About this blog and its author

About me:

My name is Aaron Mudd, and this is my blog.

As a journalism student as Western Kentucky University, I try to tell compelling stories about people who are often ignored and unappreciated.

This is why I write about refugees living in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

If you have questions you can reach me at aaron.mudd368@topper.wku.edu

Mission Statement:

Welcome to Refugee Refuge!

This blog presents my exploration into Bowling Green, Kentucky’s refugee population. This blog, which originally started out as a project for a Western Kentucky University class, has evolved into a narrative that chronicles everything I’ve learned from some incredible people I’ve met. Here you can experience stories about people who work with refugees and refugees themselves. This is a place for refugees to share their stories, perspectives, challenges and aspirations.

This is Refugee Refuge.

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Reach out to refugees: How you can volunteer and why you should

In my last post, I discussed my background with Bowling Green refugees and why I decided to explore this topic through my blog. I want this blog to be a resource for understanding a group of people who are often ignored. I’ll consider myself successful if even one person wants to learn more by getting involved. I’ve put together something that shows the human side of refugees, who so often get lost in statistics.

The International Center, as a refugee resettlement organization, is the best place to start if you’re interested in volunteering. While the International Center welcomes anyone willing to help out, they are in need of people who can teach English to refugees adjusting to their new lives. It may sound intimidating, but you could gain a lot from the experience.

A recent Forbes article included communication skills as one of the most sought after skills employers look for. Learning to communicate with refugees, who don’t speak English as their first language and may need things explained differently, can make you a stronger communicator.

Volunteers I’ve spoken to, Caleb and Laura Benningfield, who work with refugees seem to value the experience and feel like they’ve learned so much more than they’ve taught. This is a great attitude to have because we have to be careful not to force our cultural expectations on refugees, who are individuals in their own right. The International Center also recommends this in their volunteer manual.

“The volunteer’s role is not to rescue. Refugees tend to have a high level of adaptability and resourcefulness; otherwise they would not have made it to the US.”

Ultimately, placing yourself in the position of a student learning from refugees keeps you humble and open to what you can learn.

Help yourself by helping others: the benefits of helping refugees in Bowling Green

Several studies point to benevolent health effects for older adults who volunteer in their communities. As a young adult you may ask What’s in it for me?, or more to the point, Why should I volunteer with refugees? Those are good questions to ask. As a volunteer you need to have skin in the game, and to get into volunteer work you need to know you have skin in the game.

So much of what we study in school is about humans. Why they behave the way they do: psychology, what they’ve done: history, and where they come from: geography. Unfortunately and surprisingly, these disciplines sometimes leave behind the “human element”. This probably happens because when we try to track these huge subjects we tend to put people into massive groups. Logistically it makes things easier to look at the movement of large groups rather than millions of individuals.

However, there are intense events throughout the world that are displacing millions of individuals. I’ve spoken with just a few refugees who have come to America from violent situations, and they all seem to have different stories. Helping refugees gives you a chance to speak to them about where they’ve been: geography, what they’ve done: history, and why they did it: psychology. You get to learn about people outside of a textbook or lecture, and you realize the world has a lot more depth.

So, as a college student attending Western Kentucky University, how can you get involved?

I first learned about Bowling Green’s refugee population through a service-learning course I took at WKU: cultural diversity in the U.S. This course, which can count towards your general education requirements, offered me a chance to help out a refugee family through the “$100 solution”. The WKU ALIVE Center offers the $100 solution as an incentive to get students to think “What can I do to enhance quality of life for others?”. From there, I learned about the work the International Center does with refugee resettlement. With this blog I wanted to explore my community, and I’ve met some incredible people as a result.

In the following video teachers and students discuss service learning.

Refugees in Bowling Green move forward one lesson at a time

I’m thankful to the refugees I’ve met for the willingness to share their lives and experiences with me, even when that is difficult. It’s hard for me to imagine surviving the situations some of these refugees have described.

Caleb Benningfield feels the sam way. “They even told me before ‘I do not like to talk about this it makes me want to cry’”, he said.

Recently, Po Khu answered some questions I had about his life before coming to America.

“We live bad,” Po Khu said. “Where I go I can’t (be) free.”

After fleeing Myanmar, Po Khu dealt with Thailand officials while living in a refugee camp.

“Refugees from Myanmar in Thailand have been confined to nine closed camps since they began arriving in the 1980s” the UNHCR said. “This constitutes one of the most protracted displacement situations in the world.”

“I don’t have money, you know,” Po Khu said. “I have kids. Nobody help me, but I can pray.”

Po Khu said that he was inspired to come to the United States because he heard about the freedom here. He wanted to live freely.

“Right now God sent me a good thing through Laura and Caleb,” Po Khu said.

Po Khu is a young man in his 30’s and although life was tough in Thailand, he still wants to do things with his life.

Po Khu’s wants to learn English so he can grow spiritually.

“I’m learning speaking English right now for Bible,” he said. Po Khu also said he wants to be more independent and not have to rely on translators so heavily.

I also asked Po Khu why so many refugees from Burma live in the Lovers Lane apartments. Aside from the help of the International Center, Po Khu said that he lives there for religious community, since they don’t have a church of their own.

