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African refugees find strength in numbers

The leafy trees around the apartment complex are only used for shade and social gatherings. There are no terrified civilians cowering behind them, dodging gunfire. Teenage girls can walk down the street during the day and not fret about being raped. Mothers can send their sons to school without fear that they will be kidnapped and trained to be soldiers.

And so, on this peaceful street near downtown Lexington, a careful optimistic spirit seems to be spreading among African refugees from places far less safe.

They come from various parts ofAfrica, carrying well-worn pain and mistrust. The bitter war and ethnic cleansing in their countries gave them no choice but to plead for refuge in America. And with care, the Kentucky Refugee Ministries, which helps refugees adapt to the United States, has placed them in a neighborhood with people who have similar backgrounds, hoping they will find strength and solace in each other.

Audio slide show: Africa in the Bluegrass

It appears to be working, as the two dozen or so families placed at The Heritage, Henry Clay and Lakeshore apartments have formed their own small village of sorts, a slice of Africa in the Bluegrass.

The community can be easy to miss. Passersby may notice mothers dressed in African garb, toting their little ones on their backs. Or they may overhear conversations in broken English with heavy French accents. But a more watchful observation of the community’s residents reveals a taste of the countries from which they seek refuge.

There’s Didier Salemani, 33, a cafeteria worker at the University of Kentucky who is married to Martha Mambwe, 25, a housekeeper at Embassy Suites. He recently shared a meal of fufu, a popular African food that reputedly “makes you smart,” with his friend Richard Kayembe, 35, who works at ACS, a Lexington call center. The two spent an afternoon sitting at Salemani’s kitchen table, laughing while speaking in their native language.

Meanwhile, Salemani’s next-door neighbor, Dezanje Kaboo, 24, sat outside watching her son ride a faded red tricycle up the driveway. He’s safe, unlike the kids in her native country, Congo, where bullets fly through the streets. The only danger here is cars — and soon enough, she and Martha rushed to retrieve a mini fire truck that rolled into the street.

Across the way, there is Jaqoueline Lingoma, fondly called “Mama Jaqoueline,” who is known for handing out hugs and ice cream to the kids. She’s determined to learn English and has a rule that guests may only speak English in her home — not Swahili or French, the native languages of most of the refugees. Her 14-year-old son, Moies Kalama, plays soccer at Henry Clay High School and is fluent in English, Spanish, Arabic, Lunga and French.

“Moies intelligent,” she says proudly.

Top goal: self-sufficiency

The number of African refugees seeking peace in Kentucky has increased over the past six years as conflicts there have escalated, said Lucy Raine of KRM. At least 310 African families have moved into the Lexington area since 2002, said Barbara Kleine, a director of KRM.

When refugees first arrive, the organization assigns them housing, furnishes their homes, helps them get legal documents for employment, signs them up for English classes and shows them around the city. They also assist them with food, medical attention and enrolling their children in school. KRM also provides financial assistance for initial expenses, including rent, using donations from individuals, churches and grants.

KRM’s goal is for the families to be self-sufficient within 120 days or no longer than 180 days, said Raine, a grant coordinator, but “clearly if you don’t meet the goal you don’t fold up your tents and leave.”

In the case of the African refugees, KRM selected the three Lexington apartment complexes because they were affordable and close to shopping centers, bus stops and schools. Rent runs from $500 to $750, depending on the number of rooms in the apartments.

Scott Fielder, property manager of Henry Clay Apartments, said the refugees are model tenants.

“I’ve had no complaints from neighbors about excessive noise, they take wonderful care of their apartments and they pay their rent on time,” Fielder said. “I have great residents on the property and appreciate the diversity that everyone brings to the community.”

Raine said African refugees aren’t only placed in the Henry Clay area, where at least three of the families live, but the refugees “normally want to be together.”

The arrangement is perfect for some of the refugees.

Mambwe said she enjoys socializing with the other families.

“I noticed that most Americans stay in their own corner,” she said, “but here we eat and share meals.”

Others agree.

“Everybody is a big family. We know each other in the community,” said Masoka Rubura, 25, a native of Congo who works at UK.

Everyday challenges

The housing layout also is making it easier for some of the refugees to learn English, a requirement of KRM, which provides four English classes per week until and after the refugees find a job.

In many of the families, the children serve as translators for their parents after picking up the language in school, primarily through English as a second language classes.

Lingoma, who is 47, said she struggles to learn a bit more English every day.

Recently, she went to Wal-Mart and bought a box of ice-cream cones and couldn’t understand why they were so small.

She squinted her eyes, perplexed, as she examined the cones and tried to read the words on the box.

Finally, she realized what was wrong.

“Mini,” she said to herself, reading the cursive word on the box. She burst into laughter and stored the new word in her expanding vocabulary.

Bobette Iramca, 24, a native from Congo and a stay-at-home mom, has had similar experiences.

She remembers the time she went to Kroger and wanted to buy some spices, but she couldn’t communicate with the cashier. She eventually left without making a purchase.

“It’s so frustrating when you know what you want, but can’t say it in English,” she said through a translator.

Learning English, many refugees have discovered, is crucial to landing a good job. The refugees need good jobs to cover living expenses and repay the government for covering their traveling expenses. Each family is required to repay, on average, $1200 to $1500 per person.

Lingoma’s daughter, Leah Kalama, 23, recently handed a bundle of job applications, along with her Social Security card and identification card, to a friend who speaks English.

She motioned to him to help her fill out the applications.

“I have bills, I need more money,” she said.

With the applications properly filled out, she later landed a better-paying job at ACS in Lexington. A friend also helped her write a two-week notice about her departure to her old boss.

Moving on

But not all of the immigrants like living in the small community.

“It’s not a good idea for foreigners of any country to be together when they come to a new place,” said Cedric Lukngu, 24, a native of Congo who has lived in Lexington for two years and attends Bluegrass Community Technical College. Lukngu said he lives with his four brothers to save money.

He said refugees would have a hard time learning English “when they are constantly around people who speak their native language.”

Lukngu also worries about refugees carrying the cultural tensions from their countries into the United States.

He gives an example: “If Congo is fighting against Uganda and a Ugandan killed my father, all my life I will hate the people of Uganda whenever I see people from that country,” he said. “It’s hard to forgive.”

However, KRM hasn’t faced any major problems with refugees holding political grudges, said Kleine of KRM.

Many of the refugees say they’d rather forgive and forget their past.

They worry about losing certain aspects of their culture while adapting to a new one.

They think good jobs and education will help them assimilate.

Mambwe hopes her three children will do well in school.

“I want them to be valuable people to the society, so their future is guaranteed,” she said.Then there’s Moies, called Moses by his friends and family. While many teens would rather enjoy the summer without being bogged down with school work, he is frustrated with the summer break because he wants to “learn instead.”

He attended a summer program and complained the kids “played all day.”

“I love English, I want to learn more English,” he said.

Moies was a straight-A student at Tates Creek Middle. Like his Biblical namesake, he hopes to be a leader among his people.

“I want to be a diplomat and I want to help people who don’t eat in Africa and here, too,” he said.

People in the community look up to Moies, the kind of kid who helps women carry their groceries inside and plays with the younger ones. He’s an example of how the refugees support one another and revel in one another’s successes. They eat meals together, they baby-sit for one another, they carpool to work and to get groceries.Karissa Porter, a client services coordinator of KRM who makes weekly visits to the neighborhood, witnesses first hand the closeness of the community.

“The concept it takes a village to raise a child is there,” she said. “It’s shared discipline and shared parenting.”