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June 23, 2010

Seeking refuge

For 20 years, Kentucky Refugee Ministries has helped those fleeing persecution start new lives in Louisville

To the average passerby, the slate facade of the Pleune-Mobley Center on the corner of Highland Avenue and Cherokee Road harbors little more than two stories of tall windows and a small blue sign that reads “Kentucky Refugee Ministries.” But to the 600-plus refugees who will walk through KRM’s doors this year, the narrow climb of offices will be their lifeboat to a new world.

The bustling office that now staffs 37 employees and some 200 volunteers is a far cry from the modest house where KRM began operations back in 1990. By the end of this year — which marks the organization’s 20th anniversary — KRM will have placed more than 6,000 people in Louisville from 45 different nations.

Some refugees arrive from places without running water or electricity and have to be taught to use a stove. Instruction manuals warn refugees not to chuck blaring fire alarms out windows, or charbroil raw meat over the open flame of a gas stovetop. When the Kentucky Derby Festival rolls around, KRM must explain the ruckus surrounding Thunder Over Louisville. For the war-torn and traumatized, the scream of warplanes through the sky and the hour-long reverb of explosions bring back bad memories, and they need reassurance the world isn’t ending — again.

Although there’s never enough money or time to ensure the assimilation of every refugee, the people at KRM do their best to make it work. The U.S. State Department guarantees $900 for each refugee (up from $450 just this year), and other funds collected barely cover the spread.

Despite the recent recession, KRM manages to find work for 90 percent of employable refugees within eight months.

Upon visiting their offices, it’s clear there’s something big at work. In addition to making Louisville a place of global impact, there’s a bit of a kick-against-the-pricks attitude about this nonprofit. Overcoming scarce funds and other obstacles, KRM accepts nearly all clients bid to them, because each client turned down is another person left behind in the refugee camps. In addition, KRM attempts to tackle the chronic apathy that plagues much of America by educating the public about the plight of refugees and working to dispel the notion that they are a drain on our communities.

But if Louisvillians and Americans in general need to correct certain stereotypes concerning refugees, then many refugees must also adjust their preconceptions about what life in America is really like: “We have to manage their expectations,” says Semsudin Haseljic, a refugee who has worked as program director at KRM since 2004. “We have to be really honest and admit plenty of people outside the U.S. imagine life here to be much easier than it is. Movies and propaganda and all that stuff. But there’s no dollars growing on the trees.”

While still living in Bosnia, Semsudin harbored those very thoughts. A friend who studied in the United States told him that when she was preparing to return home, the host family gave her $100 as a parting gift. To that, Semsudin scoffed, “Oh, please. They only gave you $100? That’s nothing to them.”

He now understands how generous the family really was. 

To clarify, refugees are not immigrants.

Immigrants come to America to seek work or travel and can return to their homeland at anytime. Refugees are people who — fearing persecution — flee their country in search of safety. Typically, they temporarily relocate to a second country near their homeland with the hope of permanently resettling in a third country, a process handled by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

The first option for all refugees is voluntary repatriation to their homeland. Second, is local integration into the first country to which they flee. The final option is permanent resettlement.

Using as an example the people of Bhutan — a landlocked country in southern Asia — Semsudin draws a map as a model. First, Bhutanese refugees flee to Nepal. The Nepalese set up refugee camps to provide food, shelter and health care, usually via the United Nations. The U.N. then begins the process of vetting each refugee before propositioning the nine countries of the world that accept refugees.

Here in the United States, the State Department and the Office of Refugee Resettlement team up to contact each of the 10 national volunteer agencies dedicated to refugee resettlement; KRM works with two of these agencies — Church World Services and Episcopal Migration Ministries. In turn, KRM accepts the refugees bid to them; contracts are signed, funds distributed, flights arranged and housing secured.

When a refugee lands, that’s when KRM’s job begins. Typically, the agency has only a few days to find and fully equip an apartment, a process that does not start until they receive a refugee’s international flight information. It’s not until they receive domestic flight information that they are certain the relocation is a go.

