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Louisville leads the way in refugee resettlement

This article was originally published in Louisville Distilled on April 26, 2016.
Yama Sharifi and his wife.

A teen participant in the After School Program at the Americana Community Center.

Two girls giggle as they read books from the library's book mobile during the Americana Community Center's Summer Youth program.

A Bhutanese woman picks bitter melons, a vegetable native to her home country, from her family's plot in the community garden at the Americana Community Center.

Third and fourth grade Americana Community Center participants pose for a picture on a field trip at the Louisville Zoo.

Mural painted by Americana Community Center participants.

Fiberworks projects at the Americana Community Center.

On a recent Monday morning in the Iroquois neighborhood, Americana Community Center (4801 Southside Dr.) bustles with some of Louisville’s—and the United States –newest residents. In the main office, Executive Director Edgardo Mansilla is talking with an Arabic-speaking couple about starting a new language class. The receptionist in the main office answers an endless stream of phone calls with questions about English as a Second Language (ESL) classes and family education programs at the center. Down the hall, children of immigrants and refugees play and eat in a colorful daycare while their parents work. On the floor above them, classrooms are filled with adults from around the world paying close attention in ESL and GED classes or tailoring resumes in the computer lab in hopes of finding or improving work opportunities.
 
This is the work of refugees integrating into American society. It is happening across the country; but Kentucky is among the top states receiving resettled refugees due to a large federal refugee resettlement program here. Last year Kentucky accepted 2,048 refugees, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Sixty-one percent of those refugees settled in Louisville. And those numbers are only expected to increase.
 
The influx of residents who do not speak English, children who struggle with our education system, and adults in need of employment, all while adjusting to an entirely new culture, can overwhelm a city and its support services almost as much as the individuals themselves. But thanks to a handful of organizations that are thriving with minimal staff and countless volunteers, Louisville is living up to its moniker as a Compassionate City.
 
A Host City
Americana Community Center, Kentucky Refugee Ministries (969 Cherokee Rd.) and Catholic Charities of Louisville (2220 W. Market St.) are at the forefront of the effort to integrate refugees into Louisville. But their work is in many ways dependent on the generosity of the community. Many religious institutions, school and community organizations, and individuals stepped up to donate funds, household items and other essentials, including time, as the plight of refugees becomes more visible.
 
“The city of Louisville has been a wonderful host and home to refugees,” says Antigona Mehani, an employment services manager at Kentucky Refugee Ministries (KRM). “The community has shown so much support and gratitude towards this new American population. We have received an overwhelming number of requests to volunteer, employment opportunity offers and even monetary funds.”

While federal grants offer some support to the organizations doing the heavy lifting, these private efforts are invaluable in providing a smooth transition for refugees.
 
“We try to do as much as we can through donations, and we have a lot of great partners in the community,” says Chris Martini, communications director at Catholic Charities. “People come through when we need them to.”
 
Planning for Arrival
Refugees placed in Louisville are generally guided through their first few months here by staff and volunteers at Catholic Charities’ Migration and Refugee Services or KRM. “We learn about [newly-arriving] refugees a week ahead of time at most. Then we try to have them work toward self-sufficiency in three months,” says Martini.
 
Once Catholic Charities or KRM receives notice that a refugee family is coming, they jump into action locating housing, stocking it with essentials such as basic furniture, linens, groceries and weather-appropriate clothing. They arrange for someone to meet the refugee family at the airport, take them to their apartment, introduce them to the TARC system, and set them up with food stamps and health screenings. Additionally, children and adults are offered ESL classes and, when possible, are paired with a volunteer mentor. “The mentoring program is the big thing. That gets them outside the structure in a more one-on-one atmosphere, getting them acclimated to Louisville in general,” says Martini.
 
