COVID-19 problems magnified for refugees


LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — The COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult and isolating for Kentuckians across the state, but those challenges have been amplified for refugees who have come to the area fleeing persecution or conflict.

Whether it's trying to learn English online, figuring out new technology or trying to make connections in socially-distant times, Lexington-area refugees are adapting.

Because of the pandemic, only refugees with the highest-priority cases have been able to come to Kentucky since March. The decrease in new clients has helped Kentucky Refugee Ministries take extra care to fully set up and stock an apartment with sanitizer and thermometers by the time a new family arrives, KRM's Lexington director Mary Cobb said. Once a family arrives, a 14-day quarantine at home is required.

"From a social and emotional standpoint, that isolation has been hard, especially for people who just got here who haven't made friends or gotten to know the city," Cobb said.

Between March 15 and May 29, the center had no new arrivals. On May 29, two sisters who'd been separated from their mother for more than ten years were the first refugees to arrive during the pandemic.
Kasongo Ponga Madeleine, who goes by Maddie, moved to Lexington with her younger sister. Maddie, 23, is one of five siblings who were separated from their mother, Jacqueline Kosongo Rukevya, in 2007 because of conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Jacqueline Kosongo Rukevya came to Lexington years ago and had thought her children were dead for years. It wasn't until she saw Maddie in a photo from a Ugandan refugee camp that she learned her children were alive.

All of Maddie's siblings were going to move to Lexington with her. Her 16-year-old sister made the trip, but her two adult brothers and an adult sister have been delayed by complications brought on by the pandemic, Maddie said.

Maddie spoke to the Herald-Leader through Swahili interpreter Alex Remezo.

When Maddie and her sister first got to Lexington, they couldn't go outside for fourteen days. Since being released from quarantine, they have not been able to explore their new city or meet people. Nevertheless, Maddie said she is happy in Lexington and excited about the future. She also said she understands the restrictions.

"We have to do everything it takes to beat this pandemic. If it protects us and protects everyone else, that is a good thing," Maddie said.

Since coming to Lexington, Maddie and her mother have been able to operate their own small business. An anonymous donation helped the pair get the business started, and the anonymous donor plans to give annually to help other refugees start their own companies, Cobb said.

In a booth at Julietta Market in Greyline Station, Maddie and her mother opened Jacqueline's Designs. The booth is full of colorful patterns and fabrics, and the two work to create one-of-a-kind clothing by request.

The pandemic has meant fewer customers than the mother-daughter duo would have hoped, but they enjoy the work, Maddie said.

"We do this because we love people, and we love to see people looking good," Maddie said. "We also love the job, love the city and want to help people look good. That's something that we really want to do for a long time."


The pandemic has changed the way children in Kentucky and around the country go to school, and children in refugee families are also adjusting to largely online schooling in local districts. The "Zoom fatigue" that has become familiar to many can be even worse when a student has to do additional work to learn the local language, KRM youth services coordinator Lizzie Barrick said.

Shy refugee students often leave their cameras and microphones off, so it's hard for teachers to see if they're struggling to understand, Barrick said. The pandemic has also made it more difficult for incoming children to make friends and gain confidence.

"It's hard — how do any of us connect and engage in a community that speaks your language or other languages?" Barrick said. "Sometimes it's impossible, or it's a big challenge."

Adjusting to new technology when directions are often in English has caused difficulty, but KRM and Fayette County Public Schools have worked to help families get by.

"Everything is a challenge, everything is so much harder online and remotely ... you might have one little question. If you could just point and say, 'is this what I click on?' But remotely, that's going to take an email, or take the courage to ask a question in class when you don't speak as much English," Barrick said.

The school district has provided a lot of the needed technology, but monetary contributions and donations of computers and Ethernet cables have also helped KRM, Barrick said.


Since August, Kentucky Refugee Ministries has had 38 new clients arrive. In comparison, from October 2018 to September 2019, the center welcomed 433 new clients.

Those clients who have been in Lexington longer were hit hard when COVID-19 restrictions were imposed.

As the pandemic began taking hold in late March, many of KRM's clients in the area for several years were laid off from their jobs.

KRM workers helped them with unemployment applications.

"Our employment team shifted to being the unemployment team," Cobb said. The process involved hours on the phone for more than 130 clients who were suddenly in need of unemployment benefits.

In recent months, many laid-off refugees have been able to go back to work, but the pandemic is still hurting new arrivals looking for first-time employment, Cobb said.

Lesia Drel, 35, moved to Lexington in January 2020, right before the pandemic took hold. Amid pandemic shutdowns, she and her husband couldn't start working at first while helping her three children learn remotely. The family moved to Lexington from Ukraine. Drel, who spoke to the Herald-Leader through interpreter Lilly Pankiv, said KRM helped the family pay rent while the couple couldn't find work.

Drel's husband, Vasyl, started working recently, but Drel cannot begin a job with her children in virtual school.

"Now life is pretty stagnant; we're just staying home and don't have any goals at the present," Drel said. "We can't do anything."

When the family first got to Lexington, they could go in person to Kentucky Refugee Ministries for classes like English and cooking, but the pandemic made that impossible.

"We had to do classes from home, which was a lot more difficult because it's more difficult to learn things with online lessons," Drel said. "Especially for the smallest child because she's not able to go to school, not able to read and write much. And we can't help her because we ourselves don't know the language."

But even with the added difficulties, Drel said it's very important to her family to keep trying to learn English. Since KRM's English classes for adults went online, Drel has had the best attendance of any student, Cobb said.

"If we can push through and improve our language, we feel like everything will be much better," Drel said.


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