This is an article written for RRW by Cindy Florez about her experiences with refugees and a resettlement agency in Bowling Green, KY and her battle to help the refugees. We first heard from Ms. Florez here in early November when the plight of the Karenni refugees in Kentucky first came to her attention.
I would like to add a bit of additional information to the story about the Bowling Green Police Department‘s (BGPD) New Years Day donation of over 150 coats to the Karenni refugees from Burma. First I would like to thank the BGPD for their generous spirits and kind hearts. The BGPD deserves a Gold Medal for what they did. Their compassion will long be remembered by the refugees, and has acted as a counterweight to the fear that the refugees felt due to the International Center’s actions. To be clear, the BGPD stepped in to provide these minimum required items when the International Center, which was paid to do so, would not.
Secondly, a bit of background information about how I became involved with these refugees. During trips to Thailand since 2003 I lived with these people on and off for a week at a time in refugee Camp 3 in Thailand outside Mae Hong Son on the Burma border. I saw the suffering they endured from the Burmese & Thailand Army and I came home filled with sorrow and love for the Karenni refugees. When the refugees were resettled to Bowling Green I began to visit them there and monitor their progress under the auspices of the International Center (IC), also known as the Western Kentucky Mutual Assistance Association, an affiliate of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI). Unfortunately and to my astonishment, as I wrote in earlier comments here, I observed that the refugees were placed in deplorable living conditions and have been ill-treated by the IC, its caseworkers, and affiliated landlords.
On Friday, December 18, 2009 I made another road trip to visit the refugees, my car filled with donations, since the refugees continue to lack so many of the basics. When I arrived at the Lover‘s Lane Apartments the owner Noy Oulay asked who I was. When I told him my name he immediately responded, “You are evicted from this property!” I asked, “Evicted?, I don’t even live here. ” He told me to leave immediately or he would call the BGPD. I told him I would help him out and call the BGPD myself. In the meantime I could hear him ten feet away calling the International Center. Why would he need to call the International Center?
Nonetheless, the BGPD came and the officer said I was banned from the property. I asked, “Banned?” “How can I be banned when the tenants who have leases want me here?” The officer saw that my car was fully loaded with gifts and said I had 30 minutes to unload and then leave. She said that if I returned to the property again I would be arrested for trespassing. The refugees watched all of this with fear and trepidation. Before one of my previous trips to visit them on Friday, November 13, 2009 two IC Caseworkers knocked on the refugees’ doors and warned them not to speak to me or let me into their apartments. So, as we were unloading my car I told them not to worry about me, that everything would be okay.
My only conclusion as to why I was banned from the apartment complex is that the IC and it’s landlord friend wanted to isolate the refugees from me. There was obvious heavy communication going on between the landlord and the IC. I, of course, come to Bowling Green simply to assist the refugees. I bring them basic necessities. I take photos of the filthy slum apartments in which they have been placed by IC, and for which they have to pay over $500 a month. I take photos of what basics they have and are lacking. I take statements from them. Many of the refugees have told me that after they first arrived that there has been no food in their apartments for up to 17 days! They lack appropriate winter clothing, eating utensils & dishes, towels, and furniture. One refugee family with two small children had just 2 coffee cups, 1 plate, and 2 spoons, and they had been here for over three weeks. They didn’t have any furniture in their apartment! Many of the refugees who have been here less than 8 months have been rejected for Medicaid, even though funds are provided to Kentucky for Medicaid for all refugees for their first eight months!
Anyway, first thing on Monday, December 21, 2009, I faxed both the BGPD and the Attorney General of Kentucky regarding the Friday incident and pointed out that only the tenants had the legal authority to determine who they wished to welcome as guests in their apartment homes. The refugees that live at Lovers Lane Apartments also signed the letter saying I was welcome. The BGPD then called me and apologized and lifted the ban. I replied back with a thank you and told the BGPD about how these refugees have been neglected and were in desperate need of a variety of basic necessities, including winter coats, hats and gloves, which the International Center has not been providing. The following day I then received a call from the BGPD saying that they had a few coats that were leftover from a previous coat drive during Thanksgiving, and that they would see what else they could to donate more.
On New Years Day three officers showed up at the Lovers Lane Apartments and handed out over 150 winter coats to the refugees, who were absolutely delighted. The refugees who were previously frightened by the police support of the hostile landlord and the IC are now feeling a friendship with and trust of the police.
By the way, during this visit by the police an IC caseworker was there. Why would an IC caseworker be working on New Years Day? The refugees told me they had so much they wanted to tell the officers about what has been happening and how they have been treated but could not since the IC worker was there. They were so disappointed. They asked me why the caseworker, Tin Zar, was there when the IC was not involved in this event. This was a gift from the BGPD, not from the IC. Did the IC show up on New Year’s Day to monitor the refugees into silence? The IC uses Burman (Burmese majority ethnic group) caseworkers who the Karenni refugees say are abusive and who they are frightened of. The Burman are from the ethnic group that controls the despotic government of Burma.
The refugees also told me that they had only seen their caseworkers, Hein That and Tin Zar, at the Lovers Lane Apartments one time before the coat giveaway on New Years Day. That was when they came on November 13th and told refugees not to talk to me or allow me into the apartments.
The incident has been a positive step forward for these refugees. Many of the refugees have been talking of fleeing to another state due to the lack of basic necessities, Medicaid, transportation, etc. I am trying to get them stay for at least their first eight months so they do not have any disruption in the little assistance they are getting. I have to say that this whole series of experiences has been a real eye opener for me. I never knew that refugees were treated so badly once they arrived in this country. I am amazed at the negligence and unethical actions that I have seen by the resettlement agency in this case. Nevertheless, the latest incident seems to have re-instilled hope in these refugees in Bowling Green.