If the adults are already proficient in English, job training and placement services are provided. Both organizations also offer cultural orientation programs to acquaint refugees with American systems and culture. KRM’s weekly cultural orientation class cycles through approximately sixteen regular topics like housing safety, banks and paychecks, and cultural adjustment, says Rachel Droste, the cultural orientation coordinator at KRM, but it also offers other topics that vary depending on the needs and backgrounds of their clients at the time.
 
“Some popular presentations we've had lately were about financial literacy and job retention and unions,” says Droste. “We recently added a lesson about buying and maintaining a car that was very well received.”
 
A Successful Transition
Yama Sharifi, an Afghan refugee who arrived in Louisville with his wife and young daughter in January, is grateful for the assistance he receives from KRM. “The KRM [have been] very helpful and supportive. Before [we arrived] they provided a nice house. We had a case manager at the airport that took us to our home. They provided the first materials we needed—beds, blankets, food, water, cash, groceries,” says Sharifi.
 
After taking a couple days to settle in, they were introduced to the full gamut of KRM services. Now, Sharifi’s wife, a former school teacher in Afghanistan, is improving her English in ESL classes. They also attend a variety of cultural orientation classes to get acquainted with American systems and other cultural differences.
 
“Through KRM, we have a computer class, and they are teaching us about support services in the community and how to get familiar with the community. All the things we need, KRM provides,” Sharifi says.
 
Sharifi, a fluent English-speaker with a degree in political science and law, worked for several years on American government projects in Afghanistan. He started the Victim Witness Assistant Program in Kabul, providing legal consulting and assistance to female victims of domestic violence. The work was rewarding, but risky.
 
“Working for the female victims and U.S. government, it was very dangerous for me and my family. We were threatened many times,” Sharifi says. Concerned for their safety, he applied for a Special Immigrant Visa, which allows certain Afghan and Iraqi nationals who worked with the U.S. military to be resettled in the U.S.
 
Since arriving, Sharifi has worked with Mehani at KRM, to find new employment in Louisville. Sharifi feels optimistic about the future. He hopes to put his degree and legal experience to work in an office setting, perhaps as a paralegal or in a managerial position. He’s already had several job interviews.
 
Value in Hiring Refugees
Mehani sees many refugees like Sharifi—educated, fluent in English and ready to work—who have a lot to offer employers. But, she points out, even those with less formal education, have life experience that makes them excellent prospective employees.
 
“Refugees bring personal initiative, skills and a strong work ethic to the workplace,” she says. “We know that refugees are survivors of great adversity, having lost their homes, personal property and careers. Their need to regain self-sufficiency, their interest in acquiring new skills and their desire to attain economic stability for their families make them excellent prospects for hire at all levels.”
 
Local employers who hire refugees certainly recognize their value. Many employers return to KRM and Catholic Charities for new hires again and again. “We have a long history of employers coming to us,” Martini says. “Right now people come to us because we have a good history of good workers who stay [with an employer] for a long time.”
 
Mehani also receives positive feedback from her employer contacts. “Employers have been so receptive and have heard that refugees show great work ethics, so they continually contact us,” she says. “It also helps that we are always there for them as a support system for their new workforce.”
 
Additionally, Mehani points out that hiring refugees just makes good business sense. “All of our services are free of charge. We tell employers that they can redirect their company’s resources from advertising and staffing agencies to other pursuits.” she says. “Also, a business could qualify for certain tax credits and training incentives when it employs those receiving public assistance.”
 
Once You Have a Job, How do You Get There?
Of course, there are also many challenges for refugees seeking employment. Many still struggle with the language and finding reliable transportation in a city that has not prioritized public transit. “Companies are moving towards the East End, making it difficult for our clients to get there even though opportunities are there,” says Mehani. “We can’t necessarily rely on public transit depending on shifts. Some buses don’t even make it past nine or ten at night, making it difficult for our clients who work second shift and are off by 11 p.m. or even later.”
 
Those who are lucky enough to have a shift and route that works well with the bus system can still find the process too intimidating because of the language barrier. Mansilla suggests that even simple changes to TARC buses, like providing signage for non-English speakers, would make them more accessible to the refugee population.
 
