alhadeethi, 52, and his wife Salma, 49, arrived from Baghdad in February, where Isam was working as an interpreter for the U.S. military.
“That make my life in jeopardy,” he says, “because everybody who works with the United States must be killed. That’s the law in that country. We have to hide ourselves. We have to keep it secret even from our relatives, so nobody knows that we are working in that place.”
A series of threatening phone calls convinced the Alhadeethis that it was time to leave, so they found help from the U.S. Embassy under a special program that fast-tracks refugee status for Iraqis who have helped the U.S. Their adult daughter and her family are still in Baghdad and have also applied for refugee status. Because of the large number of Arabic speakers in Louisville, Isam hopes to find work as an interpreter. Salma worked as a nurse in Iraq, but needs to learn English before she can start looking for a job.
The Alhadeethis can’t say enough good things about the help they’ve received from KRM. “From the beginning they received us from the airport, and they give us many things,” Isam says. “They treat us just like American citizens, so we didn’t feel that we are strangers.”
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) defines a refugee as a person who has left his or her home country because of “a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality or membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” A person can only apply for official refugee status once he leaves his home country, and some people spend decades in “temporary” homes like refugee camps, waiting for another country to take them in. In essence, refugees have to take a leap into the unknown and hope that someone will step forward to help.
Refugees move through a complex program: from a Resettlement Support Center overseas run by the U.S. State Department, to one of 10 voluntary resettlement agencies in the United States, which are mostly run by faith-based groups. Those agencies funnel refugees to local entities like KRM for on-the-ground services. KRM has been operating in Louisville and Lexington for 21 years and is an affiliate of two resettlement agencies, Church World Service and Episcopal Migration Ministries.
The United States took in nearly 75,000 refugees in 2009, and about 1,000 a year find their way to Louisville and Lexington through Kentucky Refugee Ministries. KRM staffers and volunteers meet new arrivals at the airport, take them to an apartment that has been rented for them and furnished with mostly donated items, then begin the long process of helping refugees reboot their lives.
Each refugee arrives with a $900 loan from the federal government. Repayment starts after 90 days, so they have to find a job fast. (Refugees who enter the U.S. through the official resettlement program are legally allowed to work.) In addition to English classes and cultural orientation classes, all clients are enrolled in “World for Work,” which is specifically about how to get and keep a job: putting a resume together, being on time for work and other basic skills. KRM also has a family center, a youth mentorship program, a speaker’s bureau, a beading group and a sewing group, providing lots of opportunities for refugees to connect.
Predictably, the issue of refugees in America can get wrapped up in the general immigration debate. There are groups who say the U.S. refugee program isn’t supportive enough, that refugees don’t get what they need in order to be successful. These groups, including the Center for Immigration Studies, tend to prefer reducing the number of refugees allowed into the country each year. Legal refugees can face pushback from communities who feel overwhelmed by illegal immigrants, even though the circumstances of each group’s arrival are different.
And then there is the security issue. In early June, two Iraqi men living in Bowling Green, Ky., were arrested on charges of plotting to help al-Qaeda attack American troops in Iraq. The men entered the country in 2009 as refugees. There was fingerprint evidence that linked one of the men to terrorist activity in Iraq before he came to the United States, but officials at the Department of Homeland Security never made the connection.
The State Department recently instituted an extra security check on all refugees, which has put the entire system on a 60-day delay. But Kaznak is pragmatic. “We don’t want anybody to ever blame the refugee program for letting somebody slip in through that program to do harm, because refugees are not trying to do harm to the United States,” she says. “They are victims of outside circumstances that have caused them to lose everything.”
KRM has a special Cuban-Haitian program that serves about 170 Cubans and a handful of Haitians each year. Haitian refugees to the U.S. are usually admitted because of medical needs, and U.S. policy allows Cubans to seek asylum as soon as they put a foot on U.S. soil. Steve Worful, who teaches English and cultural orientation classes at KRM, says Cubans often have an easier time getting started in Louisville than the Bhutanese, for example, because there’s a large Hispanic community already in place, and new arrivals can find work even if they don’t speak English.
Gilberto Ramirez, 50, ran a rental-car business in Havana before coming to America in April. He says he was curious about the world outside Cuba, and because his work put him in touch with tourists from all over, he started to develop friendships with foreigners. He also had illegal Internet and satellite TV at home. “That was a problem for me because I almost go to jail for that reason,” he says. “Cuba is very complicated, you know. My thoughts are different and do not agree with the government. They start to make my life impossible.”
He spent eight months in Mexico, waiting until his wife Maria, a former coach of the Cuban national synchronized swimming team, could join him, and they crossed the border into the United States together. They had hoped to stay with friends in Miami, but when that didn’t work out they connected with Church World Service, which offered to send them to Louisville.
“It’s been very wonderful experience to come here,” Ramirez says. “The people are very friendly. Before I arrived here, I know I have an apartment here. That’s wonderful. Even in my country they didn’t do that for us.” Ramirez is also trained in 3D computer-assisted drawing, and hopes to find work in an architecture firm. Maria, 32, doesn’t speak much English yet, but would like to use her skills as a swim coach. Ramirez also has an adult daughter from his first marriage who is planning to come to Miami.
“It all sounds very rosy but the hard work is really on them,” Kaznak says. “They’ve already worked really hard in their lives to get here, and there’s this little kind of lily pad to stand on while they transition and adjust. But they’re so determined to keep working, because it’s their lives.”
Kaznak considers Louisville a welcoming community for refugees, and credits Louisville Metro government, including the re-created Office for Globalization, with helping create that atmosphere. She mentions two young men who missed their bus stop on the way to the KRM offices and wound up lost in the West End. “They looked around and they knew they weren’t where they were supposed to be,” Kaznak says, “but that bus driver over the years has dropped off so many people from all over the world, right there at our doorstep, and he knew exactly what had happened. And he brought them to us.”
Photo courtesy of: John Nation