As the clients settle into their new housing, KRM enrolls each refugee into one of three assistance programs: The Kentucky Temporary Assistance Program provides financial assistance to parents of minor children who won’t be self-sufficient in 90 days. The Match Grant Program — KRM’s biggest source of federal funds — matches KRM’s contributions and is designed to help refugees attain self-sufficiency within four months. For this program, the money from KRM’s end comes from co-sponsors or KRM fundraisers, like Global Gourmet. Finally, there’s the Wilson-Fish Medical Assistance Program for adult refugees who do not qualify for state assistance.

To help supplement the aforementioned funds, a handful of local churches donate money and offer one-on-one assistance to refugees and their families. These co-sponsors take refugees to places like the grocery or doctor, helping to ease the process of assimilation and ensure refugees don’t get exploited.

“Clients, when they come here, they’ve been in refugee camps for so many years, and they have this survival frame of mind,” says Semsudin. “They don’t really hesitate. If they talk to you and you reject them, then they’ll come to me.”

Refugees arrive broken, war-ravaged and penniless. They are the very “tempest-tossed” “huddled masses” the Statue of Liberty beckons the sea to forfeit. If they were professionals in their native lands, as refugees they must work years at lesser jobs to recover their prior status. Tougher still are the prospects of those who are too old, or arrive with little transferable work experience. Most do not speak English and govern their social interactions through customs and codes wholly alien from our own. Given the clash, it takes some weeks before they stop showing up unannounced to speak with their caseworkers and begin to phone in appointments.

Though this proves frustrating, Zahra Abdulkadir — KRM receptionist and Somali refugee — says, “You just have to tell them to calm down, relax. You have to remember you are the only people they know.”

The jaws of chaos opened for Zahra Abdulkadir and her family when they fled from Somalia in 1991. As bad as things got under the former communist dictator Siad Barre and his Red Berets, it hardly compares to the bedlam that swept across the Horn of Africa in the ’90s.

Little comprehensive information exists on the formation of current Somalia, which comprises several quasi-autonomous, yet largely unrecognized states. Along the borderlands where refugees wait to enter Kenya, the shade of a good tree is now rented as housing.

After the ousting of Siad Barre in 1991, all forms of municipal government collapsed. It wasn’t so much the warring factions that victimized the Somali population, but the thugs who took over the streets. Without police, gangs were rampant, even in the capital of Mogadishu, where Zahra’s family lived.

“It was so easy to kill someone. They say, ‘Give me your wallet,’ and if you don’t, they shoot you,” recalls Zahra, who was only 7 at the time. “(The gangs) stole our car. Once they got inside the house, that was it — they stole everything.”

Finally, her family chose to flee, joining several families on the back of a truck bound for southeastern Somalia, where they hoped to catch a boat to Kenya.

In the small town of Merca, Zahra’s family hid in the courtyard of an old plaza during the day to escape prowling bandits and militias. At night, they snuck to shore and paddled a skiff out to the liner.

The boat ride lasted eight days. “There was no place to lie down. We had to squish together,” Zahra remembers. Crammed among the other 500 refugees and with nothing more than rice to eat, the trip down the coast to Kenya was only supposed to last three days, but inclement weather delayed the voyage. When the passengers arrived at their destination, the Kenyan government directed them to a refugee camp called Bandiar. Zahra spent the next five years of her life there.

Bandiar was a major step down from Zahra’s metropolitan life back in Mogadishu. Zahra winces when recalling the smell of dung mortaring the earthen walls of the huts. Each hut had a thatched roof, two rooms and a cutout window. All families — no matter how large — received only one room.

Early on, an outbreak of malaria plagued Bandiar’s 5,000 inhabitants. Given the close quarters, the disease flared like a grease fire. One by one, Zahra’s family became ill. Zahra remembers sweating it out in the grass among hundreds waiting for medical treatment. One of her younger brothers almost died.

Life in Bandiar, though difficult, became routine. The U.N. provided the rice, beans, sugar and oil they cooked on skillets from sand pits in the front yard. The communal bathroom was located a half a mile outside the camp. Each morning, Zahra awoke early to collect water from the pump before it was cut off in the early afternoon.

A formal education was not an option.

