Pandemic has acute effect on immigrants

Record Photo by Ruby Thomas
Amina Osman, a native of Somalia, hands a bag of produce to a shopper at a farmers market in St. Matthews May 9. Osman’s son, Amir Hussein, served as a cashier. The family farms a plot of land through Catholic Charities’ Common Earth Gardens program.

By Ruby Thomas, Record Staff Writer
When the COVID-19 global pandemic swept across the Archdiocese of Louisville, new rules swiftly changed the way people went about their daily lives, leaving some in the immigrant and refugee communities struggling to understand what was happening.

Karina Barillas, director of La Casita Center, which serves Hispanic and Latino families, said many of the people she heard from had a difficult time understanding the changes — what “social distancing” meant and why their children couldn’t go to school.

“Many people didn’t know what was happening and not because they didn’t want to know. The information was in English or was not accessible to them. We have many people who do not read and write and many who speak Spanish as their second language. A lot of people do not have access to the Internet or don’t understand how the Internet works,” said Barillas during a recent phone interview.

Fortunately, she said, the Spanish-speaking media outlets put out information that allowed the people to understand that a global pandemic had found its way into their communities and, more importantly, they needed to make changes for their health and safety.

The refugee community, too, grappled with understanding and adapting to the pandemic.

Colin Triplett, director of Catholic Charities’ Office of Migration and Refugee Services, said getting the message of social distancing out proved challenging.

“Our clients are struggling because many come from a more communal society with a lot of face to face interaction so it’s very hard for people to practice social distancing,” he said during a recent phone interview.

Many refugee families served by Catholic Charities have large families, said Triplett, so the closure of daycares and school buildings also hit close to home. These further complicated problems the families already had.

“One of the things we’ve struggled with in the past is parents being able to assist their children with school work,” said Triplett.

Multiple kids making do with one Jefferson County Public School Chromebook, accessing the Internet and having an adult capable of supervising schoolwork has made distance learning a challenge, noted Triplett.

As if these new realities weren’t enough, at least a quarter of Kentuckians have found themselves jobless as local businesses shut their doors or scaled back services during the pandemic. That reality has plunged many families, including immigrants and refugees into financial turmoil.

Spanish-speaking parishioners at St. Rita Church on Preston Highway are among those from whom the pandemic stole livelihoods seemingly overnight.

Sister Isa Garcia, pastoral associate at St. Rita, said many are struggling to make ends meet.

“Families have been hit hard economically. Many have been laid off or (are) working fewer hours. So that directly affects the family,” she said in a phone interview.

They worked in restaurants, in construction and in housekeeping, making meager wages.

“They were already living paycheck to paycheck,” she said. Even some who are considered “essential” workers have had hours cut, she added.

While money from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed by the U.S. government in March provided respite for the country, some immigrants are still not breathing easily. Depending on their immigration status, some do not qualify for that money, Sister Garcia explained.

St. Rita has responded by keeping its St. Vincent de Paul food pantry open and by handing out Kroger gift cards (donated from the community) to those most in need.

The people are resilient and doing everything to rise above their situation, said Sister Garcia. One of the women’s group prays the rosary every day and some of the men are keeping connected through text messaging. “Everybody is doing everything humanly possible and just trusting in God’s providence because they’re so much out of their control,” said Sister Garcia.

Eva Gonzalez, director of Hispanic ministry for the Archdiocese of Louisville, said what St. Rita parishioners are facing has become commonplace during the pandemic and subsequent shutdown. As she reaches out into the community it feels like everyone knows someone who is suffering, she said.

“I know of someone who had to move in with another family (after she lost employment). I heard of two single mothers that have been laid off,” said Gonzalez in a recent phone interview. “Many know of others who are in need.”

Gonzalez — who will lead the archdiocese’s new Office of Hispanic Ministry come July — has responded by serving as a bridge between these needy individuals and resources and information. Gonzalez said she is working closely with Deacon Lucio Caruso, director of mission at Catholic Charities, who is overseeing the distribution of emergency funds.

Nonprofits across the archdiocese have had to quickly alter the way they operate to keep serving people during a time when individuals can’t come within six feet of each other. Those agencies have closed their buildings, but are working remotely to reach the community.

  •  La Casita Center is delivering care packages to individuals recovering from COVID-19, delivering food to families, offering weekly online videos for its kindergarten readiness program and providing mental health and legal services, domestic violence and suicide prevention information. To learn more about what the center is doing and to donate financially visit To donate food items call the center at 322-4036.


  •  Doors to Hope, a ministry of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, has tutors available online and via WhatsApp
    to teach ESL, GED and computer literacy classes as well as to help students in kindergarten through 12th grade with school work. The center is also working with other nonprofit groups to collect funds to be used for emergency assistance. To learn more or to donate visit


  •  Catholic Charities’ Office of Migration and Refugee Services is delivering food and personal hygiene products along with information on COVID-19 to refugee and immigrant clients. The center is still providing help with schoolwork through its Family Learning Project. The office is asking for donations of face masks for its clients. To donate, call the office at 636-9263 or visit
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