“The United Nations of Louisville” is the first in our three-part series. Read part two, "The Many Lives of Nini," and part three, "Teaching the World."


More than 2,000 people showed up at the Muhammad Ali Center on Saturday, Nov. 10 for “Hello Neighbor: Day of Dignity, Day of Compassion,” a festival to celebrate Louisville’s cultural diversity. Booths were set up on the sixth floor where agencies that cater to refugees could hand out literature. People from Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and Cuba mingled, had health screenings, sampled free food and browsed the free exhibits.

Refugees are people who have fled their homeland because of fear of persecution or imprisonment. Since 1970, the world refugee population has increased more than 500 percent to about 22 million, most of them women and children. Only about 2 percent make it to one of the nine Western nations willing to accept them. According to the United Nations, a fifth of the refugee population is being hosted in developing (read: poor) countries.

Louisville, Ky., is one of the most likely destinations for refugees in the United States. In 2010, the River City was 14th on the list of cities that take refugees, just ahead of New York City.  About 1,500 arrive each year through Catholic Charities of Louisville and Kentucky Refugee Ministries. Another 100-300 refugees come to Louisville as a secondary destination, after being settled in other cities because of family or cultural ties.

The first wave of refugees – including Vietnamese, Bosnian and Cuban – came in the 1970s and ‘80s and have already set down roots in Louisville. They worked their way into the fabric of the city, and now there are few other places in Middle America with such a diverse array of authentic foreign cuisine: Nigerian (Funmi’s Cafe), Cuban (Havana Rumba), and Vietnamese (Vietnam Kitchen and Annie’s Cafe), among others.

The current wave of Louisville refugees are coming from places like Bhutan, Burma, Iraq and Somalia. Cubans are always a big part of the refugee population because they are given special status due to the relationship between our nation and their homeland.

The new refugees are arriving at a precarious time. It’s hard for everyone to find work in post-recession America, but especially so for an applicant that speaks broken English and comes from a country with no technological skills. In addition, refugees who were professionals in their native country often find themselves working entry level or menial jobs in the U.S. There has also been tension between refugees and native-born people who resent the help the newcomers receive from the federal government.

Refugees have totally transformed the Beechmont neighborhood in South Louisville. When Catholic Charities, 2911 S. Fourth St., started resettling refugees there in 1975, Beechmont was mainly a white, blue-collar neighborhood. Today, foreign-born people, or their children, make up more than 30 percent of the population. The neighborhood is home to many Vietnamese grocery stores and restaurants, two African markets that sell camel and goat meat, a Haitian church and a Buddhist temple. Steve Baker, manager of the Valumarket at Iroquois Manor, estimates that about 60 percent of his business comes from people who originated outside the United States. His store has Indian, Cuban, Mexican and Vietnamese sections, as well as many others.

“This store really reflects the neighborhood,” Baker says. “We have a lot of Bosnian employees, and some of them speak Spanish because we have a lot of Hispanic customers. It’s different, and I’m still learning. I came here from our Outer Loop store. Sometimes I might need a customer to point to what they want, but we always take care of them.”

Chris Clements, Catholic Charities’ Community Resource Developer, says Beechmont was an ideal location for resettling refugees because of its close proximity to Catholic Charities’ office, its low cost of living, and the availability of affordable housing. The organization houses clients in several apartment complexes in the area, but for years most of the new refugees lived in the Americana Apartments, now the Kingston Park Apartments, at 100 E. Southland Blvd. The complex was a former military housing facility converted into public living space.

“With any refugee services, you want to put them close to your office because there is a lot of support they need in the beginning,” Clements says. “They are learning their new community. We, like Kentucky Refugee Ministries, provide day-to-day, core services for six months. … You cannot go in that community (Beechmont) without running into a refugee. It’s impossible.”

The refugee resettlement process usually starts with people leaving their homeland for a camp in a neighboring country. In Africa, refugees from Somalia and Sudan often flee to Kenya. The United Nations Commission of Human Rights visits the camps and listens to people’s stories to decide if they are candidates for resettlement. Since 9/11, this process has changed somewhat. A person can’t be named a refugee if they are on a terrorist watch list. After being approved, the refugee is sent to an industrialized Western nation. Australia, Canada, Germany and New Zealand are among other countries that accept refugees.

There are about six national bodies that disperse refugees to its member organizations in America. Catholic Charities is part of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Kentucky Refugees Ministries is part of Church World Services, a Methodist group. Faith-based organizations play a vital role in refugee resettlement because they have the ability to mobilize resources. But because they receive government funding, these groups are barred from conducting blatantly religious activities. Refugees have a 30-90 day resettlement period in which they receive food stamps, rent assistance and bus passes. They are required to attend English classes and job development courses during that period.