“We would see kids with uniforms and backpacks, and I remember thinking, ‘Why can’t I go to school?’” recalls Zahra. Once, she picked up a local newspaper and pretended to read to the other children. “I would move my lips, but then my sister told the others I was pretending. Then they didn’t care anymore.”

Before arriving in Louisville, Zahra’s first and only class consisted of translating the Quran into Somali. Despite the fact that her father taught high school in Mogadishu, survival took precedence over education.

For Zahra and her family, resettlement came just before nomadic tribesmen set the refugee camp ablaze in 1997, the result of feeling increasingly threatened by the camp that had sprung up in their native track.

Ultimately, the transition to an apartment in Old Louisville was easy compared to life in the camp. Aside from living adjacent to a bustling 24-hour gas station, Zahra’s family felt at home in the city. Her father eventually landed work as a bilingual instructor at Jefferson County Public Schools, where he still teaches. Meanwhile, Zahra finally had the opportunity to go to school.

Upon meeting Zahra today, it’s difficult to fathom what she endured prior to landing in Louisville. For nearly 10 years now, she has worked as the receptionist at Kentucky Refugee Ministries. Just over 5 feet tall in sneakers, Zahra smiles her way through the hundreds of calls and visitors that besiege KRM daily. Though she speaks Spanish, Somali, Swahili, Arabic and English, Zahra often must contact a volunteer translator to communicate with clients from across the globe.

Now, when asked, “Where’s home?” Zahra replies without hesitation, “Louisville.”

Part of what made the assimilation process easier was the help they received from a sponsor family who helped them navigate their new country. Zahra recalls the first time she saw them at the airport: “I remember seeing all these white people, and I was thinking, ‘What are they doing here, and why are they waving at us like crazy?’”

Before leaving Standiford Field, Zahra balked at the escalator: “Moving stairs? Who’s going to get on moving stairs?” she pleaded. “My father said, ‘Take the white lady’s hand,’ but I said, ‘Nope, I am not going down there.’ Eventually Zahra did reach out, and they were off to their new apartment.”

Back in Mogadishu, Zahra’s mother would often make a simple ice cream of whole milk and sugar. It was a treat Zahra and her siblings remembered fondly. On their first night in Old Louisville, the sponsor family drove Zahra’s parents to the grocery to stock their new kitchen. Of course, ice cream was a priority for the kids, something they would enjoy for the first time in half a decade — along with running water and a real home.

Refugee resettlement started in the United States with church organizations after World War II.

“The federal government partnered with a faith-based organization that was already working with the U.N.,” explains KRM Director Liz Kaznak, who took over for longtime director Carol Young in January. “It’s still a public/private partnership, with the federal government and national church agencies.”

Likewise, with the disbanding of Kentucky’s own state-run refugee program in 1992, it’s through faith-based organizations like KRM and Catholic Charities that Kentucky manages to accommodate any refugees at all. And while most of the funding comes through government grants, Kaznak says, “The national church agencies really run the programs for the government, making sure everything’s up to standard and processed correctly.”

Though KRM has strong ties to Christianity, proselytizing is forbidden. So again, without gain, and under the stipend of meager paychecks, those at KRM invest their lives to help strangers attain self-sufficiency. But why — when KRM is so plainly an asset to our city — do so few outside the faith communities of Louisville participate in the process? And why do so many people harbor negative feelings about refugees?

In discussing the place of refugees in our city, Kaznak is quick to dispel any notion that they blight or drain our community: “They have music and arts, they have so much potential for micro-industry and job stimulation. When people ask what they are taking, think about what they’re giving. They’re paying rent and buying bus passes every month. They file tax returns in their first year.”

It’s true America takes more than double the amount of refugees than the rest of the world combined, but that’s still less than 1 percent of all of the 9 million displaced people in the world.

In researching this story, I came across a photo essay entitled “Life and Death” by Lynsey Addario. The collection of photographs chronicling life in Sudan includes the troubling image of a 7-week-old boy emaciated to the brink of death on a clinic table in West Darfur. The hand of an unseen person is lifting the delicate child, his tiny knees folded like kinks in a hose.

