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.

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.

New Beginnings for Burmese in Bowling Green

A girl sells jade necklaces to tourists in Myanmar. She wears thanaka makeup, a powder made from a local plant to protect the skin from the sun. Photo courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons and author Serinde, released into the public domain.

A girl sells jade necklaces to tourists in Myanmar. She wears thanaka makeup, a powder made from a local plant to protect the skin from the sun.

In a previous post I talked about how Burmese refugees in particular make up the largest group resettling in Bowling Green Ky.

“Burmese refugees are among the top five nationalities to be resettled to the United States in 2013,” reported Saw Yan Naing of Irrawaddy Magazine, which reports on happenings in Burma and Southeast Asia.

Why is that? Why do Burmese refugees choose to settle here? To learn more, I spoke with the Bowling Green International Center’s Executive Director, Albert Mbanfu.

When I spoke to Mbanfu I learned that there is a heavy flow of Burmese into the United States because a high number is approved to resettle here.

A refugee’s family can have a huge influence on their resettlement decisions. If they have family within the United States they often choose to relocate near them. However, if refugees don’t know where to resettle they are assigned to agencies at random. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees plays a central role in refugee migration.

After fleeing their homeland into neighboring countries, refugees begin the long and uncertain process of resettlement. “They may wait months, or even years in camps, languishing in uncertainty,” according to the International Center. “not knowing if they will merely continue to wait, be repatriated, or be given a chance to start a new life in another country.”

What makes Burma, also called Myanmar, unique is its long history of oppression and political and religious persecution.

British colonization of Burma, which began in the early 19th century, fostered long-standing resentment among the local Burmese. This resentment was expressed in Rangoon, the country’s capital, through occasional riots up to the 1930’s.

Since 1962, when General Ne Win seized Burma, the country has been under military control.

In a country so greatly impacted by imperialism and war, one may wonder how well Burmese refugees acclimate to life in America and other countries. Although Burmese refugees tend to have less access to education than Iraqis, they are still able to find jobs in factories and warehouses. More skilled refugees may take up work as mechanics.

In Bowling Green, Burmese family and friends help refugees feel something familiar in a country they don’t know very well. Their shared experiences and backgrounds form the foundation of their community.

Photo courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons and user Serinde.

Nahedh smiles for a picture taken in his International Grocery Story on Russellville road across from Kids on the Block.

Iraqi Grocer caters to Bowling Green’s diverse palates

Visit any of the mainstream grocery stores in Bowling Green people use to stock their refrigerators and cabinets. Which ever one you pick it’s sure to have aisles and aisles of food and other items you find appealing. However, what if you eat according to certain rules? I don’t mean avoiding the powdered donuts, because you’re trying to drop a few pounds. I’m talking about rules or customs from your religion or culture? Would your favorite grocery store carry the things you need if you were from the Middle East or Southwest Asia? Where would you buy your food?

This is the case for Muslims who eat according to Halal, which means to honor Islamic rites and rules. Ghazwan Nahedh and his friends decided to do just that. “The area was in need of an international store,” said Ghazwan, an Iraqi refugee. “We found it a good opportunity.”

Nahedh, who used to teach physics at a university in Iraq, came to Bowling Green two years ago. The Bowling Green International Center helped Nahedh with his paperwork and resettlement. “Then from there I took care of myself,” said Nahedh. Nahedh worked in factories shortly after arriving. From there he and his friends decided to start a business that would cater to people looking for a piece of home. Together they shop as far away as Nashville, Tennessee and Michigan for diverse products.

Although Nahedh appreciates the opportunities in Bowling Green and America, he still misses his home. He hopes to return to Iraq someday if the issues with Al Qaeda can be resolved.

Turmoil across the globe brings diverse refugees to Bowling Green

According to the Bowling Green International Center “An estimated 1 out of 220 people on the planet are classified as a refugee.” 

While it’s true that Bowling Green hosts a wide representation of refugees from across the globe, some nationalities hold more of a majority than others. I spoke with Albert Mbanfu, executive director of the Bowling Green International Center, to get an idea of refugee diversity in Bowling Green, Ky.

One problem I discovered with monitoring Bowling Green refugees long term is that refugees often decide to leave Bowling Green altogether. Some refugees find that their nationality doesn’t have enough local representation to suit their needs. This influences them to move to larger cities where a certain community may be more robust. When I spoke with Mbanfu I learned that Somalis often fall into this category.

However, while some refugees decide to move on others decide to stay. For example, Burmese refugees in particular often stay within Bowling Green. I was provided with a list of the largest groups to arrive in Bowling Green. Of the 3,407 refugees to arrive in Bowling Green within the last ten years 1,651 were Burmese. The large Burmese community in Bowling Green may be a factor in the resettlement process.

To someone who has been uprooted from their former life and culture, community and a shared experience must be essential. For refugees, the resettlement process may feel isolating and strange. These small communities could help ease that transition and help them take their place in the larger community of Bowling Green.

Below, Barbara Day of the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration explains the America’s refugee resettlement policies.

What is a refugee?

What is a Refugee?

You probably know that people from across the world immigrate to America each year to pursue a better life. Some people, however, have less of a choice and come to America to escape dangerous conditions in their homeland.

According to the Bowling Green International Center volunteer manual “A refugee is a person who is outside his or her country of origin and is unable or unwilling to return there due to a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, or membership in a particular social group or a political opinion.”

Bowling Green has acted as a host to refugees from Bosnia, Burma, and Iraq. Here, refugees resettle with the help of programs that teach them English and help them find work. The goal is to help refugees assimilate so that they can live the lives they dream of, and become responsible citizens in the community.

What makes Bowling Green such a great candidate for resettlement? The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis said Bowling Green’s, “Plentiful jobs, along with affordable housing and a low cost of living, have made Bowling Green a prime resettlement area for immigration.”

Although people are often uprooted by the world’s chaos and turmoil, it feels good to know that Bowling Green is able to be a sanctuary for these people. It’s also humbling what we can learn from their experiences.

In the following video actress Angelina Jolie explains refugees are displaced and how we can help.