“They are so determined,” Clements says. “When you lose everything, you’ve got nothing left. It’s empowering to see these people. They know they might have to take entry level jobs. But if they work hard, improve their English, they’ll eventually make it up the economic ladder.”

Sophie Maier, a community-outreach coordinator at the Louisville Free Public Library’s Iroquois branch, is usually one of the first people refugees meet when they arrive in Louisville. Maier signs them up for library cards and informs them of the resources available at the library. The Iroquois Library, located in the Beechmont neighborhood, is particularly committed to the refugee population. About 12 years ago, Humana Founder David A. Jones, who grew up in the area, gave LFPL a grant to figure out why refugees weren’t visiting the library. The study led to the creation of Maier’s position 10 years ago.

In 2010, the Louisville Leadership Center identified Maier as one of the city’s 128 “connectors” – people who bring others together to benefit the community. Every week, she visits refugee events, flea markets, and even Buddhist ceremonies with her library card applications. She also organizes cultural festivals to help immigrants and refugees get acquainted with the city and share their culture with their new neighbors. Most importantly, Maier has created weekly conversation clubs (languages include French, Japanese, Arabic and Spanish) where refugees are paired with English speakers to improve their speaking skills.

Maier says these clubs are especially helpful to school-age refugees who are trying to study in a foreign tongue. There are more than 113 native languages in Jefferson County Public Schools, and sometimes English is a student’s third or fourth one. Even when refugees come from the same country, Maier says they might speak different dialects or have other problems that are barriers to learning.

“We have folks that are from Somalia from a variety of different warring clans,” she explains. “Distinct from that we have the Bantu, who are not part of that clan system. Their language is Mai Mai, which is the umbrella term. There are different languages within Mai Mai. It’s not a written language, it’s only spoken. So, for the adult Somalia Bantu, it’s been difficult teaching them English because they have no concept of a written language.”

Maier is doing more traveling lately in search of refugees. A few years ago, Catholic Charities began placing clients in areas outside of Beechmont because it was afraid that they would end up being segregated in one part of town. The Newburg area is probably the second biggest area for refugees now, and there are also refugees living in Clifton, Butchertown, Shively and Old Louisville. This is creating some economic development opportunities for these other neighborhoods in the city.

St. Anthony Roman Catholic Church takes up a whole block of downtown, 2222-2238 W. Market St. The red brick, Gothic Revival complex was built in 1887, and largely reconstructed in 1939 due to extensive fire damage. In 1982, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Many Portland residents carry fond memories of St. Anthony’s. It hosted weddings, graduation ceremonies, and other community gatherings, but that ended when the Archdiocese of Louisville closed the church as part of a restructuring plan.

Two years ago, Catholic Charities of Louisville gave St. Anthony’s a new lease on life by moving its English as a Second Language classes there. Since then, the organization has been slowly relocating programs to the church. Catholic Charities’ Clements hopes the influx of refugees is a sign of better things to come for the blighted Portland neighborhood, which has suffered from decades of high crime and abandoned properties.

“If you look at your statistics, this Portland neighborhood is one of the poorest in the city,” Clements says. “It’s sad, because at one time it was one of the thriving neighborhoods in our city. It’ll probably take the next decade, but we’re hoping to pump new life here. Our clients are already starting to use the Family Health Clinic, and they shop at the D.A.V. and the Family Dollar. Just like in the Beechmont area, we’re hoping that refugees buy houses and start opening businesses.”

Keith Brown, a Portland resident who works at a downtown law firm, has noticed more refugees on the bus during his commute over the last few months. He had assumed they were working somewhere on Market Street, but was thrilled to learn that Catholic Charities had moved to the neighborhood. He hopes some of the refugees follow suit and settle down.

Brown and his partner, Eric Simpson, bought a 1,900-square-foot, two-story home on Northwestern Parkway in 2009 for only $60,000. The low real estate prices and proximity to the bus route attracted the couple to Portland, but they don’t enjoy the shortage of sit-down restaurants and retail shopping. They usually go to New Albany for a night on the town, but Brown thinks the refugees could provide luxuries close to home.

“Diversity and good restaurants, I’m all for it,” Brown exclaims. “I think it would be nice to see other stores in the neighborhood besides the Dollar Store. I’ve always thought this neighborhood had potential. Maybe some new energy is what we need to turn it around.”

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