A Special Feature by KRM Caseworker Mariel Smith
It’s 11:30 p.m. and I’m standing outside the Louisville airport terminal while countless people hurry past me to see family members, make a phone call, or pick up their luggage. I peer through the sea of preoccupied faces, searching for my own particular set of strangers who lifted off from the other side of the globe several days before. As the flow of passengers slows to a trickle, they appear: husband, wife, and several children clinging to their bags and each other, their eyes hesitantly scanning the terminal for something familiar. Once they see me smiling at them, the group slows, family members standing together against a new uncertainty. Who is this stranger in the airport waving at them like they are old friends?
As a caseworker at Kentucky Refugee Ministries, I visit the airport each week to welcome our nation’s newest refugees. At each arrival, I witness the language barriers, cultural differences, and unique mixture of relief, anxiety, and exhaustion refugees carry with them when they first arrive in Louisville. No two arrivals are exactly the same, but they all share a certain air of excitement. When refugees touch down in Louisville, they are leaving behind years of danger, oppression, uncertainty, and conflict, and a new future unfolds before them with every step. While their new lives certainly won’t be easy, they are finally safe to find their own path and make their own plan. Meeting me is their first step along this new journey in the U.S.
On this occasion, the youngest girl in the family separates from the group. Rather than slowing to a stop like her older brother and sisters, the four-year-old girl in the royal blue jacket latches onto my smile and returns it, walking confidently up to me and my interpreter. She stops in front of me and extends her tiny hand in an unmistakable gesture of greeting. Despite having been in an airplane for the better part of two days, ripped away from her home, her language, and any semblance of her old life, she smiles at me without fear or hesitation. Bending down to meet her, I take her hand in mine and gave it a confident, American shake. While neither of us knows at that point what new trials are ahead for her and her family, we can share this one small but important thing: a moment of true human connection jumping like an electric current between us.
After hearing the interpreter greeting them in Arabic, their native language, the family visibly softens. We walk together through the terminal to retrieve their bags and head for the parking garage. Driving through the deserted streets of Louisville, I glance into my rearview mirror and catch glimpses of the children’s sleeping faces as the street lights slide past the car windows. Their fatigue is understandable. Almost four years ago, they fled Syria for Jordan. For the past two days, they’ve been traveling in a continuous daze of presenting documents, standing in line, boarding planes, and waiting in terminals. Tonight, they will finally be able to sleep in a safe bed again.
At their apartment, I help the family unload their bags from the car, open the door, and welcome them to their first home in America. The children stream into the bedrooms, excitedly talking to each other and quickly romping and roaming about the space, while mother and father are preoccupied with more practical things: how does the stove work? How does one adjust the thermostat? How will they pay the rent? Buy food? Navigate the city? Find work? Will the children be able to go to school soon? Their questions continue expanding outward in an effort to relieve the rising disorientation and confusion of their new life here. Through the interpreter, I answer questions as best I can, knowing that everyone is exhausted and there will be many more talks in the months ahead.
My final answer for the night is a universal remedy: food. I show the family the warm meal waiting for them. I reassure them that I’ll return tomorrow to continue the conversation. Together, we will try to answer the most difficult question of all: how a family from another life, another culture, another world, will, against great odds and many obstacles, find a way to build a new life here.[Names and images of the family featured in this story were omitted at their request.]
Preparing for New Refugee Arrivals
This year, KRM expects to welcome more refugees than ever before. During one week this July, over 70 new refugee clients landed in Louisville. To prepare for these new families, KRM collaborates with a network of community volunteers and organizations. For example, the family discussed in the story above received ongoing support and friendship from their co-sponsorship group, Prospect Rotary Club.