The International Center of Kentucky’s main office was bustling with activity on the morning of Monday, Oct. 10. Located in a two-story, red-brick building on Kenton Street, it was filled with men, women and children who appeared to be of different races and ethnicities.
Some sat in the lobby, waiting and staring at a TV in the corner of the room or a smartphone in their hands. Some milled about outside the building. A young boy bounced a basketball in the parking lot while a small group of girls sat on a cement parking block and watched a toddler take teetering steps on the black asphalt.
A few wore traditional African dress. Even more wore T-shirts and blue jeans. It was a melting pot of sorts — a mix of diversity in the heart of Bowling Green.
While different, these people — the children and mothers and fathers speaking different languages — had something in common. They were refugees, receiving assistance from the International Center as they resettled in the United States, said Evelina Gevorgiyan, International Center program manager.
This scene was nothing new. Since the International Center was founded in 1981, it has helped over 10,000 refugees resettle, according to its website. It expects to resettle 440 more in this fiscal year, which started on Oct. 1.
This announcement came in April, and it sparked much debate. In May, a town hall meeting was held to discuss the influx of refugees, 40 of whom expected to be from Syria.
The refugees started coming anyway. They will continue to stream into Bowling Green throughout the fiscal year, which ends on Sept. 1, 2017.
For them, the International Center, a refugee resettlement agency that works with the Office of Refugee Resettlement, is a first point of reference.
“We help them with everything, including social services and public assistance,” Gevorgiyan said. “We enroll school-aged children in school. We offer jobs. We apply for any benefits that they qualify for and provide housing, as well.”
That Monday morning, the countless individuals in the lobby and outside the International Center were waiting to receive this kind of assistance, as well.
While the International Center may be responsible for the brunt of the work that comes with resettling Bowling Green’s refugee population, they aren’t the only local organization advocating for the well-being of these refugees.
Working just a few miles away from the International Center’s office on Kenton Street, WKU students are trying to raise awareness and support for refugees, too.
The night of Thursday, Sept. 29 was a fairly still and quiet one on campus, but there was quite a different scene inside a large room in the Honors College and International Center.
Music from different cultures with lyrics in multiple languages played from a set of speakers. A sizable group of people talked, laughed and walked around the room. Brightly decorated tables sat around the room’s perimeter, each with a colorful display and a small donation box sitting on top.
It was Home Away From Home, a fundraiser sponsored by WKU’s International Student Diplomats, a group of eight students from eight different countries selected to represent the university’s international students.
This fundraiser was meant to raise money for the International Center and its work with refugees, said Flavio Chavarri, chair of the International Student Diplomats and a junior from Arequipa, Peru.
“[The International Center] has an important position here in the U.S.,” Chavarri said. “They are trying to help people who have nothing.”
In total, the event raised $1,300 for the International Center in a four-hour period.
Students made donations by dropping money in their favorite organization’s donation box. It became a competition, with a prize promised to the organization that raised the most. The Saudi Student Organization won, and its members took home a commemorative trophy.
“There are a lot of fundraisers that usually student organizations do, but right now I think there are people that really need it because they come here to the U.S. with almost nothing,” Chavarri said, commenting on the global refugee crisis. “… So they need our help.”
Chavarri said the International Student Diplomats were planning another similar event for November.
The night of Home Away From Home, those in attendance greeted one another, and some engaged in conversation. Others moved from table to table, taking in the atmosphere of the room and speaking to representatives from various student organizations.
Louisville junior Maggie Sullivan was one of these attendees. She saw the event as a way to support refugees, she said.
This semester, Sullivan is working to establish her own initiative, a campus chapter of No Lost Generation, as a registered student organization.
No Lost Generation, founded and supported by UNICEF, is an international refugee advocacy organization that was started in 2013 “to focus attention on the plight of children affected by the Syrian crisis,” according to its website. However, Sullivan said No Lost Generations’ mission extends beyond displaced Syrians.
“There’s always going to be people seeking relief from persecution, and I think having an organization on campus devoted to that is so important, whether it’s seen as a priority or not,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan said the WKU chapter of the organization is just getting started but will soon be volunteering with the International Center and raising refugee awareness on campus. No Lost Generation holds weekly meetings in the HCIC.
Another similar student organization also met on campus, and at one, in particular, they spent the entire time discussing the refugee issues.
About 10-15 students sat in red mesh chairs around a rectangular conference table with a box of donuts in the middle. They were members of WKU’s campus chapter of International Justice Mission, and as they spoke about global challenges and local responses to the refugee crisis, most students grabbed a donut. Some reached for two.
In 2015, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that there were 65.3 million forcibly displaced people in the world, and the UNHCR estimates that “nearly 34,000 people are forcibly displaced every day.” Its website calls these “the highest levels of displacement on record.”
Most of IJM’s work centers on ending slavery, sex trafficking, sex violence, police brutality, property grabbing and citizens rights abuses, but Louisville junior Rachel Harris, president of the WKU chapter, said refugee issues are also important to the organization.
“I think it’s definitely a timely subject,” Harris said. “I’m glad it’s something we were able to discuss, and I think it’s something that could be discussed well beyond this meeting, too.”
At the end of the meeting, Harris encouraged her fellow IJM members to take action by volunteering at the International Center or with No Lost Generation, attending Home Away From Home or even just getting to know international students on campus.
Not everyone is as supportive of refugees, though.
In November 2015, in one of his first speeches as Kentucky Governor-elect, Matt Bevin joined the chorus of other Republican governors across the country when he said he would not allow Syrian refugees in Kentucky. He cited then-recent terrorist attacks in Paris and his duty to protect citizens of the Commonwealth.
That month, U.S. Senator Rand Paul, a Republican from Bowling Green, introduced a bill that would ban Syrian refugees.
The president of WKU’s College Republicans club, Clarksville junior Nate Washington, said he supported these efforts.
Washington, a political science major, doesn’t support the International Center’s resettlement of refugees. Instead, he said he carried some major concerns, the foremost of which is the U.S.’s refugee vetting process.
“Without thoroughly vetting these people, how do we know who these people are?” Washington said. “We don’t. There’s no way to know. It’s virtually impossible. Now, we do have a vetting system. It’s not true when people say that we’re just bringing these people in.”
The State Department has maintained that the refugee vetting process is thorough, but Washington said he wasn’t convinced. He said he’s primarily worried about refugees fleeing war-torn areas where ISIS is spreading — places like Syria.
Nearly 85,000 refugees were resettled in the United States during the last fiscal year, 12,587 of them from Syria. The number of total refugees is expected to increase to 110,000 this year.
“I truly don’t want to dehumanize an entire group of people, but there are serious questions with this kind of influx of people,” Washington said.
Dissent didn’t seem to worry Gevorgiyan, though.
“There is some, as always,” she said, in regards to negative opinions on refugees. “It’s absolutely normal, and I think it’s our job to provide more information to the community and teach them and share all the information — who is coming, where are they coming from, how many are coming — because I think the community has a right to know how many new refugees we are resettling.”
In her 14 years working at the International Center, Gevorgiyan has seen much change; she’s seen the waxing and waning of community support. But she says it’s becoming increasingly important.
“We’re trying to work together with the community because there is very little we can do as an agency,” she said. “We need the community’s support absolutely to resettle these refugees.”