On May 3, President Biden announced he would increase next year’s refugee ceiling to 62,500, from the Trump administration’s record high of 15,000. As a refugee who came to Lexington in 2012, fleeing violent militias in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, I felt a wave of happiness. Thousands of vulnerable people around the world would once again have the chance to rebuild their lives in America and contribute all they could to this amazing country.
Still, I wonder if my fellow Kentucky people shared my optimism. I know a lot of people in my community voted for our former president, a man who called people like me “the worst of the worst” and called our homelands a “shitty country”. In 2018, after sharing a family photo on social media, a member of my church reposted it with the caption: “I love these refugees”. Her heart was in the right place, but for this person, I seemed to be the exception, not the rule. The truth is the opposite, and it is something that I hope and hope my American born neighbors will open their hearts to see.
Kentuckians might be surprised to learn that our state is fifth in the country for refugee resettlement, with 30,800 refugees calling Bluegrass State home. Congolese refugees like me represents the largest group, and Swahili is now the the third most spoken language in Lexington. For me, this diversity is magnificent. We make important economic and civic contributions. Health is the second most common professional area for refugees, according to New American Economy. The workforce gaps we fill personal care and home help are particularly vital in Kentucky as 42.2 percent of our adult population lives with some form of disability, almost double that of the country as a whole. And one significant portion of our population lives with multiple chronic diseases. We are also filling critical shortages in the food supply chain, including agriculture, and we are starting business at a faster rate than other immigrants and native Americans. All of this is vital to the economic health of our state and the post-pandemic recovery.
Since college, I have been working as a health aide in long-term care facilities for our state’s elderly population and people with disabilities. Like many of my refugee colleagues, I spend many days with Kentuckians in need of care, from grandmothers to veterans. We bathe them, meet their basic needs and treat them with respect. I chose service-oriented professions like these because I thirst for human connection and community. In Congo, aunts, uncles, cousins and neighbors all look out for each other and help raise local children. We would cook meals of cassava leaves and beans all together in our outdoor kitchen. When we landed here in January 2012 the snow dusted bluegrass was gorgeous. But winter meant isolation, with people rushing from their homes to their cars. My twin and I were 17, and our five siblings were between 8 and 22 years old. Even though we spoke three languages - Swahili, French and British English – we did not always understand southern accents. I remember wondering how we would ever fit in.
But like most refugees, we did. Three of us enrolled at the same local high school. I joined the wrestling team, while my brothers played football, and we finally formed a new relationship. After I graduated, I attended Bluegrass Community & Technical College and paid for my place by working in a home for the disabled. In 2019, I opened the Rafiki Center, a non-profit organization that supports Lexington’s Swahili-speaking community and helps connect with our American neighbors. We provide language assistance, parent advocacy and community building for newcomers. We also organize educational and cultural events to inform the people of Kentuck about our origins. America has shared so much with us; we want our American neighbors to also benefit from the richness of our culture.
After nearly a decade in Kentucky, I can confidently say that the refugees here want the same thing our US-born neighbors want: to support Lexington and help it thrive. If I could talk to that person in my church now, I would ask, “You have given me an open mind. Why not do the same for all refugees? My willingness to give back is not unique, nor is my gratitude to this country. Like you, we are proud to call ourselves Kentuckians.
Elisha Mutayongwa is the founder of Rafiki Center, a non-profit organization creating cultural ties and showcasing the Swahili-speaking community of Lexington.