Bowling Green’s status as a destination for refugees and immigrants is well-known to government agencies, public schools and the nonprofit International Center of Kentucky that have dealt for years with the challenges of helping the city’s foreign-born residents assimilate.
Those agencies are also getting help from the faith community, thanks to the efforts of the Refuge Bowling Green nonprofit agency formed last year by Alice Tarnagda and her husband, Daniel Tarnagda.
Alice Tarnagda, who worked as a teacher in several African countries before settling in Bowling Green, said Refuge Bowling Green was formed to help fill in the gaps in service to newcomers who face language and cultural obstacles.
It’s a growing challenge. Despite uncertainties arising out of the Trump administration’s policies on refugees and immigrants, Bowling Green continues to see its foreign-born population grow. The latest U.S. Census Bureau estimates said nearly 15 percent of the city’s population is foreign-born.
To help address the needs arising out of such numbers, the Tarnagdas took a cue from the Louisville-based Refuge International nonprofit that brought several churches together to serve that city’s refugee and immigrant populations.
“Originally, we were going to be a branch of Refuge Louisville,” Alice Tarnagda said. “As we moved forward, we realized there were more advantages to us being our own nonprofit.”
Refuge Bowling Green started with five churches – Living Hope Baptist, First Baptist, Christ Fellowship, Rich Pond Baptist and Grace & Peace Presbyterian – but has since grown to 15.
“Refuge Bowling Green was formed out of the concept of wanting to show refugees and immigrants the love of Christ and help them find hope,” said Benny Stofer, local impact pastor at Living Hope.
Stofer was aware of the needs of the foreign-born population before Refuge Bowling Green was formed.
“When a large number of Burmese were coming to town, they mostly had no idea what was available to them,” Stofer said. “They didn’t know about refrigeration or how to use air conditioning and heating.
“These folks have been in tough circumstances. It’s good that they can come to a place where they can be loved. I believe it’s our responsibility to engage with them. Refuge Bowling Green helps us do that.”
The churches support Refuge Bowling Green financially and in other ways. Living Hope, for example, has welcomed seven congregations of foreign-born residents into its building for church services each Sunday.
“We have Burmese, Nepalese, African and Chinese churches meeting here,” Stofer said. “Many of them had already been exposed to Christianity. Being around these folks is a real treasure to me. Their sense of community is remarkable, and it’s so impressive how devoted and caring they are.”
Alice Tarnagda said Refuge Bowling Green is designed to give local churches an opportunity “to reach people in a faith-based way,” but the nonprofit also has a secular mission.
“We’re trying to help them be more self-sufficient,” she said.
That can take many forms, including help with getting a driver’s license, learning English or getting school supplies.
Refuge Bowling Green can fill in some gaps in service to Bowling Green’s international population, Alice Tarnagda said. The International Center is geared more toward providing services for refugees, but Refuge Bowling Green can help other immigrants.
“We don’t receive any federal funding, so we don’t have the limitations that they have at the International Center,” Alice Tarnagda said. “We work with people who are already in the area.”
She said Refuge Bowling Green can also help secondary migrants who might have been placed in another city and then moved to Bowling Green. Tarnagda expects the number of such migrants to continue growing.
“Bowling Green is such a welcoming city and has so many ethnic groups that I think the number of secondary migrants will continue to increase,” she said.
Refuge Bowling Green also works closely with the Southcentral Kentucky Community and Technical College’s adult education program in providing English as a second language classes.
Through a partnership with community education and its United Way-funded “Hand Up, Hand Back” initiative, Refuge Bowling Green is helping foreign-born adults improve their language skills.
“We work closely with Adult Education and try to meet the need for ESL classes when they have an overflow,” Tarnagda said.
It’s a good partnership, according to Brian Becker, SKYCTC’s director of adult education.
“We have a great relationship,” Becker said. “The main benefit I’ve seen is that it gives us another trusted partner. I know their instruction is pretty rigorous, and I know they’re in it to get results.”
The Tarnagdas hope to see Refuge Bowling Green get more results as it forms partnerships with more churches and comes up with more funding.
“We would love to be able to add a staff member, if we can raise enough money,” said Alice Tarnagda, currently the nonprofit’s only paid staff member.
– More information about Refuge Bowling Green can be found at the refugebg.com website.
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