Refugees face many issues when resettling. Resettlement organizations such as the Kentucky Refugee Ministries (KRM) were created with the purpose of making this resettlement process easier. Founded 30 years ago in Louisville Kentucky, KRM has since expanded to two additional cities: Lexington and Covington, and has helped thousands of refugees adjust to living in the U.S.
I met with Derek Feldman, Community Engagement Coordinator for Lexington’s branch, to discuss some common struggles refugees face in resettlement and how KRM and similar organizations address these issues.
What are some common struggles refugees face in resettlement?
There are a lot, but there are some common themes. Oftentimes there's issues with learning a new language. Some come with fairly high levels of English skill, but we have others who have very little English when they come. So language is always a big issue. There's often some cultural differences or struggles of learning a new culture. It’s also learning the lay of the town.
Work and jobs are important, and school can be important for those with children. Some young adults, especially if they have relatively high levels of English, may be interested in going to school or a community college. But finding a job is perhaps the most important. Finding affordable housing is also important so that they can sustain themselves over the long term. Those are some general issues refugees face.
How does KRM address these issues?
When it comes to affordable housing, we have a housing coordinator who helps find housing. We work with the refugees arriving, and their U.S. ties. They usually have a U.S. tie here in Lexington and so sometimes they may be moving in with them. Other times they won't, and they'll be moving in with another family member. Or maybe they'll need their own apartment. It also depends on the size of the family. If it's a single person, we might have another single person and they might prefer to have a roommate. If it's a family of four, they might need a two bedroom apartment. We work to make sure that they have appropriate, safe, and affordable housing.
We have employment specialists who are connected with local employers, who help provide job readiness skills classes for our clients and help them connect with possible employers. Jobs are extremely important, so we work to do that.
We have English classes. We do assessments when they first arrive to determine what level of skill they may have. They may be in more of a beginner class, in an intermediate class, and then some may be able to test out completely because they are already fluent in English.
We have a cultural orientation class for all of our clients. That’s about learning the culture of the United States and, more specifically, Kentucky and Lexington. It ranges from things like food and food preparation, you know, what kinds of foods are available at the grocery store and how to prepare some of those foods that might not be familiar. We have guest speakers often come into a cultural orientation class. Perhaps it's the local police department or fire department who talk about how to call 911, what an emergency is, and who will come if you call 911. It may be information about the difference between over the counter medication and going to the doctor for a prescription. How to make sure that you take medication as prescribed, not take too many Tylenol, or if you're prescribed medication by a doctor to make sure that you're doing that appropriately. There are all kinds of things like that, that are part of cultural orientation class.
What does KRM do to celebrate the cultures of the clients they help?
There are a couple of things. One, we have an annual Kentucky Refugee and Immigrant Inclusions summit, which is basically a conference. Often we invite a lot of community partners, allies, and educators. We normally have it at the downtown library, and we have all kinds of sessions. Sometimes it's legal updates, or it's cultural competency working with clients from the Congo, or asylum seekers and some background in history on migration from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador. We cover a whole bunch of different topics. For example, one of them this year was sort of the intersection between race and racism, and refugee experience and resettlement. So it was kind of a battle between some differences between African immigrants to the U.S., and some similarities with African Americans living in the U.S. when it comes to issues of racial profiling or even police brutality. We cover all kinds of topics and try to stay relevant to what's happening right now.
We also have an event centered around World Refugee Day, which is June 20. We have a party/celebration of cultures. It's a community event with lots of art, music, and food.
We don't have the Children's Choir right now (due to the pandemic), but we have had it in the past and we would like to have it in the future. There is definitely interest from our clients and from the community as well, to have a children's choir to express themselves artistically and musically as a group There definitely seems to be a very big audience in Lexington and in Kentucky, that wants to hear and and see this kind of expression. It's also an opportunity to learn English and a way of memorizing words. In the past they've learned songs like My Old Kentucky Home. But [they also sing] songs in Swahili.
How long do you work with an individual or family?
We can provide direct services for eight months, where we can help with employment, housing, English and cultural orientation classes, legal services if needed. So that's kind of the bulk of the work that we do within those first eight months. After that, most are expected to become self-sufficient. Now, that's not always possible for some people, maybe because of age, the family dynamics, mental health issues, or other health issues, they might not be able to be expected to be fully self sufficient within eight months. So we can work with clients for up to five years.
How has the pandemic affected KRM and the refugees they help?
In lots of ways, as you can imagine. One, there has been travel restrictions, which has significantly reduced the number of new arrivals. Kentucky Refugee Ministries’ Lexington office still provides lots of services for those clients who have arrived, pre-March, but also we provide services for secondary migrants, which are people who may have been resettled in another city or another part of the country but have moved to Lexington either to be closer to different family members or because of job opportunities or for any number of reasons. So, we're still providing lots of opportunities to clients. We have had a few new arrivals which are kind of emergency cases where they basically got special permission to travel during this time, but it's pretty rare. Everything has changed. Our office is not open to clients to just walk in. We work with clients over the phone or via Zoom or some other kind of conferencing software. WhatsApp, for example, is very popular with our clients, so we use that a lot. So whenever possible, we do it over the phone or over the computer. In emergency cases we'll make an appointment where someone can meet with us one on one.
The Kentucky Refugee Ministries continues to be an integral part of Lexington’s immigrant community. KRM’s services are made possible due to donations and volunteering. If you would like to support KRM’s efforts you can find more information here. To find an organization similar to KRM in your local community you can visit the Office of Refugee Resettlement . There you can click on the state you reside in, and it will show you what agencies are in your area.
- About. (n.d.). Retrieved July 31, 2020, from https://kyrm.org/about/
- Find Resources and Contacts in Your State. (n.d.). Retrieved July 31, 2020, from https://www.acf.hhs.gov/orr/state-programs-annual-overview