April 30, 2009

They come from cultures vastly different than America's. They come to escape political strife, persecution, violence or to make a better living for their families. Some have outstanding educations and left good jobs behind. Others had little to look forward to in their home countries. All hope for better lives in the United States. But the American dream is elusive. Once here, refugees and migrant workers often struggle to learn a new language and get on their feet financially, especially now, during bad economic times.

It's their stories that students collected for a University of Kentucky College of Agriculture service learning course, Community Based Research with Refugee and Latino Migrant Populations. And it's their stories that the students will present to the public from 6 to 8 p.m. May 7 in the basement of Lexington Public Library's Central Library.

"We focused on collecting people's stories with the goal of using those stories to better inform people about what the needs are and also to use those stories to help incoming immigrants. Because the expectations and the realities are very different things," said Aminata Cairo, a post-doctoral researcher in the UK Department of Community and Leadership Development who created the course.

Cairo, who co-teaches the course with Rural Sociology Associate Professor Rosalind Harris, said resources are stretched, and smaller cities and rural areas often find it difficult to provide the services these newcomers need.

"In larger cities, you have all kinds of support services and cultural centers. We don't have any of that. We're still learning about what it is that people need and how we should assist them," she said.

Kentucky Refugee Ministries approached Cairo in the fall of 2007. They were looking for additional help for their families beyond the three months that the organization is geared to assist them. In that short time period, immigrants have to learn English, find a job, acquire housing and get their children settled in school. Harris said the tasks can overwhelm them.

What Cairo learned that year was, at about the three-month period, children of refugee families can begin to show signs of distress.

She and the students in last year's course designed FACE Time to help those children. FACE Time, which stands for Families and Communities Educating, is an after-school program at Cassidy Elementary and Morton Middle schools that focuses on providing support to the children. It helps them with their schoolwork and provides a space for the children to express themselves through stories of their experiences in their home countries and what it was like to come to a new country. The program validates their cultures and experiences.

This year's class turned their attention to the adults in the refugee and migrant worker communities.

"We really wanted to continue that through this semester but to get more participation on the part of people from the various countries and communities," Harris said. "So the focus was on having students from this class partner with community researchers."

"We've been trained on how to be more aware of different cultures and how to respect the culture when you go out into the community," said Whitney McKoy, a junior from Vine Grove. "We've been trained on how to work with the community and how to work with the refugees, how to conduct the interviews and how not to offend them."

Cairo partnered with Doug Boyd from the Louie B. Nunn Oral History Center who provided the class with top-of-the-line audio recording equipment and audio training and Lindsay Mattingly, outreach coordinator at the Central Library who helped with community outreach.

The students fanned out into Lexington and the surrounding communities, working with partners from each of the refugee populations - populations from diverse areas of the globe, such as Nepal, Togo, Congo, Mexico and Honduras. Using translators, or in some cases, speaking the newcomer's native language, they asked questions about how long they'd been here, what brought them to the United States, what the benefits are in being here, and what they miss from home. They asked them about their relationships with family and friends, at work and school. They strove to get a clear picture of the whole person and the problems that person faces. It's been an eye-opening experience for the students.

McKoy was surprised to find that most immigrants were eager to tell their stories.

"The stories are very interesting," she said. "Some people are hilarious. They can laugh about it now, because they're here in America, but they're telling you this pretty traumatizing story about how they ran over here. They can laugh here, but you just have to respect them for getting over here and making a life and coping."

Cairo is planning a published compilation of the stories her students collected.

"We will highlight the research team and their findings," she said. "It will be multilingual, so we can share what people have said about what it's like to live here and what people will need to know to adapt here. We'd like to make that available to incoming refugees but also at public sites, like hospitals and social service agencies. We want to inform not only the immigrants, but also the particular social service agencies."

When the research teams present their findings during the public forum on May 7, Cairo hopes it will spur more people to take action to help their new neighbors get settled into the community.

"There's still a lot of work that needs to be done as far as educating the public," she said. "A lot of people don't even know they're here or what they're going through, so we still need to get the word out and for people to get involved."

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