BY EMILY INNES – STAFF WRITER
Last week, Danville and Centre College opened their arms and hearts to welcome a refugee family into the community. Many of you may remember the convocation last November where Barbara Kleine of Kentucky Refugee Ministries discussed the global refugee crisis. A Centre graduate, Kleine inspired campus to take action and become involved in the work of the Kentucky Refugee Ministries.
This past Spring, as political rhetoric concerning refugees became increasingly divisive, CentrePeace enacted a campus-wide emphasis on the Syrian refugee crisis specifically, and a community vigil was held at the labyrinth.
“From those events, numerous people began discussing the possibility of settling a refugee family,” said Dr. Rick Axtell, professor of religion, campus chaplain and a highly involved participant in the resettlement.
The first organizational meetings began last summer, and Centre’s Religious Life Office signed an agreement with Kentucky Refugee Ministries to become the official sponsor.
Despite having the official title for the coalition, the Religious Life Office is by no means acting alone.
“I am proud to see such a wonderful broad-based effort,” Dr. Axtell said, as the initiative combines campus organizations with various religious establishments in Danville.
The Presbyterian Church of Danville, Trinity Episcopal Church, Grace Presbyterian Church, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and the Islamic Society of Danville are joining forces with Centre’s Bonner Program, Centre Christian Fellowship, CentrePeace, Muslim Student Association, Jewish Student Organization, and Catholic Newman Club. Individual Centre students and other non-religious organizations have also made significant contributions by helping with general fundraising, food donations, bathroom supplies, and transportation offers.
A refugee is defined as someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence and who has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.
Today, there are currently 65.3 million forcibly displaced individuals worldwide. Approximately 2.45 million applications for asylum or refugee status were submitted to UNHCR in 2015, which is about a 48% increase from the 1.6 million in 2014. The United States was the second-largest host of new refugees in 2015, admitting 172,700 displaced persons.
Senior Kaitlin Wilbanks joined the effort because the refugee crisis is a point of interest for her, and she has prior experience with refugee organizations. This past summer, she interned in Greensboro, N.C. with Church World Service, with whom Kentucky refugee ministries is also affiliated. Nongovernmental agencies such as these make sure the refugees have a place to live and proper identification, as well as help them find employment, navigate the area, and acclimate to daily chores such as buying groceries and using the bank.
Wilbanks worked with refugees during their first three months in the United States, dealing with case management and helping the refugees prepare for their new lives. Each refugee family is granted $925.00 per person from the U.S. government for 3 months, and is expected to be self-sufficient after that.
“[I helped] make that money last as long as possible so they have a better chance of success,” she said.
Wilbanks appreciated the opportunity to have personal interactions with the refugees and be exposed to their personal narratives. Getting to know them in a more intimate context helped her develop an understanding of what they’ve been through, and she is proud of Danville and Centre for attempting to do the same.
“The efforts being made to help the global refugee crisis say a lot about where Danville is and where it’s trying to go,” Wilbanks said, “It will be a good experience for the community as a whole, [showing] we can do good while the rest of the country is saying this is too scary and hard.”
“I am hopeful and optimistic for the Danville community,” Senior Harrison Kirby said. The refugee family is his service site for Bonner.
Kirby will be involved with the family by organizing transportation services for them and even personally driving them on occasion. The family will attend orientation classes in Lexington to help gradually adapt to life and culture in the United States. Kirby and other Bonner students involved with the family are coordinating transportation to these meetings, as well as for basic trips to the grocery store, bank, ESL classes, etc.
“Everyone working on the project is doing their best to accommodate the family and anticipate their needs,” Kirby said.
The family’s well-being is a priority, and everyone Kirby has talked to at Centre have been excited about the progressive actions of the college and community. He hopes this first settlement will lead to the development of a refugee community in Danville.
The family’s first week in Danville will be consumed with meetings and appointments for necessities such as social services and medical needs. Their house has been completely stocked by donations from community members and Centre students, already demonstrating an impressive willingness to help the family and ease their transition as much as possible. Centre students also helped move the donated furniture into the house.
A GoFundMe page has been created to continue efforts to help the family (https://www.gofundme.com/refugee-project). Within the first day of the page being active, over $1,000.00 was raised. This remarkable outcome at such an early stage holds great promise for the continued efforts of both Centre and Danville, creating a positive and progressive atmosphere that establishes a united front and sets a precedent for other communities to follow.
Note: All definitions and statistics are cited from the UNHCR’s Facts and Figures about Refugees (http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/figures-at-a-glance.html)