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For international community, the same resiliency that brought them to Bowling Green is being tested six months after tornado

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Lisa Autry
El Salvador native Concepcion Serrano's home was among those obliterated on Moss Creek Ave in Bowling Green during the Dec. 11 tornado.

Bowling Green is home to a diverse international population that fled wars and persecution and crossed oceans and continents for a slice of the American dream.

Their new life of opportunity and security was upended last December when the worst tornado in Kentucky history ravaged what they had worked so hard build. Some immigrant and refugee families, six months out from the disaster, are resettling all over again.

About one in seven Bowling Green residents was born outside the United States. The refugee community has grown dramatically over the past several decades from waves of migration, first from Bosnia in the 1990s, then Myanmar and Congo, and most recently, Afghanistan.

They came to America and made a life for themselves, learning English, earning paychecks, owning homes, and raising children. Those new lives changed dramatically on Dec. 11, 2021, when a deadly tornado ripped through Bowling Green in the middle of the night.

“I was home. I was sleeping, but it was very fast when it happened. When we felt the wind, it was already there," said Concepcion Serrano, speaking through an interpreter. "It’s never something I would wish anyone to have to live through. What we lived through that December month was like a war, but I thank God we’re here, he protected us and kept us safe through that, and now we can move forward.”

Lisa Autry
El Salvador native Concepcion Serrano visits the office of Leyda Becker, Bowling Green's international communities laision, seeking help with paperwork following the Dec. 11 tornado that destroyed his home.

Concepcion Serrano came to Bowling Green from El Salvador.

Of the 15 people killed in Bowling Green, most lived in the Moss Meadows neighborhood, a modest haven for refugees and immigrants. Serrano’s home was destroyed, but he and his wife, hiding in a closet, escaped with only scratches. The couple has called Bowling Green home for more than two decades. They were established. They owned their own home, their kids were grown, and they had good jobs. But the tornado wiped away their home, and six months later, the rebuilding process remains a nightmare.

Leyda Becker is the international communities liaison for the city of Bowling Green. She went door to door right after the tornado checking on the safety of the foreign-born population. Language barriers were the biggest impediment at the time as she tried to connect them with resources to get immediate aid. Navigating refugees through the various application processes required for more substantial aid is one of the greatest challenge six months later.

The Serrano family remains stuck in bureaucracy. They’ve been fighting for months with their mortgage company.

“We called the mortgage company together and we basically asked for a forbearance on the mortgage," Serrano said. "They told us everything would be taken care of, that they would pause the mortgage payments, and they never did that.”

The lender also kept adding late fees. Wanting to sever all ties with the company, the Serranos opted to use their insurance settlement to pay off the mortgage. They were approved for a loan from the Small Business Administration to help build a new home, but the couple has only received a fraction of it so far. The SBA won’t approve the rest until the lien on the mortgage is released, which the mortgage company has been reluctant to do.

Fortunately, the Serranos have Becker who’s translating and mediating on their behalf. She met with Conception Serrano last month at her Bowling Green office.

“It’s taken a lot of advocacy for us to get everything taken care of and he’s very disappointed at how the system works," Becker said.

Serrano recently dropped by Becker’s office with the latest paperwork he received in the mail, seeking come clarity.

“There’s been many difficult challenges but I think the most difficult challenge has been the bureaucratic process and I’m not really sure why these things happen to individuals like us," Serrano said. "We’ve dedicated our life to working and making a life, and working for living.”

While the Serrano family from El Salvador was well-established in Bowling Green when the tornado struck, others in the international community were just getting on their feet.

Lisa Autry
Sodaba Rahamaty, a refugee from Afghanistan, had just resettled in her Bowling Green home when the Dec. 11 tornado struck.

Sodaba Rahamaty, 23, is an Afghan refugee now calling Bowling Green home. She’s from Kabul and worked for the United Nations before fleeing the country for her safety after the Taliban takeover. Rahamaty arrived in southern Kentucky six months ago with her brother, sister, and mother.

“We came from Afghanistan, and when we came here I said, 'Here’s the place our safety is guaranteed,'" Rahamaty said. "After an eventful journey between Kabul and Bowling Green, we had been living in our home for three weeks and then the tornado happened."

The family had just settled into a rental home on Nutwood St. when the tornado hit Bowling Green on Dec. 11.

“The night the tornado happened we took shelter in our hallway. I cannot forget my mother looked us and said, 'Don’t worry, everything will be okay, we’ll be fine,'" recalled Rahamaty. "I could see the desperation and hopelessness in her eyes. At that point, I took my phone and looked at it. 'Who can I call? I have no friends here. I have no family here. Who can I call?'"

The family stayed a few weeks in a hotel before their home was repaired. Even though they returned, they decided not to renew their lease.

“Every corner of that home reminded us of that night. It’s like a trauma we’re keeping with ourselves," Rahamaty explained. "We have a lot bad memories and trauma from our homeland where homes were damaged and gone by explosions, and when we came here and tornado happened, it kind of reminded us of all of our experiences.”

She's landed a good job with a local bank and her family is renting a new townhouse. They’ve made friends and life is better now. And while they’re not physically rebuilding like many refugee and immigrant families, emotionally, they still are.

"Even when it’s like normal rain, even a change in weather, we’re like, 'Is it a tornado again?' Still, we are concerned about our safety, and it’s not the same.”

Bowling Green’s foreign-born, who lost homes in their native lands, fear being displaced once more. But many have escaped perhaps far greater challenges, and the same resiliency is sustaining them six months after going to war with Mother Nature.

Lisa is a Scottsville native and WKU alum. She has worked in radio as a news reporter and anchor for 18 years. Prior to joining WKU Public Radio, she most recently worked at WHAS in Louisville and WLAC in Nashville. She has received numerous awards from the Associated Press, including Best Reporter in Kentucky. Many of her stories have been heard on NPR.