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International Market brings refugee relief after Bowling Green tornadoes

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Posted at 7:01 PM, Dec 16, 2021

BOWLING GREEN, Ky. (WTVF) — Many people remain displaced after the deadly tornadoes in Bowling Green, Kentucky, but now a local market is helping immigrants land on their feet.

It’s been hard enough navigating what to do next. Now imagine living in the U.S. for a few weeks. That’s the reality for some of the refugees who’ve become regulars at Ali Miah’s International Market.

“Tough and rough week, yes. It’s mother nature you know. We can’t control that,” Miah said.

Miah is sort of a renaissance man in the city. Not only does he own the market, but he’s traveled the world and now speaks nine languages. It’s a talent that’s more valuable now than it’s ever been.

He’s volunteered as a translator for the nearby International Center, but tornadoes this week forced dozens more immigrants to seek out their help.

“I understand them, they understand me. I’m taking care of those little problems however I can. I think that’s enough for the beginning,” Miah said.

Many of these refugees just began working and settling their lives in the U.S., only to be uprooted to where they’re now back to staying in hotels.

Albert Mbanfu, the executive director of the International Center, says Miah's help has been invaluable. The two work together to bridge the communication gap to find families short-term relief. Mbanfu says he always knew Miah would be helpful, but nothing quite like this.

“He called me and told me that he was going to prepare food. Lunch and dinner for three full days,” Mbanfu said.

Miah's son Ryedh runs the market when his father volunteers and later when his father is home preparing the next meal.

“He would go by the hotel. Check on them. Make sure they have food and stuff,” Ryedh said.

Ryedh says he’s seen more customers than usual stop by for the foods that remind them of home at a time where things are far from normal.

Of the thousands of new immigrants that make their way to Kentucky each year, a recent study by the city of Bowling Green shows 30% land within city limits.

The top six regions represented in Bowling Green include Bosnia, Mexico, Myanmar, Sub-Saharan Africa, Iraq and El Salvador.

Mbanfu says they come because Bowling Green has jobs, the cost of living is cheaper than most mid-sized cities, and “the people are very hospitable.”

According to the same study, Kentucky ranks ninth in the country for the number of new refugees. Bowling Green also welcomed 145 refugees from Afghanistan in November and expect more soon.

“I don’t think that they came here anticipating that there would be a tornado-like what we’ve had. It’s devastating for them, but they are a resilient group of people,” Mbanfu said.

Mbanfu says they’ve handled many of the short-term needs, but it’s the long-term issues like permanent housing that keep him up at night. Once time runs out for these refugees at their hotels, they may have to find housing elsewhere.

“Even if they find housing, it will be difficult for them to start all over. They will need some resources to pay the rent, pay their utilities, and go back to work,” Mbanfu said.

The term refugee implies these people have escaped perhaps far greater challenges where they’ve faced persecution or worse. Mbanfu says if there’s one thing we should know, is that these refugees are resilient.

“They may be depressed now, but they are strong. They will rise and they will prosper,” Mbanfu said.