Merlene Davis: 'World Refugee Day' a chance to welcome international diversity

Herald-Leader columnistJune 14, 2014 

  • IF YOU GO

    What: "World Refugee Day Summit: Lexington's Bridge to the World."

    When: 9 a.m.- 12:30 p.m. for the conference, and 12:30- 2 p.m. for lunch and cultural entertainment. June 20.

    Where: Central Library, 140 East Main St., and Fifth Third Bank Pavilion, 251 W. Main St.

    Cost: $25, includes conference, parking and lunch.

    Information: Email lmattingly@lexpublib.org or call (859) 231-5514.

In December 2004, Carine Malekera and her mother arrived in Lexington, their new permanent home.

They had escaped the violence of war and resulting disease, hunger and unsanitary conditions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that have killed hundreds of thousands since the late 1990s.

They could not speak English and knew little of the new culture they were coming to.

"For me, learning English was a struggle," Carine said. "And I had to adjust to growing up where I didn't feel comfortable."

But with the help of English as a Second Language and other school teachers, by finding a friend who taught her about the culture, and by watching a lot of cartoons on TV, Carine has exceeded expectations.

She just graduated from Tates Creek High School and will attend the University of Kentucky with several scholarships including the Presidential Scholarship and the William C. Parker Scholarship.

She will be majoring in biosystem and agriculture engineering with an eye on going to medical school.

There was a lot of pain and distress in her early life, she said, but "being welcomed somewhere and truly feeling welcomed goes a long way."

Carine will talk about that transition at the "World Refugee Day Summit: Lexington's Bridge to the World" at the Central Library June 20. It is Lexington's celebration of the rich, overlooked pockets of diversity throughout this community.

World Refugee Day was established by the United Nations in 2001 to pay tribute to the courage and strength exhibited by those forced to flee their homelands and familiar routines to escape conflict.

Lexington's celebration has a twist, however.

"Unlike New York ... and many larger cities with a rich history of immigration, Lexington is not yet used to helping new neighbors resettle," said Lindsay Mattingly, multicultural liaison at the Lexington Public Library. "We do not yet have a well-developed infrastructure that can support nonnative English speakers."

While the Kentucky Refugee Ministries does a great job, she said, that organization has to adhere to time limits set by the federal government of up to six months. "Some of the refugees have lived in refugee camps for possibly half their lives," she said. "It is not possible to be self-sufficient in six months."

Folks in the faith community have traditionally been the people bridging the gap, Mattingly said, but more needs to be done by those of us who will be enriched by the cultures the immigrants bring with them.

But, as is the case when confronted by the unfamiliar, the general public may not be sure what that help looks like.

So Kentucky Refugee Ministries, Lexington's department of social services, the Lexington Human Rights Commission, Lexington Fair Housing Council, the Maxwell Street Legal Clinic, staff from the Fayette County Public Schools, and the public library have joined forces and created a conference that will give us a clue. Mattingly hopes it will become an annual event.

"World Refugee Day Summit: Lexington's Bridge to the World" begins with a conference at the Central Library, 140 East Main Street, from 9 a.m.-12:30 p.m.

It then moves to the Fifth Third Pavilion for food and cultural entertainment.

"We know that helping our neighbors achieve self-sufficiency will make our whole community stronger,"Mattingly said.

Congo refugees assimilate in the Lexington community

After the opening ceremonies that will include Carine and Mayor Jim Gray, there will be two sessions each with three breakout groups featuring areas of concern for refugees. Participants get to choose one breakout in each session.

The topics in the first session include health care, featuring the struggles of language and cultural barriers to treatment; employment and workforce development with a panel of employers discussing available services and the dependability and enthusiasm of refugee employees; and K-12 education, with teachers discussing strategies and programming that have produced success stories.

The second session includes adult education classes, some for people who don't read or write in their native languages, but who are expected to do that with English; housing barriers and personal testimonies from landlords who have rented to refugees; and, finally, government and community services that build the infrastructure needed in Lexington to respond to our growing number of immigrants.

Then it's on to the Fifth Third Pavilion. Artwork and crafts made by refugees will be on display, and there will be information tables about the various refugee groups that have resettled in Lexington. And there will be a performance by the Refugee Children's Choir.

The registration fee is $25 and covers the conference, parking in the library parking structure and lunch at the pavilion provided by food trucks.

"Lexington has the third-largest population of resettled Congolese immigrants in the country," Mattingly said. Phoenix and Houston are ahead of us. And there are more than 90 languages spoken in the homes of students in Fayette County schools.

"We are only as strong as our most vulnerable population," Mattingly said.

Carine agreed, saying some people think refugees only need "a place to live and food and they will be happy.

"But I was truly happy when we didn't have all those things," she said. "Happiness comes from love and appreciation. Having someone there who first supports you with food and shelter and then becomes a friend, that goes a long way."

Merlene Davis: (859) 231-3218. Email: mdavis1@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @reportmerle. Blog: merlenedavis.bloginky.com.

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