Sharifi recalls how difficult it was in his first weeks in Louisville without a car. “The weather was very cold and the transportation system [was not good],” he says. “Buses come only every twenty or thirty minutes, so that was a little bit hard for us because we have a small baby.”
 
Soon after arriving, their daughter became very ill, and Sharifi blames the long periods of waiting in frigid temperatures for buses. Thankfully, KRM assisted him with signing up for Medicaid when they arrived. So his daughter received the life-saving treatment she needed. Now, he and his wife share a car and have more freedom to move around the city with their daughter.
 
Having caring neighbors who are willing to assist refugee families can make all the difference. The Sharifi family is fortunate to have settled in a home on South Preston Street surrounded by helpful neighbors, including one of Sharifi’s former co-workers from Afghanistan, who now works with Catholic Charities. “He has supported me very much. It would have been very difficult without him,” Sharifi says. “The area in which I’m living is very supportive. [We have] great neighbors.”
 
Not Always a Warm Welcome 
Unfortunately, refugees in other cities are not always greeted with the same enthusiasm. Suada, a refugee from Somalia who prefers not to be identified with her first name, knows first-hand that not all U.S. cities are alike in their treatment of refugees. When Suada arrived in the U.S. as a young girl, she and her family were placed in Dallas for resettlement. Having fled their home in Somalia in the early morning with very few of their belongings, then surviving years in a Kenyan refugee camp, they were impoverished and eager to find work and stability in a safe place. When they arrived in Texas, Suada and her family found themselves alone in a strange land with no resources and no community support.
 
“In Texas, we had no assistance with language or jobs,” she says. “Our home was terrible. There were cockroaches everywhere.” She describes being placed in a public school with culture shock and no ESL preparation. “Some days, we felt the refugee camp was better because at least we weren’t alone.”
 
Five years later, Suada followed her family to Minnesota for job opportunities. “There was more support to help with learning English there, but it was around 9/11, and people would throw things at us and tell us to go home. But I felt like America was my home,” she recalls, explaining that as members of a minority Muslim sect in Somalia, her family received similar treatment there before fleeing. Finally, as a young adult, Suada married and moved to Louisville with her husband. She soon found the Americana Community Center.
 
“The support [at Americana] is amazing. I’ve learned so much since I’ve been here,” says Suada. In addition to language classes and job placement services, Suada has taken advantage of Americana’s Family Coaching, which provides participant families with one-on-one coaching to set and achieve goals for their family. “Any need you have as a parent; [Americana is] there for you. It’s incredible,” she says.
 
Serving the People, Community
Mansilla, who came to Louisville in 1990 from his native Buenos Aires, Argentina, clearly recalls the confusion he experienced trying to learn American customs and systems during his first years in the U.S. He draws on that experience to keep Americana focused on the needs of its community. Americana provides similar services to newly-arriving refugees as KRM and Catholic Charities, but whereas those organizations focus primarily on assisting refugee families in the months immediately following their arrival, Americana builds a relationship with its participants that sometimes lasts a lifetime. Mansilla explains that Americana takes a holistic approach to its work, thus touching on every aspect of life for refugees. And while its staff takes their work and mission very seriously, Americana is not a business providing services.
 
“We’re here to serve the people,” Mansilla explains. These individuals are “participants” not “clients,” insists Mansilla. “We don’t create programs for the sake of grants, but [instead based on] what the community needs. We have regular conversations with participants about what they feel they need and then work to fill that need.” He says.
 
While Americana helps refugees learn English, file taxes, find work and prepare for citizenship, it is also a place where families throw weddings and celebrate national holidays; where children make art and go to scout meetings; where families share the work and bounty of a community garden; and parents with young children come together for playgroups.
 
Mansilla believes that maintaining this close connection to the people Americana serves is key to serving its community. “The failure in any group is when you don’t know the strengths and needs of the people you serve,” says Mansilla.
 
