Breaking cultural barriers: Stories of immigrants who now call Kentucky home

12/15/2016 05:00 AM

In the summer of 1994, 18-year-old Fernando Martinez boarded a raft on the shores of communist-led Cuba in the dark, early morning hours. Martinez, his mother and six others were desperate to escape the political unrest created by Cuban President Fidel Castro and his administration. Panicked and fearful of what could lie ahead, Martinez and the others would be picked up two days later off the coast of Key West by the U.S. Coast Guard. They were taken to Guantanamo Bay Naval Base refugee camp.

“People were in such a desperate state that people started rioting against the government,” said Martinez. “I was 18, so I decided I’d either make it or I’d die trying. It was a really desperate situation.”

Just five years later in 1999, 12-year old Antigona Mehani and her family were fighting to end their own story of desperation. Looking to escape the ethnic cleansing in war-torn Kosovo, Mehani and her family joined hundreds of thousands of other ethnic Albanians who were driven from their homes. After reaching the point of refugee registration, Mehani set her eyes on the United States of America.

“I always had a hope of survival and for some reason coming to the U.S. was set on my mind,” Mehani said. “And even though I had no outlet to even think about coming here, because we were still in the war zone, it was just the dreams and the feelings I had.”

Although their journeys began years apart and an ocean away from one another, Martinez and Mehani shared a common goal – a vision. Their stories of angst would end in Kentucky and their stories of triumph would begin.



“We have a host of jobs that are open right now that desperately need skilled and credentialed people to do them,” said Bryan Warren, Louisville Metro Government’s Office for Globalization. “There is some opportunity with those refugees that are coming to the community that have that potential through some reskilling, some credentialing help to get into those jobs.”


Source: Economic Policy Institute (EPI) Analysis of 2007-2011 ACS data


In 2014, Kentucky led the nation in immigration population growth. In fact, between 2000 and 2014, the Commonwealth recorded a 102 percent jump in immigrant residents. That growth is credited to a culture of inclusion.

“That means making connections to planning in the city as we begin to expand as a community, finding better ways to provide transportation, housing that’s affordable in areas where people work, making sure people have access to schools, safe housing,” Warren explained. “Those are things that we’re working on from the city side to make sure all of these things are working in concert and working at their highest capacity.”




2014 Kentucky Immigration by Region of Origin/Source: American Community Survey


Despite common misconceptions, the initial step toward realizing the American Dream is anything but easy. In fact, for refugees specifically, the vetting process can be quite grueling, lasting anywhere from 18-24 months. And then there are the challenges they’ll face upon arriving on U.S. soil. There are misconceptions among native-born citizens who worry about refugees’ economic impact and overall contributions to society. Will they pay taxes? Will they steal jobs from natural-born U.S. citizens? Are they dangerous? What kind of contribution will they make to society?

“There’s a perception that there’s wage competition and that people are taking U.S. worker jobs, which is not really the case,” said Enid Trucias-Haynes, a Professor of Law at the Louis D. Brandeis School of Law at the University of Louisville. “We often hear exaggerated statistics about deaths occurring on the border and crime being committed by those who are non-citizens when in fact that studies show that non-citizens are committing less crime than those who are U.S. citizens. So, there’s some fear-mongering, some legitimate concerns, some lack of information and knowledge.”

According to a 2002 report by the Legislative Research Commission, immigrants contributed more than $30 million in state sales and excise taxes to Kentucky in 2000. In addition, the American Immigration Council reports that from 2006 to 2010, there were 6,143 new immigrant business owners in Kentucky who had a total net business income of $451 million.


Source: Economic Policy Institute (EPI) Analysis of 2009-2011 ACS data


Each story is unique – a single thread in the nation’s colorfully stitched fabric of diversity. From immigrants to non-immigrants, lawful permanent residents to those left undocumented amid a backlog of applications that stretches across decades, the journey to independence and financial freedom begins with a blank page of opportunity left unwritten. And beginning that journey doesn’t just mean getting a job. The key, rather, is to match the right job with the right person.

Matching the right job with the right person

“In the war, nothing exists. It was nice to see something that didn’t smell like a bomb or gun powder.”

Antigona Mehani has been a Louisville resident for more than 17 years. During that time, she attended Jefferson County public schools and went on to graduate from the University of Louisville with a degree in political science. Recounting her first few years in Kentucky, Mehani smiles fondly.

“We got to experience everything,” said Mehani. “From McDonald’s to the state parks to Kentucky Kingdom to my first baseball game, my first basketball game, my first football game.”