French philosopher Jacques Derrida, in “Donner la Mort (The Gift of Death),” suggests the affluent, “smooth functioning” West abides “the sacrifice of others to avoid being sacrificed (ourselves).” More than this, by allowing tens of millions to die of hunger and disease each year, Western society “not only participates in this incalculable sacrifice, it actually organizes it.”

But then again, racing off to the Sudan upon seeing the picture of a starving boy is not a feasible option. That’s where KRM comes in: They’re the local vehicle by which individuals can have a global impact. For those attuned to international strife and suffering, volunteer opportunities are available right here, without giving money or dedicating your life. Given how funds are dispensed, it’s just as good to donate an old sofa, table or even dish soap to help a refugee settle into a new apartment. After all, the less KRM spends setting up an apartment, the more money that goes directly toward helping refugees begin new lives.

Refugees like Semsudin Haseljic.

At Kentucky Refugee Ministries, Semsudin is the guy in the room everyone wants to talk to because he knows how to get things done.

Semsudin — who earned a business degree at the University of Louisville — averages about 50 hours a week at KRM where he works as program leader and head of the Wilson-Fish Program. His day consists mainly of meeting directly with clients in search of work, education and other opportunities. By the end of the day, there’s always a mound of paperwork: “Everything has to be documented. You have to record every detail and interaction because that’s how the clients get money,” Semsudin says, then laughing as he recalls the words of former KRM Director Carol Young: “If it’s not in case notes, then it didn’t happen.”

In the former Yugoslavia, Semsudin studied metallurgy — a science dealing with the chemical makeup of metals — in his hometown of Zenica. It’s a city that can best be described as the Pittsburgh of the Balkans — the center of steel production in the region. In then-Yugoslavia, all young men were required to enlist in the army right out of high school, serving one year before entering college. After completing his military service, Semsudin tested into the biological and chemical defense program.

In the early ’90s, the Yugoslav Republic fractured into four separate states: Slovenia, Serbia, Croatia and Macedonia. In 1992, the nearly landlocked Bosnia declared independence from Serbia. Outraged by this bold move and concerned (however unfounded) for the ethnic Serbians now under the control of Bosnian Muslims, Serbia decided to dispute Bosnia’s autonomy and invade, with the help of Croatia. What ensued was a wholesale genocide against the Bosnians.

“When special-forces from Serbia came into the first cities and they started killing people in the streets, they would pull down pants to see if they were circumcised,” says Semsudin. “It was for them a green light to kill.”

Today, tens of thousands of Bosnian refugees live in the United States — 4,000 in Louisville — while no Serbians have been granted refugee status.

While serving with Bosnian Special Ops during the war, Semsudin lost his legs to a landmine on May 28, 1993.

“I stepped on landmine in central Bosnia. It blew both my legs off instantly. Just like that. It didn’t take a whole lot. It was just a split second, and it was over.”

It took Semsudin three months to recover from his wounds in Zenica. But to fully recover, he would have to come to America as a refugee: “I still needed some special treatment because when the landmine blew up, it basically tore off tissue from my bones. So I had parts of my bones without any tissue.”

To get to America, Semsudin had to enter the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo, the only place where humanitarian planes were allowed to land. Sarajevo, unfortunately, was undergoing the longest siege in modern warfare, and Semsudin had to be carted through a series of underground tunnels.

In 1994, Semsudin arrived in Louisville. In addition to enduring multiple surgeries and skin grafts to repair what was left of his legs, he had to learn to walk on prosthesis. He came to the United States without family or money, and couldn’t speak a word of English. Now — besides his many obligations at KRM — he runs a tax operation and presides over the Bosniak American Islamic Center as president and founder.

Despite the many unimaginable setbacks he has faced, Semsudin seems truly happy. Throughout this interview, he laughs often. Though he admits life has been difficult, even unbearable at times, he feels lucky to be where he is today — living in Louisville and working at Kentucky Refugee Ministries to help those facing many of the same horrific troubles he once endured: “I come here with a smile and I leave with a smile, because I enjoy my work. They say, ‘Why you never take a day off?’ But I’m not just going to take a day off for the sake of a day off.”

Check out next week’s edition of LEO Weekly to read about James Malou, a “Lost Boy of Sudan” who sought refuge in the United States and now works at Kentucky Refugee Ministries.