Immigrant population swells

When Ghazwan Nahedh arrived in Bowling Green from his native Iraq two years ago, he had a leg up on many refugees because he spoke English, but it was still challenging for him to adapt to daily life in the U.S.

His determination to succeed led him to become co-owner of Jasmine International Grocery on Russellville Road. 

“We refuse the idea that refugees should live off the government,” Nahedh said. “We’re always working to feed ourselves and our families.”

Immigrants like Nahedh make up an increasing portion of the population in Bowling Green and across the nation. Racial and ethnic minority groups are growing faster than the white population, a trend fueled by both immigration and births, according to a report from the Pew Research Center. 

Whites now account for a minority of births in the U.S., and by 2050, whites are projected to become a minority of the U.S. population, according to the Pew report. U.S. Census Bureau results show that from 2000 to 2010, racial and ethnic minorities accounted for 91.7 percent of the nation’s growth. In 2000, 11.1 percent of the U.S. population was foreign born, which increased to 13 percent by 2011. By 2050, 19 percent of the nation’s population is projected to be foreign born, according to a Pew report.  

In Bowling Green, 10.6 percent of the population is foreign born, according to 2012 statistics from the Census Bureau.

Statewide, 3.2 percent of the population is foreign born. In Louisville, 6.4 percent is foreign born, compared with 8.6 percent in Lexington and 2.4 percent in Owensboro. Nationwide, 12.9 percent is foreign born.

Coming to Bowling Green

Refugees make up a big part of Bowling Green’s foreign-born population. The first large wave of refugees came to Bowling Green in the late 1970s when many Vietnamese immigrants settled in the area, prompting the beginning of the International Center in 1979. Since then, the center has helped resettle more than 10,000 refugees and other immigrants from 30 countries, according to Albert Mbanfu, executive director and CEO of the International Center. 

“Over the years, we’ve realized that Bowling Green is a very hospitable community,” he said. “It’s so welcoming to immigrants. It’s so accommodating to immigrants.”

Many of Bowling Green’s immigrants come through the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program, which identifies about 70,000 refugees a year to help resettle.

“The government itself doesn’t have the resources ... to help set them up with homes and jobs,” Mbanfu said. “So they work with nonprofit organizations to help assist them.”

Nonprofits such as the International Center that help resettle refugees put forward a suggested number of refugees they can handle each year. Each year since Mbanfu arrived to lead the center, he’s met with stakeholders that will be affected by the arrival of new refugees, such as school officials and health care administrators, to make sure they are comfortable with the number of refugees he suggests Bowling Green can handle in the upcoming year. 

Until the past few years, it was typical for 450 to 600 refugees to arrive in Bowling Green each year, but a few years ago, more than 600 were resettled and city services were overwhelmed, so Mbanfu has reduced the suggested number of refugees for the last couple of years.

Earlier this month, stakeholders agreed to Mbanfu’s suggested 375 refugees for fiscal year 2015. Still, the government isn’t obligated to stick to the number requested. Last year, Mbanfu suggested 350 and just 265 refugees were selected to come to Bowling Green this fiscal year.

Airport to apartment

Once the International Center is assigned a refugee’s case, the center’s staff picks them up from the airport and helps them find an apartment, register their children for school, get a Social Security number and look for a job. The goal of the International Center is to integrate refugees into the community and help them become self-sufficient, Mbanfu said. 

“They have to work very hard because the assistance they receive from the United States government will be just for a short time,” he said.

While refugees entering the U.S. through the resettlement program generally come to large metro areas, Bowling Green is an exception and takes in about 10 to 15 percent of Kentucky’s annual refugee arrivals, according to Rebecca Jordan, Kentucky state refugee coordinator. One attraction of a city the size of Bowling Green is that it reminds refugees of where they lived in their native country, because many of them come from rural areas.

“I think part of (the appeal) is smaller locations provide more support and also less crime,” Jordan said.

Leyda Becker, international communities liaison for the city, also sees the appeal of a place like Bowling Green.

“A lot of times with refugees, if they go to larger cities, they could just get lost in the system, but in a community like Bowling Green that is close knit, they know they can be ... supported,” she said. 

Nahedh thinks Bowling Green is a good-sized city for refugees to settle. 

“Bowling Green is quiet, and it’s a good area for people trying to raise a family,” he said.    

Still, he wishes there was more support available to help guide newly arrived refugees through daily life.

“The people, when they come here, they don’t know anything,” he said. 

