United Nations highlights local refugees

The Ali Sabba family, which came to Louisville from Iraq about two months ago as refugees, is pictured with the statue of Abraham Lincoln at Waterfront Park last week. The scene was set up by photographer Sebastian Rich, but this version was snapped by Chris Clements of Catholic Charities. The family was one of several to be highlighted in a United Nations photo project to be produced by Rich.
The Ali Sabba family, which came to Louisville from Iraq about two months ago as refugees, is pictured with the statue of Abraham Lincoln at Waterfront Park last week. The scene was set up by photographer Sebastian Rich, but this version was snapped by Chris Clements of Catholic Charities. The family was one of several to be highlighted in a United Nations photo project to be produced by Rich.

By Marnie McAllister, Record Assistant Editor

Catholic Charities of Louisville helps from 800 to 1,000 refugees resettle in Louisville each year. The agency provides English classes, housing, financial assistance and other services to help refugees begin new lives here.

But before these families arrive at the Louisville International Airport — where Catholic school children and parishioners often provide a welcoming party — many of them have languished in refugee camps operated by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR).

The U.N. agency charged with the care of refugees has commissioned freelance photographer Sebastian Rich to photograph both refugees living in camps and refugees who have been resettled in the United States. His former assignment is complete. An exhibition of these photos opened in Washington, D.C., at the National Press Club July 10. It focuses on refugee camps in Jordan, Syria and Sudan.

The latter assignment brought Rich to Louisville last week where he spent three days with refugees resettled by Catholic Charities.

Rich has spent 30 years photographing the wars and violent conflicts that create refugees throughout the world. During his visit to Louisville last week, he met refugees who survived the conflicts and the camps to establish a new life in a relatively peaceful city.

“I’m basically a war and conflict photographer,” Rich said during a phone interview between shoots in Louisville last Tuesday, July 2. “I’ve never photographed the end of the conflict, resettled refugees. It’s rather exciting. I never get to see them resettled and happy.”

He photographed a boy from the Democratic Republic of Congo at the Muhammed Ali Center on July 2. The solemn-looking boy wore boxing gloves and posed as a fighter.

Another photo shows the Ali Sabba family which came here from Iraq two months ago. They posed, playfully, around the statue of Abraham Lincoln at Waterfront Park. They appear to be happy, but incomplete. One child in the photo is missing an arm, lost to an explosion in Iraq. Another child in the family isn’t pictured; she was severely injured in the same blast.

One of these photos will appear in the Washington, D.C., exhibit opening this week. The exhibit is sponsored by the UNHCR and the Diplomatic Courier, a magazine and website that focuses on global affairs. The photos also will be used by the websites of the UNHCR — www.UNHCRwashington.org and www.unhcr.org. And it’s possible that they could be included in a traveling exhibit.

Brian Hansford, a public information officer for the UNHCR who accompanied Rich to Louisville, said the project was commissioned for a simple reason: “We thought it would be a great idea to see resettled refugees when they come to the U.S.”

“It’s a wonderful, eye-opening experience to see these people with this new life,” he said, noting that he previously worked for the U.N. in Afghanistan. “I saw lots of internally displaced Afghans while I was there. For me, coming to the U.S. and seeing lots of resettled refugees here is an amazing thing.”

Hansford said the U.S. resettles more refugees than any other country — about 70,000 a year. That number is small, though, compared to the need. The globe’s newest refugees include 1.6 million people who have fled Syria to five countries near its border, Hansford said.

He noted that some refugees eventually return to their homes, but plenty never will. Resettlement efforts, such as the program operated by Catholic Charities staff and volunteers, are essential, he said.

Hansford added that he was encouraged to see “ordinary Americans reaching out to offer a helping hand. Louisville seems to offer this great melting pot of cultures and experience for refugees.”

Chris Clements, a local Catholic Charities worker, said the agency began resettling refugees in 1976. Since then, the agency has aided people from 42 countries of origin, including 60 to 65 different ethnicities, Clements said.

He wasn’t sure how many refugees have been resettled by Catholic Charities since 1976. Its database only dates to 1992. Since that year, more than 13,500 refugees have come to Louisville with Catholic Charities’ help. Eighty to 85 percent are considered self-sufficient, said Clements.

“With limited resources and a staff of 35 persons, it’s amazing how we’re able to get them acclimated in such a short period of time,” said Clements. He explained that refugees are expected to be on their feet within six months of arriving in the United States.

The charity’s English language school and staff members who help refugees find jobs play an important role, he said. The business and civic community also are essential when it comes to employment.

Volunteers, who help furnish apartments and act as mentors, are critical, too, he said.

“There are things that the volunteers do that people don’t know about. The mentoring piece, helping them with English at home, setting up apartments and helping at the school,” Clements noted. “We have about 1,000 volunteers annually. We couldn’t do it without those volunteers.”

Clements said refugees, in turn, bring small businesses and cultural richness to Louisville.

“Refugees and immigrants have embraced the community,” he said. “There are a lot more restaurants and stores and businesses.

“WorldFest is now going to be four days long,” he added, referring to the annual festival held at The Belvedere during Labor Day weekend. “That has a lot to do with refugees and immigrants. There are all kinds of ethnic festivals going on around town.”

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