Finding A Home: Kentucky Refugee Ministries’ New Youth Mentoring Program

The place you grow up in isn’t always the place you call home, and Eric Ngamije is the perfect example of that.

Ngamije fled from the Democratic Republic of Congo when he was only two years old. Shortly after, he was moved to a refugee camp in Rwanda.

Since the Democratic Republic of the Congo was too politically unstable to ever return to, he would go on to stay in this camp for more than 15 years Ngamije said.

Though Ngamije spent much of his childhood there, he never considered it to be his home.

Eventually, Ngamije was admitted for resettlement in the United States in 2014. “I can have somewhere I can call home,” Ngamije said.

However, moving to a new country is no easy task.

“It was like a new world to me. Everything was new, even the things I knew: new people, new language, new style of living, new food, new hobbies, etc. Also, everything seemed to be going faster, I couldn’t imagine how I was going to catch up with the system,” Ngamije said.

Ngamije now calls Lexington home and works for Kentucky Refugee Ministries as the youth mentoring leader to help other refugees like himself find their home here in the Bluegrass State and ease the transition, which Ngamije and other refugees find to be one of the most difficult parts of resettlement he said.

According to the Kentucky Office of Refugees, nearly 2,000 refugees, like Ngamije, resettled in Kentucky within the last year. Kentucky Refugee Ministries aids these refugees through the numerous challenges and questions they may face Ngamije said.

KRM was founded nearly 30 years ago in Louisville. Nine years later, KRM expanded its reach with a Lexington office. The Lexington office now offers housing services, English second language classes, cultural orientation classes, employment resources like application and interview help and job transportation, family and youth programs, physical and mental health services, and immigration legal services.

Over the summer, KRM also added a new youth mentoring program, headed by Ngamije himself, to the list of services it offers. The new program focuses specifically on guiding their younger clients through the social, educational, cultural, and individual questions they may have during their transition to life here in the United States. 

Mentees are those who have been in the United States for less than five years, are between the ages of 15 and 24, and are either in 10th through 12th grade, pursuing a GED or are in their first year of higher education. 

 “Everything sort of seems new to them. They don’t speak English. They don’t know how to submit an assignment. Some of them have never used a computer before. It’s a way for them to get to learn everything that way they can be successful,” Ngamije said.

Ngamije and his coworkers hope that by pairing mentees with a mentor they can increase clients’ confidence in these subjects as well as a wide range of others.

Mentors can expect to give guidance on homework, academic and English as a second language tutoring, career development, social and emotional support, health and financial literacy, community involvement, pursuing a GED and transitioning between high school and higher education. In six months, each mentor and mentee pair meets for a total of six hours each month.

Though many of the topics revolve around academics, Ngamije hopes mentees and mentors will build a connection beyond just tutoring and schoolwork.

“In terms of social and emotional support, we want people to kind of hang out together. We want them to learn this culture, and become a part of the community here,” Ngamije said.

When he first resettled in Greensboro, North Carolina, Ngamije got to experience the real impact these kinds of mentoring programs have on refugees. Ngamije and his mentor Paul spent Saturdays in local parks practicing English. “Paul helped me so much through integration [in the community], and he is a really good friend of mine now,” Ngamije said.

Ngamije and his coworkers see this program having a wider reach than just the direct impact on the mentees and mentors by also making a change in the lives of many of the mentees’ families by building a sense of self-sufficiency.

“Most of the time when refugees’ families arrive in the U.S., the young kids will become responsible for their families, so by increasing the strength in this year of clients, we are empowering the whole family,” Ngamije said.

Those at KRM hope that by showing others the kind of impact that volunteers could have, this will encourage people to apply for the mentor position over the next few months.

Lizzie Barrick, KRM’s youth service coordinator, explained that the program has many clients already, despite how new it is, and that they are always taking new mentors who can fully commit to the six-month program.

 “There’s so many clients that there is a lot of needs, so we’re really open to people with different backgrounds and different experiences that just really have a passion for this,” Barrick said.

While anyone above the age of 15 is welcome to apply as a mentor, Ngamije, Barrick, and their coworkers agree that applicants from the UK community could bring a unique and especially helpful perspective to the program.

Derek Feldman, KRM’s community engagement coordinator, said that KRM and the UK community have worked together numerous times in the past on projects where student organizations, Greek organizations, and sports teams volunteer to raise donations, set up apartments for new arrivals, stock said apartments with food, and do winter coat drives.

Feldman said that UK students, and even faculty, could be beneficial to this new program by helping clients navigate the confusing world of higher education beyond just the typical volunteer projects that UK and KRM have previously partnered together for.  

“We have refugee youth who are in need of guidance to achieve their future educational goals. They want to go to college. They want to talk about different possible fields of study and eventual job prospects they can qualify for with a degree. They want to talk about living on campus versus living at home, where they can get a part-time job near campus, where to buy books, how to connect with new friends and feel like they belong at college, etc,” Feldman said.

College students not only have a lot to offer the program but a lot to learn from it as well, said Laurie Jacobson, a recent UK graduate and contract caseworker for KRM.

Jacobson has truly valued her work with KRM and their clients and hopes that college students will join as mentors, something she wishes she had the opportunity to do in undergrad.

 “It will change how you look at your world. It’s such a learning experience for yourself, as well as, the person that you’re helping,” Jacobson said.

Gabby Cotton, a case management intern and current UK senior, has only worked for KRM since mid-September, but she has already learned a lot from her time with them.

“The biggest thing I’ve learned since coming to KRM is that a lot of us, as American citizens, take advantage of the convenience around us. We take for granted how easy it is for a lot of us to get what we need, while a refugee struggles to get the assistance that allows them to even be able to feed themselves and their family,” Cotton said.

After having such an eye-opening experience, Cotton has become an advocate for refugee rights and the resettlement process, but she also sees that while KRM as a whole makes an impact, so can each individual who chooses to make a difference.

“Volunteer, apply to be an intern, or even just get the word out in support of refugees. Simply letting refugees know that they are welcomed and supported here in Kentucky means so much to them as they go through this difficult transition,” Cotton said.

With the help of passionate mentors and mentees, everyone involved with KRM’s new program hopes it will bring about more of these positive experiences for everyone involved.

“It’s simply that I know how helpful this was for me, and it brings me joy to help people and to see them growing like I was helped,” Ngamije said.

For anyone interested in volunteering as a mentor, email Jenny Holly, KRM’s volunteer coordinator, at [email protected] to receive more information on applying for the position. Those interested in mentoring must also pass a background check and have reliable transportation, whether that be their own car, a reliable ride, or knowledge of the public transportation system.