A changing city: examining Bowling Green’s growing refugee population

Aug 11, 2021 | News

By Helen Gibson

It’s Tuesday, Nov. 9, the day that America elected Donald Trump its 45th president, and the Bowling Green office of the International Center of Kentucky is busy. The two story, red brick building on Kenton Street is filled with some of the United States’ newest residents — refugees from all over the world.

Many are sitting in a small lobby or standing outside of the building, waiting to be seen by a case manager.

Some women wear long dresses and hijabs. Some don’t. Children sit in their mother’s laps and play outside; many of them don’t speak English yet.

They’re part of a group of approximately 440 refugees who were originally planned to be resettled in Bowling Green this year.

According to the Department of State, 3,987 refugees have been resettled in Bowling Green since Oct. 1, 2001. The International Center, a local refugee resettlement agency, has been integral in this process.

From 2010-2014, the U.S. Census estimated 12.7 percent of Bowling Green’s residents were foreign born.

In comparison, Louisville and Lexington had foreign-born populations of 6.7 percent and 9.1 percent, respectively. During that time period, the state average for foreign-born residents was 3.4 percent.

In 2015, the Pew Research Center projected that by 2065, 18 percent of people living in the United States will be foreign born, and another 18 percent of people will have at least one parent who was foreign born.

Albert Mbanfu, executive director of the International Center, said the growth of Bowling Green’s refugee population has caused the south central Kentucky city to grow increasingly multicultural — a trend that’s affected everything from local government to business to education.

“The fact that refugees have been coming into Bowling Green and immigrants coming into Bowling Green for work, school and other activities is a clear indication that the city has changed,” Mbanfu said. “There’s no doubt about it.”

The International Center

Evelina Gevorgiyan’s corner office at the International Center is filled with stacks of paper and decorated with little trinkets and mementos. Gevorgiyan, a program manager, has worked at the International Center for nearly 15 years.

But in 1997, Gevorgiyan stood on the other side of the resettlement process as she and her family came to the U.S. as refugees from the former Soviet Union, she said.

“For me, working with these refugees is — it’s just a miracle because I know exactly how they feel,” Gevorgiyan said.

Gevorgiyan and her coworkers at the International Center help refugees in their first 180 days in the United States. But Lisa Fulkerson, attorney and immigration program manager at the International Center, said most of the refugees they work with are self-sufficient after 90 days.

As soon as the International Center, or any other authorized resettlement agency, learns about new refugees it will resettle, their work begins.

Before a refugee family is picked up from the airport, an International Center case manager prepares a culturally-appropriate meal that can be heated up as soon as the refugees arrive in their new home, usually an apartment.

Over the next couple weeks, their case manager helps them get acclimated to the U.S. with a cultural orientation, Fulkerson said. Case managers also take refugees to the Social Security office and a health screening. During this time, Gevorgiyan said many refugees sign up for public benefits, including food stamps, cash assistance and medical cards.

One International Center manager is responsible for making sure children are vaccinated and enrolled in school. Another finds jobs for employable refugees, many of whom end up working at Perdue Farms, a poultry processing company with locations in Franklin, Cromwell and Beaver Dam that offers full-time jobs with full benefits and a “good salary,” Gevorgiyan said.

The International Center has resettling refugees since it was founded in 1981. Fulkerson said it has resettled over 10,000 since then.

Refugee resettlement in the United States

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees describes refugees as “people fleeing conflict or persecution.” They are protected by international law and cannot be returned to dangerous situations, according to the UNHCR.

In 2015, the UNHCR estimated there were approximately 21.3 million refugees around the world. With a worldwide total of 65.3 forcibly displaced people, the UNHCR calls this “the highest levels of displacement on record.”

Part of this can be attributed to the Syrian civil war, which has raged on since March 2011. According to the UNCHR, 53 percent of the world’s refugees are from Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia. An estimated 4.9 million refugees are from Syria alone.

The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, one of nine national agencies, coordinates resettlement between the Department of State, which works with the UNHCR and local agencies like the International Center.

Meanwhile, local agencies determine how many refugees can be resettled in their communities, said Rebecca Jordan, state refugee coordinator.

“They look at housing,” Jordan said. “They look at jobs. They’re working with several factors of which they determine about how many they can resettle.”

Jordan said Mbanfu holds a meeting with community partners to discuss the proposed number with key local stakeholders, including school officials, medical clinic personnel and city government employees and officials.

The final decision, Jordan said, lies with the International Center.

Effects on schools

When Mbanfu meets with community partners to discuss resettlement numbers, he meets with people like Skip Cleavinger. To him, Bowling Green’s continued influx of refugee children is a cause for concern.