It is those experiences that many often take for granted. But for former refugees like Mehani, they aren’t only experiences — they’re also opportunities.

Now, as the Employment Services Manager for KRM, Kentucky Refugee Ministries, Mehani says she’s able to pay her success forward by helping others navigate employment opportunities as new residents and setting them up on a path to the dreams that led them here.

“We’re working with a very vulnerable group in society,” said Mehani. “But what’s amazing is the success and the outcome that we’re getting from this group. That’s the success that I want to talk about. It’s not so much what it took to get that job – even though I think that’s important because that’s part of the process. But it’s more about why the job gave him the success and when that person gave him that chance. Look what you’ve accomplished.”





Currently, KRM is one of 300 resettlement agencies in the country. They are among three in Kentucky, along with Louisville’s Catholic Charities and International Center of Kentucky in Bowling Green.

Although refugees receive support with employment, that support begins long before completing their first job application. In fact, KRM in particular begins providing services to refugees before they even arrive on U.S. soil, securing a place for them to live and arranging for individuals to greet them at the airport. Their basic needs continue to be met for years to come, eventually expanding into programs that encourage self-sufficiency and adapting to their new country.


A job developer at Kentucky Refugee Ministries preps clients on upcoming job interviews


During clients’ first months in Kentucky, they sit down with Mehani to begin discussing employment and how they will go about supporting themselves and their families.

“Getting to know the client fully allows us to tailor the services around them,” said Mehani. “We’re not just going to place anybody with any job. I will do my best to shape their skills and place them with a job that they can do because my goal for every client is to have them be successful and to be able to say a year later that they’re still there.”





Refugees are authorized to work from day one, receiving a registration number after identifying themselves with the United Nations prior to leaving their country of origin. It is that number that then allows them to receive a social security card. They must secure employment within their first 90 days of residency — a process Mehani and her team support them through. From ESL classes to cultural orientation and even mock job interviews, it’s a process she credits for KRM clients’ 94% job retention rate. During their first three months on the job, those clients remain with their employers.



“I was sitting here when I interviewed for the position that I currently have and the director of this agency just asked for my dad’s name and quickly went to get his laptop and pulled out a spreadsheet and it has my dad’s name listed and the first job that he had in America,” said Mehani. “And that was it. I made my decision then and there because it was that job that gave my family a chance to be where we are right now.”





As resettlement agencies like Kentucky Refugee Ministries work to give immigrant families a chance for a fresh start, employers in Kentucky are working to overcome the challenges that come along with training immigrant employees.

Overcoming challenges in the workplace

A loud hum of conveyor belts and Top-40 music sets the tone for hundreds of busy packaging employees at UPS Airlines in Louisville. The company’s busiest time of year has arrived and the warehouse is a well-oiled machine.

Tens of thousands of employees ensure the successful operation of one of the world’s largest airlines. In fact, with a daily network of almost 1,800 flight legs reaching more than 220 countries and territories, a solid workplace dynamic is essential. But one employee recognized a missed opportunity to make it even better. As a result, the company is now one of more than 170 employers statewide working closely with resettlement agencies to accommodate some of the state’s newest residents.

“We were having some challenges in regards to staffing. This is one of the resources that we haven’t tapped into and one of the biggest reasons is because of the language,” said Larry Rosa, UPS Airlines Revenue and Recovery Supervisor.


Source: Kentucky Center for Economic Policy


“It’s hard when you need something and you can’t get it or if you’re trying to communicate or express yourself and they can’t understand what you’re saying and you can’t understand what they’re saying either,” said Carmen Perez, a package handler who has been with UPS for four months.

In March, Rosa helped launch UPS Airlines’ Global Gateways Program which aims to ease the transition for immigrants and refugees on their first day of work. As part of the program, training materials explaining processes and procedures have been translated and bilingual supervisors have been identified and strategically placed in areas where immigrants and refugees are working.

“Our first day of training was a relief knowing that we had trainers who spoke Spanish,” said Adrian Morales Rosales, a native of Cuba. “It got even better when they introduced us to our supervisor who also spoke Spanish. At that moment, we knew we were going to be okay.”



After attending a full week of training to learn basic information like safety and expectations, GGP employees then spend a month working closely with their supervisor. As a pilot program, just two employees participated. But since then, Rosa says the program has flourished, growing to 68 employees during the first eight months.

“It is helping their operations with their staffing needs. Productivity is unchanged but the workers that the GGP employees work around are more engaged and happier,” said Rosa.

With benefits like UPS’ education assistance program, Rosales, a professionally trained physical therapist, sees potential in his new role.

“That’s what I want to do is what I was doing before,” said Rosales.

