Walking through the hallways Wednesday of Kentucky Refugee Ministries at Arlington Christian Church, 1206 North Limestone, I saw families dressed in their native attire and heard them speaking in their native tongues.
It made Lexington seem much less isolated somehow.
These people, refugees mainly from the Congo and Nepal, have remarkably similar stories of fear and oppression. Yet they were eager to assimilate while remaining proud of their countries and their cultures.
Renuka Chettri, a native of Bhutan who has lived in Lexington about a year with her husband and two children, said most from her country were forced to flee to refugee camps in Nepal.
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A majority of the refugees from Bhutan are members of the Lhotshampa ethnic group that was first seen as a threat to the Bhutan government about 30 years ago. They were forced to refrain from speaking their native Nepalese and ordered not to wear their cultural attire, even at home.
Chettri, who served as an interpreter for other Bhutanese the day I visited, said those who refused to do as ordered could be killed or have their homes burned and be forced to sign papers stating they were leaving Bhutan voluntarily.
More than 100,000 were sent to one of seven camps in Nepal. There they waited to move to such countries as Canada, New Zealand, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and the United States.
Barbara Kleine, director of Lexington's offices of Kentucky Refugee Ministries, said that during the past two years, the Bluegrass has become home to 115 Bhutanese refugees.
In fact, this area is home to 380 refugees during the past two years, including 132 from the Democratic Republic of Congo and 107 from Iraq. They all want a chance at the peace we take for granted.
On Saturday, you will have a chance to meet some of them and maybe share a native dish at the World Refugee Day picnic from noon to 3 p.m. at Woodland Park
The worldwide celebration aims to remind us that there are 14 million refugees around the world, 8 million of whom have languished in camps for a decade.
Kleine said she is expecting at least 100 Bhutanese, Iraqi and Congolese immigrants who have settled in the Bluegrass.
Charmelle Kindeke handed me a neatly folded piece of notebook paper on which her name had been written, last name first as is the custom in the Congo, her homeland. She, her husband and two sons fled to Ghana in March 2003, and there they lived in a camp until finally arriving in Lexington on Jan. 14.
Kindeke said she is getting used to America although she has two requests.
First, she wants her two children to attend school during the summer, learning English and other subjects so they can catch up with Americans in their age group.
And second, she said, she wants the United States government to help those she left behind in the camp.
"It is an eight-hour drive to the nearest city," Kindeke said. "They have stopped giving out food, and there is no medical clinic now."
Kentucky Refugee Ministries, with offices in Louisville and Lexington, is a non-profit resettlement agency that helps refugees become self-sufficient with help from sponsoring churches and social agencies.
The agency finds housing for them and helps them get jobs, which is a State Department requirement.
Usually, refugees must be employed within 120 days of arrival, but our challenging economy has pushed that time limit to 180 days, Kleine said.
Refugees must enroll in English classes and attend culture classes to learn what is expected of them.
The elementary-age children are encouraged to join the therapeutic art program to help express their emotions. Some of their work, including a mural, will be on display at the picnic.
Local restaurants have donated food for the picnic, which will be served along with potluck items from the refugees, Kleine said. There will also be African drummers, soccer games and raffles for soccer balls.
Kleine said she doesn't think the growing sentiment against illegal immigrants will have any effect on the families she serves. Her families are legal and escaping dire circumstances.
"Our tradition in America is that we are a beacon of hope for people who are persecuted," she said. "Most Americans would not want our country to lose that identity."
Although the immigrants are vying with Americans for the same jobs in some instances, "I think most people, if you tell them these people have been living in refugee camps for years or decades, that they would be killed if they went home, and that they are victims of persecution, most Americans would welcome them with open arms," Kleine said,
I hope so, as does Chettri.
"We came for the future of our children," she said. "We want to remove the 'refugee' tag from our foreheads, from our names. We want our children to be in America."