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Helping Refugees Adjust to Life in KY, Cope with Mental Stress


Monday, April 15, 2019   

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Experts and people who have experienced being a refugee are discussing how to improve state and federal policy to better support Kentucky's new immigrants. The panel discussion is happening today at the University of Kentucky.

Each year, Kentucky accepts refugees in numbers more than twice the national average. In 2017, more than 1,500 refugees were settled statewide, according to the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.

Mary Beth McGavarn is a clinical psychologist and associate professor at the University of Kentucky who works with refugees. She said while housing, employment and language are major barriers to getting settled, mental health often is overlooked.

"We more and more think of mental health as an entity, or as a separate thing. And many people that we work with, they connect mental and physical health,” McGavarn said. “So they might not be saying, 'My mental health is impacted,' even though they're talking about grief and loss, but they might be feeling it more in their bodies."

Since 2011, Kentucky has resettled refugees from Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and other war-torn countries. Studies have documented high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression among those fleeing their home countries.

Diane Sumney is an English as a Second Language teacher with Fayette County Schools. In 2008, her elementary school suddenly had an influx of around 80 refugees. Sumney started an after-school program to help children cope with their trauma.

She said on the surface, children can appear to be adjusting. But often they have deep psychological issues from experiencing war that manifest in other ways, such as drawing pictures. She told a story of one such student.

"He started his picture and he kept saying, 'I shouldn't be drawing this. I shouldn't be drawing this,' and he kept moving around, 'I shouldn't be drawing this,' and he was drawing suddenly and frantically,” Sumney said. “This was a kid who was doing well in school, and wasn't having too many problems. Before he had finished that picture, he had scooted somehow under the table at the end of the hallway and was in the corner."

For older children and teenagers, the experience of being helpless or dependent on others can be just as traumatic.

Elisha Mutayonwa arrived in Kentucky as a teenage refugee from the Republic of Congo with his father and six siblings.

"I went to high school here. My first day of high school, they wanted to put me in ninth grade. I was turning 19 then,” Mutayonwa said. “They wanted to put me in ninth grade, so there was no communication between us. They didn't know anything about my background - if I went to school before or anything."

Mutayonwa now is a student at Bluegrass Technical and Community College. He said the biggest change he'd like to see in the resettlement process is allowing refugees to make decisions for themselves.

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