When I asked the Benningfields what their future plans were for helping their friends, they said that they wanted to raise up a preacher and that Po Khu may be the perfect candidate.

Friends teach each other through study and fellowship

Caleb and Laura Benningfield have learned so much from their friendship with their Karen friends.

“I guess I’ve just had a change of perspective,” said Laura Benningfield. “I feel like I’ve gotten a lot more out of them than they’ve gotten out of me.”

“It’s given me a lot of perspective on how blessed I am to be in the position I’m in,” said Caleb Benningfield. “Growing up the way we grew up is a blessing in itself.”

Their friendship is an example of the good that can happen when people of different backgrounds teach each other. In the time they’ve known each other, the Benningfields have noticed changes for the better in the lives of their refugee friends, especially the women.

“I see a willingness to try new things, a willingness to speak out,” said Laura Benningfield. “Whereas before, some of the women may have been too timid to do any of those things.”

However, life for their friends Po Po, Po Khu and Ka Tay wasn’t always so certain.

“Some of them still have family back in the refugee camps,” said Caleb Benningfield.

Po Khu spoke about his life in the refugee camps of Thailand, which currently host 84,900 registered refugees, and the food shortages he had to deal with among other problems.

One of Laura’s greatest joys is sharing simple western customs like baby showers, trick or treating, birthdays or even just baking cookies.

“It’s just a simple pleasure of life that they’ve never had,” said Laura.

As for the future, the Benningfield’s plans center on continuing to learn English, nutrition, citizenship and teaching their friends to drive. They have also expressed interest in finding a preacher that speaks the same language as their friends. Primarily though, their goals are aimed at helping them assimilate into American culture, Caleb Benningfield said.

Locals reach out to refugees by forming friendships

Caleb Benningfield helps Po Khu, a Burmese refugee, during a Bible lesson on Saturday Nov. 2. Benningfield has been visiting refugees in their apartments on Lovers Lane for three months, although he and his wife Laura have been friends with them much longer. "Its helped me be more appreciative of everything we have in America," said Benningfield.

Caleb Benningfield helps Po Khu, a Burmese refugee, during a Bible lesson on Saturday Nov. 2. Benningfield has been visiting refugees in their apartments on Lovers Lane for three months, although he and his wife Laura have been friends with them much longer.

“I learned a lot about their story, about how they got here,” said Caleb Benningfield.

Caleb and Laura Benningfield, members of Living Hope Baptist Church have been helping a group of Burmese refugees in any way they can, primarily through their Bible and English lessons on weekends.

“Its helped me be more appreciative of everything we have in America,” said Caleb Benningfield.

Benningfield has been doing these lessons for three months, and his wife, Laura Benningfield, has been working with them for a year.

While the small group of Burmese refugees is Christian, they have difficulties participating in conventional Sunday services due to language barriers.

The students, who are adults in their twenties, include Po Po, Po Khu, his wife Ka Tay and other students. Po Po speaks English quite well and is able to explain vocabulary words to her friends. Po Khu may be an aspiring pastor for his people, and Ka Tay is trying to get her driver’s license. All the students listened intently to the lesson, which covered Bible stories like the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist.

Christianity is practiced by 4 percent of the population in Burma, and is said to face persecution by the more powerful majorities in the country.

The lesson concluded with a prayer beseeching God for protection of one of the students, who is pregnant and expecting a child soon. Benningfield also asked for the strength to finish a marathon that he would be participating in the following day.

“It’s just been a fun way to develop a friendship with them,” said Benningfield.

Behind the scenes: How do refugees come to America?

In previous posts I’ve talked about how refugees create new lives for themselves by building businesses and fellowship. However, before they even get the chance to make a new life in America there’s a process they have to navigate. Rejection can be costly, according to the International Center Volunteer Manual.

“If the answer is no, refugees have other options: a. Return home. b. Stay where they are. c. Try another country.”

For refugees the process begins the same way. They are threatened, for many reasons like racial, religious, political, or other persecution. Often they take only their immediate families and the clothes on their back, according to the International Center.

After leaving everything behind the process of resettlement begins. After refugees make their way to a neighboring country they apply for protection through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

“The agency is mandated to lead and coordinate international action to protect refugees and solve refugee problems worldwide,” according to the UNHCR.

If, and only if, they are granted protection they begin living in a refugee camp. Safety is not insured. Women, in particular, are vulnerable to sexual abuse.

“They probably don’t have enough to eat; it is usually illegal for them to leave the camp,” said the International Center.

Waiting is a part of each step in the process. Sometimes resettlement can take many years.

The UNHCR determines which cases are suitable for resettlement by conducting screenings and interviews. After filling out documentation they speak with a U.S. official.

“Eligibility for refugee status is determined on a case-by-case basis through an interview with a specially-trained USCIS officer,” said the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.

“The interview is non-adversarial and is designed to obtain information about an individual’s refugee claim and eligibility for resettlement to the United States.”

If they are accepted, a VOLAG agency takes over the next step of the process.

According to the International Center, “The VOLAG Agency to which they are assigned decides where they will go and with what resettlement agency. The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI), with which the International Center is affiliated, is one of these resettlement agencies.”

Refugees that pursue resettlement face a rigorous process. For many, however, it is better than the life they come from.

The following video is courtesy of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.