Lately, I have been pondering the cultural climate due to news headlines, memes and commentators. In this pondering, I find my thoughts lead me to Marty Deputy. And I think, “What would Marty think about all of this?”
For those who never had the pleasure of knowing Marty, she had enough love for everyone and an open heart for all. She began the Refugee Assistance Agency to help the people of Vietnam who were being killed in their war-torn country. This expanded to helping people from Cambodia and Laos. She didn’t help by just sending a check. She helped by opening her home and our community by sponsoring families and providing the foundation for immigrants to put down roots. She helped new arrivals find jobs, obtain green cards, learn English, enroll in school and always had time to listen. Later, Marty helped other people displaced by war and conflict: Bosnians, Serbians and Salvadorans, to name a few. Before she died, Marty was helping people from Mexico obtain green cards and citizenship.
I met Marty in 1985 when working on my master’s thesis, titled “Refugee Adjustment in Bowling Green.” I interviewed Cambodians, Laotians and Vietnamese people about why they chose Bowling Green and the barriers to acculturation. Other states had better, more affluent support programs; so why stay here?
The overwhelming response was safety. Many reported they wanted a better life for their children and a safe place to raise their family. They reported they felt safe in a smaller town and were told their children could play outside and nothing bad would happen. Others reported they had been farmers in their homeland and hoped one day to become farmers here.
The biggest barrier to acculturation was the language. The biggest adjustment was the food. To address language issues, many participated in the English as a second language classes offered at the Refugee Assistance Center while also working low-paying, labor-intensive jobs. One man recounted going to milk cows in the morning, working as a custodian in a school during the day and attending ESL classes at night. He was smiling widely, saying he was just grateful to be in our country.
When I look around our community so many years later, I am thankful for Marty’s efforts. I recently went for lunch at India Oven and when I looked around, I saw a young family with their small children, an Amish man, young men who looked to be of college age who appeared to be international students, an older man in a wheelchair with a partner, and a former local magistrate. A diverse group of people all in one place. No drama, no pundits, no one telling us how we should feel or trying to incite intense negative emotions about a group. Just people with their friends all enjoying a nice meal. My first thought was that we are the change we wish to see. Here in this microcosm of our town, there is peace and harmony. Why can’t everyone have this?
I had the opportunity to talk with the owner, Moti Acharya, and asked about his immigration story. Acharya immigrated from Nepal in 2010, having a career in academia with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and a master’s degree in planning and management. Acharya wanted a better life for his wife and son, so he moved to eastern Kentucky to work in a restaurant with his friend. After a few years, he and his family moved to Bowling Green and opened India Oven. When I asked how he chose Bowling Green, he said it was due to the diversity, location and growth. When I asked about the difficulty of leaving one’s home and roots and taking the 22-hour plane ride to a different life, he became quiet, but in a quick beat said it was good to be here.
Marty sowed the seeds of change. Providing a new home for people fleeing persecution, opening up a community that allows for putting down new roots. These new roots have added to our social fabric. Others have come to our community through business, bringing factory jobs with them. If you’re a local, you skip the franchises and go to the Great American Donut Shop, Novo Dolce, Puerto Vallarta, Que Bueno, Thai Express, India Oven, etc. These restaurants are the easiest examples of how our community has been positively influenced by immigration.
But more importantly, by having a community of diversity, we find we are really not all that different. We all want a better life for our children. We all want a safe place to live. We all want to live in a place that gives the opportunity to achieve our dreams. I am thankful for all the people who have chosen to make Bowling Green their home.