Though he received help from the International Center in coming to Bowling Green and getting his papers in order, there were still many aspects of life in the U.S. he had to learn on his own, particularly when he and his business partner wanted to start the international grocery and had to learn about the banking system and business regulations.  

“We had to do everything by ourself,” Nahedh said.

Improving services

In recent years, the city is trying to better serve refugees by creating Becker’s position as international communities liaison. She’s working to ensure city services are accessible to those who don’t speak English.

“We have really tried to show by example ... how we’re going to serve our changing community,” she said.

The city adopted a language access plan in October to address the language barriers the international community encounters in accessing city services. Some of the initiatives to address those language barriers are having a telephone interpreting service available 24 hours a day and training city employees to interact with clients who can’t speak English.

“It goes beyond just knowing how to call a telephone line,” Becker said. “... It goes into how do I interact in a cross-cultural communication. ... If we don’t know how to serve the public in our community, then we’re not being effective.”

Becker also heads up an international advisory council for immigrants to talk about issues and challenges they face living and working in Bowling Green.

In addition to city services, local school districts also are working to meet the needs of refugees in Bowling Green.

At the end of this school year, Bowling Green Independent School District had 473 English language learners, and 146 of those are refugee children, according to Associate Superintendent Vicki Writsel, who coordinates special programs for the district, including English as a Second Language. 

“From my perspective, having a diverse student body and a diverse community is a real strength,” Writsel said. “... I think when people bring all their diverse talents together, it makes a stronger community. I think our kids have a leg up ... because they get to interact with kids from other cultures.”

She believes Bowling Green has successfully created a community dialogue with stakeholders affected by the arrival of new immigrants, including health agencies and schools.

“It allows us to embrace diversity ... and help out new citizens adapt,” Writsel said.

In Warren County Public Schools, the number of ESL students has grown by about 106 percent since 2007, primarily because of refugees, according to Skip Cleavinger, director of English learner programs for the district.

“I think we have done a pretty good job of meeting the challenges,” he said. “I think we’re equipped to handle it (as more refugees come to Bowling Green in the future).”

With so many agencies coming together to help immigrants assimilate in the community, Bowling Green’s capacity to serve refugees and immigrants has grown over time, he said. Going to school with children from different cultures has been good for Warren County students, and it’s something Cleavinger is glad his own children are able to experience.

“I do think the immigrants and refugees here have enriched the community,” he said. “Bilingualism is important. That really is going to be a strong asset for folks graduating from our high schools.”

When this generation of children grows up, they won’t have to make any adjustments to reach out to people from other cultures, because they’re growing up with a diverse population, Becker said.

“For these young kids who are having cross-cultural interactions every day, it’s going to be second nature for them,” she said.

Growing population 

But the growing foreign-born population in Bowling Green and across the nation isn’t just because of refugees. It’s caused by globalization, Mbanfu said. With a growing interdependency among countries and the free movement of people and goods like never before, continued growth of the foreign-born population is inevitable everywhere. 

“There’s no way you can halt it, with globalization,” he said. “Nobody can stop it.”

Though the International Center can lessen the number of refugees coming to Bowling Green each year by recommending a lower number o the government, they can’t control the number of secondary migrants that come to town.

“They’re free to move, and if they find that Bowling Green is a good opportunity ... they may end up here,” Becker said. 

Mbanfu believes the large number of immigrants coming into Bowling Green will have several long-term effects.

“One, it will come to shape politics in Bowling Green, because these people in five years qualify to apply as citizens,” he said. “At a certain time, these groups ... will be important to court for votes.”

But he thinks the biggest impact immigrants will have is boosting the economy because of the many businesses opened by immigrants, such as Jasmine International Grocery.

“These are people that have longed to work throughout their lives but have never had the opportunity,” Mbanfu said. “The long-term effect is a solid workforce.”

As immigrants become successful, he believes they will in turn spend the money they earn in Bowling Green.

“The benefit that comes in, the ordinary person in Bowling Green doesn’t see,” he said.

Immigrants also have an impact on children growing up in Bowling Green, who are surrounded by refugee children from other cultures. 

“It will help them understand the world and community,” Mbanfu said. “That leads to better informed decisions about how they live their lives. They have a world view that is completely different. You’ll see Russia in Bowling Green. You don’t have to travel abroad to understand other cultures.”

— Follow faith/general assignments reporter Laurel Wilson on Twitter at twitter.com/FaithinBG or visit bgdailynews.com.