He’s served as the English as a second language coordinator for Warren County Public Schools since fall 2011. Before that, he was an ESL assessment coordinator for the school system. His job is to make sure students who don’t speak English are able to learn the language and, eventually, meet graduation requirements.

According to the UNHCR, more than half of the world’s refugees are children. Many come from countries where English is not commonly spoken.

As Bowling Green’s refugee population has grown, so has Warren County’s population of students who don’t speak English.

When these students enroll in school, they’re classified as English language learners or ELLs. They’re then provided with special instruction designed to help them master the English language.

This school year, approximately 1,774 of around 15,5000 Warren County students are enrolled in ELL programs. That’s nearly an 181 percent increase from 2004-2005.

In the Bowling Green Independent School District, 480 students are enrolled in ELL programs.

Cleavinger, who supports refugee resettlement, said local school systems have felt the increase in Bowling Green’s international population.

“I even have to admit — our infrastructure has been taxed unimaginably,” Cleavinger said.

He said schools with high ELL populations tend to have lower test scores, mainly because many of the school’s students don’t speak English, and this allows a stigma to develop in some people’s minds.

As the ELL population has grown, administrators have tried to take creative approaches to educating non-native students.

In the early 2000s, they created newcomer units in some schools. These were yearlong programs that took non-English speakers out of traditional classrooms and put them in special, English-learning environments with other ELL students. However, Cleavinger said these weren’t very effective.

“Kids were pretty much in the same room together,” Cleavinger said. “And, you know, when you leave somebody in a room with other kids who can’t speak English, they come out a year later, and they are really not that good at English because they really have not been around English speakers.”

Yearlong newcomer programs have since been disbanded, he said.

This year, Warren County started GEO International High School, a new approach to Warren County’s ELL education.

The school is comprised entirely of ELL high school students, and there are no separate classes. All students take all courses in English with ESL certified teachers. Around 160 students who are from 24 different countries and speak 20 native languages attend the school.

As a whole, Warren County now employs 64 ESL teachers, but Cleavinger, who has hired about 30 staff members, said it’s becoming increasingly hard to find qualified teachers.

“The first 25, maybe the first 20 [hires], were easy,” Cleavinger said. “They were out there, ready to be hired, and I would post a job, and I’d have maybe eight or nine applicants. Now, we don’t have any applicants for English language learner teachers, people who have an ESL degree. They’re just not around.”

As refugees continue to arrive in Bowling Green and Warren County’s ELL population continues to grow, Cleavinger says staffing is his primary concern.

“We’re gonna need more staff, so I’m worried about that,” Cleavinger said. “It’s just very difficult to find them, but we’ll meet the need. We’ll figure out a way. I know we will, even if we have to emergency certify some people who are planning to get their EL endorsement.”

Effects on local government

Few know what it’s like to be a newcomer better than Leyda Becker.

As a teenager, Becker moved to Bowling Green from Venezuela with her mother and two younger brothers.

Their mother, originally from Iran, met their Venezuelan father when the two were enrolled in graduate programs at WKU. The couple later married and moved to Venezuela. They divorced 14 years and three children later.

Becker’s mother, a newly-single mom living in a foreign country, moved back to Bowling Green to be closer to relatives, and she brought her children with her. Becker, who was 13 years old at the time, did not speak English.

“I kind of knew what a lot of people go through moving to a new country, not knowing the language and having to start from scratch and seeing my family have to,” Becker said. “I can share a lot of empathy, or have a lot of empathy, for what members of the international community are going through.”

Today, she works as the city of Bowling Green’s International Communities Liaison.

It is a position that started seven years ago in the Bowling Green Police Department, “because of the apparent barrier of the Hispanic community not reporting criminal activity or even being victimized … or having fear to seek the police’s help,” Becker said.

Eventually, city officials decided to expand the position to encompass all of city government — not just the police department. The International Communities Liaison became a part of the department of neighborhood and community services, and Becker was hired in January 2012.

Becker is responsible for building and maintaining a strong relationship between city government and the city’s international population.

In almost five years, she’s established a language access plan for the city, making sure city employees have a way to communicate with residents who don’t speak English. She also implemented over-the-phone interpretation services for all city departments and encouraged the city to adopt mandatory cultural competency training for its employees.

In June 2012, Becker established the International Communities Advisory Council, a committee of leaders in the international community that meets bimonthly to discuss issues in their respective communities.

This year, Becker started The Academy for New Americans, a free leadership training for people who recently moved to the U.S.

While the International Center is able to provide basic services to refugees — like helping them find jobs and housing — Becker represents the next step. She can help refugees get involved in local government, start businesses and connect with others.