Americana has a core belief that every human has dignity and should be treated as such. That allows its participants to be part of the community beyond just receiving assistance. Often, Americana, is merely a facilitator in bringing participants’ ideas to fruition. When participants can share their strengths with others, it becomes an enriching experience for all involved.
 
This is what Emilie Dyer, a family coach at Americana, has observed with the women involved in the Americana Fiberworks project. It offers a place for participants to learn new fiber arts skills, such as sewing, quilting and weaving. Participants can then bring their finished products home for personal use or sell them for profit. Most of the participants involved used these skills in their home countries, but are using the time at Fiberworks to share or improve their skills. “It’s exciting for them to build on a skill that they already have. It’s a real confidence builder,” says Dyer.
 
Youth Programs Help Children Excel
Perhaps, Americana’s most valuable work, however, is with the children. Americana offers several educational programs that help students thrive. Of the 385 students, Kindergarten through 12th grade, served by Americana’s after-school program, ninety-one percent are children of refugees or immigrants. Participants get a healthy meal from Dare to Care’s Kids Cafe, homework help, tutoring, and exposure to activities, like fitness and art.
 
Poor children often miss after school enrichment opportunities due to cost and lack of transportation, says Mansilla, so it is an important part of Americana’s program. Art, in particular, is a huge part of the youth program.
 
“We rely heavily on the arts because it’s an effective way for children who lack English language skills to express and emote,” says Dyer. And since many of the children in the program survived trauma, it is an important emotional outlet for them.
 
For many years it was a challenge to get participants’ children involved in the after-school program because kids that relied on JCPS buses to get home were not able to get to Americana after their drop-off. Mansilla asked JCPS officials to assist them for years to no avail. After Donna Hargens became superintendent, Mansilla says, Americana’s conversations with JCPS became more productive. Three years ago, JCPS buses began dropping students off at Americana, so kids can go to the after-school program rather than an empty home.
 
Whether it is the increased cooperation from JCPS, enrichment programs or the numerous volunteers who help with academics, something at Americana is working. Although many of the student-participants lacked a formal education before arriving in the United States and speak English as a second language, the average GPA for middle and high school students in the program is 3.3. And for four years in a row, every single high school senior in the Americana after-school program has gone on to attend college.
 
“Sometimes we look so much at what is wrong, we forget what is good”
Of course, not everyone has voiced total support for the refugee resettlement programs in Kentucky. Following the terrorist attacks in Paris last year, some U.S. senators, including Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, and numerous state governors, including Matt Bevin, publicly opposed the resettlement of Syrian refugees here. Like most people who are familiar with the rigorous screening process that refugees must endure before being placed in the U.S., Mansilla has little patience for such grandstanding. Having to explain the process is a distraction from the real work, he explains. Regardless, negative political rhetoric has not altered the flow of refugee resettlement in Kentucky or elsewhere. Last year, 113 Syrian refugees resettled in Kentucky, according to ORR, with more than 80 percent of them landing in Louisville. But the vast majority of Kentucky’s refugees come from Congo, Somalia and Bhutan.
 
Mayor Greg Fischer and U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth have consistently encouraged a position of tolerance, support and unity toward Louisville’s refugee population. At a Breakfast Briefing at Adath Jeshurun Synagogue, where Suada told her story, Rep. Yarmuth praised Louisville for its “absolutely phenomenal” response to the refugees here. He noted that despite the “fear-mongering and xenophobia” in politics, many Louisvillians are seeing that resettled refugees give Louisvillians the opportunity to “learn what the world is like—its beauty and its tragedy.”
 
At that same Breakfast Briefing, Mansilla cautioned: “Sometimes we look so much at what is wrong, we forget what is good.” There is a lot of good happening in Louisville for refugees. Certainly, there is always room for more partnerships, more volunteers, more programs and more funding as Louisville finds ways to integrate an increasing number of refugees into our community. But if the goal is to find ways to integrate that community while treating them with dignity and compassion, this city is on the right track.
 
 
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