Meanwhile, Perez says she wants to be a nurse one day. She believes the future is bright for her and her daughter.

“All the doors are currently open for her.”

Rosa agrees.

“This program is changing people’s lives,” he explained. “My gratification is to see in their eyes the change that we’re making and we’re helping people and the bottom line is without our people, UPS cannot function without people.”

Change is exactly what foreign-born residents are working towards.

Pursing the American Dream

The path to U.S. citizenship can be a long journey. But for those who follow that road, it’s one well worth it. In 2014, more than 2,600 individuals became U.S. citizens in Kentucky. And although each individual’s vision for the future may vary, they share one common goal — make the most out of as many opportunities as possible.



Just one week before Thanksgiving, Yemane Gebrehiwot joined two dozen other applicants for U.S. citizenship in taking the Oath of Allegiance. The ceremony marked the conclusion of an important legal and personal journey for each of them. For Gebrehiwot in particular, his journey to citizenship began almost six years ago when he left his native country of Eritria — a country located in Eastern Africa near the Red Sea.



A farmer by trade, Gebrehiwot left his previous life behind knowing a new life in America meant significant sacrifice. Looking back, he notes how even the most basic privileges presented additional barriers for him.

“When I came for the first time, I didn’t drive a car,” Yemane said. “I changed everything in my life, actually. That’s a big deal.”

Gebrehiwot also knew little to no English. And with a major language barrier to contend with, he turned to Catholic Charities in Louisville to help him find work and become self-sufficient in his new city. Now, as an employee of Tyson Foods since 2012, he’s looking forward to his future.

“I want to start GED class, then after GED class I want start high school. That’s my future time right now.”

The chance to apply for U.S. citizenship is not immediate. In fact, only green card holders of at least five years are eligible. But once they obtain citizenship and hold a U.S. Passport in their hand, many call it “a ticket to the world.”

From refugee to independent business owner

A ticket to the world is exactly what Fernando Martinez was focused on when he boarded a raft with his mother and six others early one morning on a Cuban coastline more than 20 years ago.

“The situation in Cuba was really difficult,” recalls Martinez. “People were growing their own food because the government had no way to keep doing what they were doing before when they had help from the ex-Soviet Union. It was really desperate times for the Cuban people in general.”

Known as The Special Period, Martinez and his family joined millions of other Cubans who suffered immediate and severe consequences following the fall of the Soviet Union, a country responsible for the majority of Cuban imports. Eventual economic austerity instituted by former Cuban President Fidel Castro resulted in a mass exodus — including Martinez and his family.



After renting a beach house to use as a safe haven for assembling their raft, Martinez and the others left Cuba. They would spend two and half days adrift at sea.

“In that summer when we left, there was a hurricane forming in the south so the ocean was really rough,” recalls Martinez. “I remember Saturday night we were in the middle of a storm and I saw waves that were probably two or three stories high.”

Martinez knew how desperate his situation was and he felt his only choice for a better life was to leave. But he also had to leave behind his son. And although he’s grateful he eventually made his way to the U.S. as well, Martinez says that leaving him was one of the toughest decisions he’s ever had to make. Making the journey, though, was just too risky.

“I remember being on the beach waiting for everyone to come to the beach house that we rented and I thought, ‘If they take any longer, I’m not going to do this.’ It was hard. Even with everything we were going through, it’s still really hard to leave your country and what you know.”

Martinez and the others were eventually picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard approximately 50 miles from Key West, Florida. They were taken to Guantanamo Bay, a refugee camp established by the U.S. during the great Cuban exodus. It was there that Martinez completed a year-long immigration process and received assistance with the relocation process.

“They would give you different choices of cities and it’s funny — my choices were Oregon, Louisville, Kentucky and San Diego, California. I had no idea where Louisville, Kentucky was so I picked San Diego, California.”

It wasn’t long before Martinez would find his way to Louisville after learning about the lower cost of living and higher wages. He would move there and eventually try his luck as a small business owner, utilizing the entrepreneurial skills he had once honed as a young man in Cuba.

“[In Cuba] my house was really close to the airport and I started making Cuban sandwiches and making them and selling them to tourists because it was cheaper than the government cafeteria or restaurant and that way I started making a little bit of money to help my family.”

In Louisville, Martinez says he spent seven years saving up $90,000 to open Havana Rumba. Native-born or not, Martinez says money is the biggest challenge to starting a new business. And now, as co-owner of seven successful Louisville restaurants, the professionally-trained chef says he could never have imagined how far his dreams would lead him.

“When you take risks in life and you work hard, things work out.”

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