Kentucky is the 14th-largest receiver of refugees in U.S. This group helps them feel at home.

Dana Lea accepted felt hats made by Sayer Lower School pre-kindergarten students paired with their third-grade buddies in 2016.
Dana Lea accepted felt hats made by Sayer Lower School pre-kindergarten students paired with their third-grade buddies in 2016. Kentucky Refugee Ministries


The plight of refugees from seven countries red-flagged as security risks by the Trump administration has been much in the news. Joining Tom Martin for a look at how this is playing out in Kentucky — Lexington, in particular — and how local businesses are affected or getting involved is Dana Lea, community engagement coordinator for the Lexington Division of the Kentucky Refugee Ministries.

Click here to hear the audio version of the interview:

Q: Tell us about the services that the ministries provide.

A: We provide services to refugees that enter the country, right before arrival and upon arrival, by finding groups that might want to sponsor or help with that refugee’s journey here in America. We have case workers assigned to individuals for a 90-day period, which is our core service period. Case workers help clients receive social services, food stamps, state IDs, Social Security and Medicaid enrollment, and then we make sure that clients go to health screenings and children get the right vaccinations, so that we can then enroll them in school.

We provide English language services for all clients, cultural orientations, employment orientations, help clients navigate the employment world with résumé building and take clients to interviews, get them hooked up with jobs. And so, we really are there to help clients through the whole process, with the goal of becoming self-sufficient within 90 days. For those who do not become self-sufficient, because maybe they’re a single mother with seven children or they have mental health and trauma issues that are keeping them from working or from the ability to pay their full rent each month, we have some targeted programs for the longer term. Additionally, we provide immigration legal services and free citizenship prep classes. So, we’re really here for the whole process, all the way up to five years with that citizenship.

Q: How do people from such far-flung corners of the earth wind up in Lexington, Ky.?

A: Kentucky is the 14th-largest receiver of refugees in the United States, and people, I think, are shocked. They wonder “why aren’t people going to the big cities, New York, L.A.?” But Kentucky offers lower housing costs. We offer a lot of employment opportunities for individuals. There is good enough public transportation within our bigger cities so that clients can get around freely from jobs to home to our offices. And Kentucky communities are just welcoming in general, especially Lexington, Owensboro, Bowling Green and Louisville, which are our major resettlement sites. Lexington is the number one requested city for Congolese individuals. It’s continuing to grow. They’re telling their friends and families to come here, because they are finding themselves in a welcoming community, able to thrive and begin a new life, and that’s what they want for their friends and families, as well.

Q: For those who don’t have connections in Lexington, is someone taking responsibility to help them figure out where to go once they arrive in the United States?

A: Absolutely. We have nine voluntary agencies at the national level. All of our national affiliates take cases that have been recommended to the State Department by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. They see what limits an agency has set for itself. In Lexington, we set our limit at 350 individuals each year. And we’re required to take 10 percent more than that. So, they look at our numbers: How many people have we received, what is our housing situation like, our job situations, and that’s how these affiliates choose where individuals go.

Q: Has President Trump’s executive order barring immigration from those seven countries that have been red-flagged by the administration as security risks been a concern here in Lexington? And if so, what have you seen?

A: It’s absolutely been a concern, all over the state. Our biggest goal is to squash false information that’s out there, especially about the vetting process. The idea that refugees are not vetted is just completely unfounded. It is our goal for the larger community to not be afraid of these individuals, to understand who they are. We, of course, have been nervous that our clients might receive a less-than-welcoming reception because of the current climate in America, but we’re not necessarily seeing that. We’re seeing a lot of individuals come out and be more welcoming, smile to our clients, tell them, “You’re welcome here, we love you.”

Q: What are some of the ways that Lexington has been impacted by the executive order controversy?

A: Lexington has really come out as a show of force against the executive order. Of course, we get a few negative comments on Facebook and Twitter here and there, but it’s overwhelming support. We have just been inundated with individuals who want to give something or give their time or just tell us that they love us and they are supporting us as staff members and our clients, as well. We’ve had individual organizations and restaurants and coffee houses say that they’re going to hold proceeds nights for us. We’ve had individuals bring us a staff lunch. We had people bring in lunches for our clients. It kind of blinds you to the national situation when you live in this welcoming bubble. You of course try and surround yourself with only the positivity, and then you check the news and you remember what the situation in the nation is, about immigrants and refugees. But we’re just trying our best to support our clients. Of course, our local employers will be impacted if there are not as many refugees coming in. We have a lot of our clients employed at Hydra, which does soaps and aromatic bath supplies, Hilton, UK Dining Services, Amazon. So these organizations will of course be impacted when they’re not able to have us as an employment source.

Q: We hear so much these days about the fear and the xenophobia, but I wonder if you can cite some local examples of kindness extended to refugees that maybe you’ve witnessed.

A: Our Arabic interpreter, Dalal, tells a story about how a woman came up to her in the grocery and told her, “You’re welcome here,” and she’s just been smiled at more, recently. Our clients are always thrown off a little bit by the Southern charm of being smiled to on the street. For them it’s like, “Why are these people looking at me? Why are you making eye contact?” And now, they know that these individuals are welcoming them. So just seeing the amount of support that’s coming in has been making us, as a staff, extremely, extremely grateful.

Q: Along the way to arriving here, has there been a lot of preparation for cultural change, or is it sometimes kind of a shock?

A: Certain things can be a shock. Some of the camps run cultural orientation programs. One of my tasks at KRM is to coordinate our cultural orientation program. Every Friday, I run a 3-hour class that involves individuals from the community like the Nest, and Global Lex, Fayette County schools, the police and fire departments. They come to speak on various cultural issues. And it depends on the individual’s background, what are the skills they’ve come with? Have they come from a larger city? Have they lived in a camp where food and housing and supplies have just been allocated to them their whole life? Are they having to budget for the first time? These are all things that we introduce to all of our clients, regardless of their background. We try and add areas like nutrition, something that can affect the body and the mind, topics that really address clients’ past trauma and local outlets for getting rid of stress and depression. So we’re really trying to hit all aspects of cultural adjustment.

Q: Does the Kentucky Refugee Ministries have any particular needs at the moment with this influx of refugees?

A: We always are in need of individuals who are willing to drive clients to appointments. We have already seen 65 percent of our clients come for the fiscal year. So we are not needing household donations, but we are still serving the clients we have for at least the next three months with core services, and that includes a lot of health appointments, state ID, social services. So driving is definitely important. Individuals who want to host special activities for our families are always welcome. Monetary donations are always welcome, especially as we gear toward possibly having to serve longer-term clients versus new arrivals. And advocating on our behalf, going to our social media and our website, learning more about refugee resettlement. Tweeting. Just getting your voice out there. Making phone calls. Tweet to President Trump. These actions are working, and the voices are being heard. We also have a film, “New Arrivals,” that Thom Southerland from the Lexington library produced and directed. It’s available online. Individuals and groups can host screenings. We can come speak at those. So a variety of ways to stay involved.

Christ Church Cathedral in Lexington hosted a "holy conversation" aimed at garnering support for refugees Tuesday night. The hundreds in attendance heard from faith and civic leaders, as well as refugees themselves.

Tom Martin’s Q&A appears every two weeks in the Herald-Leader’s Business Monday section. This is an edited version of the interview. To listen to the interview, find the podcast on The interview also will air on WEKU-88.9 FM on Mondays at 7:35 a.m. during Morning Edition and at 5:45 p.m. during All Things Considered.