David Balondani knows from experience: “To be a refugee is like you don’t have a future.”
A native of Democratic Republic of the Congo, Balondani spent 10 years in Mozambique, in a refugee camp where travel was restricted, food was scarce and access to education was non-existent.
“Our circumstance was very dismal,” he said. “A life of poverty.”
But four years ago, the former teacher and his wife and daughter were granted refugee status by the State Department and resettled in Lexington with the help of Kentucky Refugee Ministries.
Since then, they have made a new life here.
Balondani works at Galls and helps lead the Swahili-speaking ministry at St. Luke United Methodist Church, which draws about 115 Congolese to worship services each Sunday.
Now, he and other Congolese refugees from the church are giving back to others in the same way they were helped when they first arrived in Lexington. They are co-sponsoring a family of refugees from the Congo that was scheduled to arrive at Blue Grass Airport last week.
“We are well prepared to receive that family,” Balondani said.
Refugees served by Kentucky Refugee Ministries in Lexington last year
KRM, which has offices in Lexington and Louisville, has been receiving more refugees in Lexington than ever before, said Dabney Parker, who works to find co-sponsors like the St. Luke group to come alongside refugee families.
During the last fiscal year, which ended in September, KRM helped 372 people resettle in Lexington, Parker said. The organization is on pace to far surpass that this year.
During the first quarter, the organization served more than 200 refugees, Parker said, and more than 40 refugees were expected in January.
“It’s a very high arrival rate,” Parker said. “Higher than we’ve ever had.”
One of the biggest challenges the organization is facing with the influx is finding safe, affordable housing close to bus stops, she said. But more volunteers, donations and groups to co-sponsor families are needed, too.
Which is where the team of about 10 former refugees from St. Luke comes in.
“We need to share with them the love of Christ.”
To co-sponsor the family, they agreed to provide $2,500 in support to cover the first three months of rent and utilities, but there are many other responsibilities involved.
Last week they moved donated furniture, clothing and household goods that they had collected into an apartment for the family.
And last Wednesday, they were there to welcome the family of four at the airport. They had a home-cooked meal of traditional African food and a pantry stocked with familiar groceries waiting at the apartment.
And for at least the next three months, they will become the family’s lifeline.
The group will provide transportation to medical and other appointments, teach the family how to use the bus system and show them where to find African groceries.
“How are you going to be by yourself?” Balondani asked. “You need people who can prepare you.”
Most Congolese refugees come from rural areas without electricity, he said. The team will show the family features of their apartment that Americans take for granted, like the lights and chain lock on the door, and they will make sure they understand the rules of apartment living.
Raphael Ngalula, who is serving on the team, said many refugees face isolation when they first arrive, particularly when they do not speak English.
He said one man he knew “stayed two, three, four days without even opening the door.”
“The culture shock will set in,” said Reid Buchanan, St. Luke’s minister of outreach, who is helping the team. “Having someone they can communicate with often softens that for them.
“Every family that comes want to get out on their own as quick as possible.”
Those who do often spend a decade or more in camps in neighboring countries, waiting for their opportunity.
“The wait time is very long,” Parker said. “A lot of the kids don’t know the home country.”
Some of the refugees coming to Lexington are from Syria, Iraq, Bhutan and the Ukraine, but the largest group is from the Congo, she said. Lexington has the fourth-largest resettlement population of Congolese in the country, she said.
Once they arrive in the U.S., Parker said, “the goal of resettlement is self-sufficiency.”
Kentucky Refugee Ministries offers a number of services to that end, such as employment training, English classes and support for getting children settled in school.
But Parker said community groups like the one at St. Luke play an important role in helping refugees become integrated into their new society.
“It is a huge, huge help to getting them acclimated to a new life,” she said. “The best thing that you can give a refugee is your friendship.”
Kentucky Refugee Ministries accepts financial donations as well as furniture and household goods, and individual and group volunteers are always needed.
To get involved, call 226-5661 or visit Kyrm.org/get-involved.
Financial donations can be made at Kyrm.org/give/donate-funds, or checks can be mailed to Kentucky Refugee Ministries at 1206 North Limestone, Lexington KY 40505.
For information on donating items, visit Kyrm.org/give/donate-items.