“The International Center can only do so much,” Becker said. “I think there’s a lot of misconception because the International Center is a resettlement agency. Their primary role is just reception and placement.”

However, as Bowling Green has become more diverse, Becker said services like the ones she helps provide have become more important.

“I don’t know if that trend will continue,” Becker said. “It’s hard to say, but so far, it’s indicative of continued growth, so that means that there’s more demand for services, more people to provide services to.”

Effects on the local economy

As Bowling Green’s foreign-born population has grown, so has its economy.

The city is home to a number of international stores and restaurants. On Russellville Road, an Asian store, a Bosnian store and an Arabic store neighbor one another.

Stepping into Jasmine International Grocery Store, the Arabic market, feels almost like stepping into another country. The shelves are lined with date bars, mango cookies and falafel mix, along with a variety of other Middle Eastern food. The store also sells a few household items, like dishware, henna and hijabs.

Most items have a language other than English printed on their cellophane or plastic packaging. Many customers speak Arabic to each other as they walk between aisles.

Co-owners Wisam Asal and Ghazwan Nahedh stand behind the front counter. Refugees from Iraq, they opened Jasmine in August 2012.

“When we came here, there was no international store specialized in what we have now, so we had to drive to Nashville,” Nahedh said. “… And then we found this opportunity.”

A few years later, they opened Babylon, an Arabic restaurant, across the street from Jasmine.

Their establishments are two of many international businesses now located in Bowling Green. Becker, who tries to informally keep a count, had a list of nearly 25 immigrant-and-refugee-owned businesses, but she said Bowling Green is home to many more than that.

A different perspective

Asal came to the United States with his family in 2010. Nahedh made the move by himself in 2012. They, like thousands of others, were assisted by the International Center when they arrived.

But neither Asal nor Nahedh speaks very highly of the International Center. While they said they admire the work the agency is doing, they also said it is understaffed and overcommitted, and refugees are suffering because of it.

In response, they said their store has become somewhat of a hub for refugees new to Bowling Green.

“Since we’ve been here, we weren’t just providers for food,” Nahedh said. “Especially for the people who were speaking our language, the newcomers, we were also helping them and preparing their papers … because the International Center wasn’t doing everything for them.”

Nahedh said he and his business partner have started trying to help new refugees get settled in Bowling Green, whether that’s driving them to doctor’s appointments, showing them around town, or helping them file papers or find better housing.

“We declare that’s for everyone,” Nahedh said. “Whoever needs help, come to us, and we will try our best to help them.”

They do this because they think the International Center isn’t providing enough assistance to new refugees.

“They make one, two [trips] to doctor’s appointment or food stamps office,” Asal said. “After that, they neglect them. Especially when their money, their income money from the government finishes, they forget about [them]. So people are suffering there.”

Nahedh said some refugees are placed in poor living conditions, far away from public transportation and beyond walking distance of places like grocery stores or their jobs. There are also language, educational and cultural barriers to a refugee’s life and wellbeing.

Nahedh thinks one agency simply can’t handle the number of refugees that are coming to Bowling Green.

“With their capabilities, you know, they cannot meet all the needs of the new refugee — the lack of their staff, the shortage they have, even their resources,” Nahedh said.

Still, they both said the decision to come to the United States was a good one.

“You know, when you’re making your decision to live in a foreign country with foreign people and you have to give up everything, like your life, your families, your heritage and your nation, it will be not easy,” Asal said. “But we said, ‘let us try and see if there will be some change or will be better.’ We came here, and we like it.”

Hope for the future

As executive director of the International Center, Mbanfu is no stranger to this kind of criticism.

“I share in the view that we should provide more services,”Mbanfu said. “We also want to provide more services, but unfortunately, we don’t have enough resources to do that.”

He said the International Center’s services are limited because its resources are limited, and while some don’t think the International Center is as effective as it should be, most are supportive of its work.

He also said there is a “vocal” minority against refugee resettlement who has “drowned out the voices of those who really want to show compassion, love, care and support to refugees.”

Since the presidential candidacy and election of Donald Trump, Mbanfu said he’s observed an uptick of anti-refugee rhetoric.

However, he and his staff at the International Center, that red brick building on Kenton Street, are prepared to continue working with refugees. He still sees their work as being important. For him, it’s an importance that isn’t dependent on the current political climate, and it goes beyond the city of Bowling Green.

“I can see lives transformed by what I do,” Mbanfu said. “I see people coming here who are totally hopeless and frightened and do not know what the future holds for them, but as we guide them through the process of integration in the United States and the American society, a couple months later, you see people who are becoming hopeful.”

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