Welcoming in the Time of COVID

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I see her waiting for me through the plate glass window that separates us. On her work uniform, her name is written in blue threads that match the kitenge headscarf she’s wearing. I recognize it. It’s the same kitenge she wore on a brutally cold December morning when she walked down the escalator steps at Bluegrass airport, into the arms of the family she had been separated from for nearly eleven years. 

I had been there too, just after midnight, waiting to welcome her to America.  She smiles at me beyond the door, teeth glinting in the late March air. 

“Emmy, no kazi,” she says in Swahili. The only people who ever call me ‘Emmy’ are clients and my mother.

“No job,” she says again, this time in English, and holds up papers she wants me to read. But I don’t read them. I already know what they say. Dawa has lost her job, and she’s come to Kentucky Refugee Ministries to find someone who can help her understand why. 

Just an hour before, the manager at the restaurant where she works called the resettlement agency to let us know that, due to the coronavirus, he had to lay off most of his staff. 

“Four of them are yours,” he said, meaning four of his employees had come to America as refugees through KRM. We had met them at the airport, taken them to their new homes, bought food for them, scheduled their medical appointments, provided them with English classes, tutors and job-skills training, registered their kids for school, taught them to use the bus system and how to apply for local benefits, and helped them to find the jobs they have now lost.

“Four of them are yours.” As if having done any of these things makes them belong to us.  

            “Please,” he said before hanging up. “Just tell her it’s not because she did anything wrong. Dawa is a good worker. It’s not because we didn’t want her.”

            Dawa has come to the agency hoping to find someone who speaks her language, but she’s found me instead.

            “I’m sorry,” I say under the face mask our office now requires us to wear. “But I can’t let you in. Just call the office and we can schedule a meeting for you with an interpreter.”  

It’s hard to find words to describe what this feels like, denying someone entry to a place that for over the last 20 years has been committed to welcoming everyone. When the first cases of COVID were reported in Lexington it became agency policy to limit in-office staffing. All client meetings must be conducted over the phone or on digital platforms. It’s a good policy that keeps our clients safe, but we are struggling with it. As people who have chosen a profession dedicated to “welcoming the stranger,” it’s agonizing. 

I see Dawa standing there and I want to say to her, “I know you can’t see it but under my mask but I’m smiling at you. I’m glad you’re here. I’m not letting you in to keep both of us healthy.” I don’t say this though. I can’t speak Swahili. 

She waves at me and as she walks away, I’m left staring at the door, my face reflecting in the glass what I am in that moment: A white woman who has just told a black woman asking for help that she can’t come in.  

            By the second week of March, most of Lexington has been shut down. The first cases of COVID in the state were reported in our county, and since then the governor has held nightly news conferences explaining the importance of staying safe at home. Officials explain how to apply for unemployment, and where people can get tested.

Everything is in English. 

Most of our agency’s efforts have been focused on how to continue reaching our clients while having to close our building. This has largely centered around translating health and safety information into the languages of our clients — Swahili, Arabic, Ukrainian, Spanish, Lingala, Bembe, Kinyarwanda and more. We’ve focused on moving our services to digital platforms, all while assisting clients in learning how to use technology that’s new to them. 

Much of our work now is directed at helping newcomers become comfortable with these resources, navigating technology that keeps them connected. Our youth and after-school program coordinators develop creative strategies to help youngsters use in-home learning tools. Their parents use digital platforms for daily check-ins with their caseworkers. Employment specialists help clients, like Dawa, apply for unemployment benefits. 

In an effort to deflect feelings of isolation, our outreach coordinators launched a “Welcome From Home” program to connect clients with volunteers. Even in the midst of a pandemic, our volunteers eagerly welcome new arrivals by delivering meals and visiting with them using video chats. We are identifying gaps in our services and working to retool the resources we have to address areas where we can do better.

 It’s hard. We miss each other. But we recognize the opportunity we have to be part of meeting challenges presented by the strangeness of these times. We are committed to the refugees who have settled here, and put forth our best efforts to assure that Lexington is an inclusive and welcoming community. 

At the same time, we worry. Our thoughts go to the men and women living in refugee camps who are waiting for the improbable luck to come to America. In early March, our agency had been preparing for five new arrivals. But due to a moratorium that was imposed when the pandemic reached the U.S., those cases have been cancelled. It’s unclear when, if ever, they will be rescheduled. 

While our office focuses largely on refugee resettlement, KRM also works with other types of immigration, mostly Special Immigrant Visa holders and asylees. 

During a brief interaction with one of our immigration attorneys, I ask how her work has changed during the pandemic. She explains her concern about those who are waiting at the border. Most asylum seekers who come through Mexico are from other countries, usually Guatemala and Honduras. When they apply for asylum, they get a court date and then are made to wait in holding camps at the border.  

She points out, however, that there are Mexican asylum seekers as well. Due to a 60-day immigration freeze that has stopped most immigrants from entering the Unites States, Mexicans who are fleeing violence in their own country must remain in dangerous situations.  

Everything feels tedious. It’s not lost on any of us that, for the last three and a half years, the current administration has continuously promised to reduce the number of immigrants coming into the United State. They have been remarkably successful at fulfilling this promise. Now, there’s a pandemic that’s doing it for them. 


Emily Warren is a caseworker at Kentucky Refugee Ministries in Lexington, Kentucky. She is a former Young Adult Volunteer with the Presbyterian Church USA.

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