KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — After suffering instability, conflict, and control from the Taliban, 35 refugees from Afghanistan are now safe and sheltered in Knoxville.
They arrived through Bridge Refugee Services Inc., a local organization that works to rehome refugees.
"Our mission is to help refugees, those people who are fleeing because of persecution based on race, religion, political opinion, a pertinence to social group or escaping wars and violence, to be self sufficient as soon as possible," said Drocella Mugorewera, the Executive Director of Bridge.
Bridge provides them with government subsidized shelter, case managers, ESL tutors and life skills courses to get them acclimated with the American way of life.
"These refugees, they're coming to see us and many don't have any family members to rely on except us," Mugorewera said.
The Afghan refugees all played a role in helping the U.S. Armed Forces overseas. They are highly trained professionals, and Mugorewera believes they will all become valuable members of the East Tennessee community.
According to Mugorewera, Bridge helps refugees from across the globe, including refugees from Sudan, the Congo, Rwanda, Syria and now Afghanistan.
Mugorewera knows about the struggles of integration first-hand. She came to Knoxville as a Rwandan refugee in 2009.
"It was difficult," Mugorewera said.
She said it takes a while to learn a whole new way of life. The systems in America are different than other countries.
"Integration takes time," Mugorewera said. "Even though I was educated, had a high school diploma, had college, it took me seven years to feel like I was integrated in this community."
Now, Mugorewera is living her American dream. She runs Bridge's Knoxville location and even saw her children graduate from American colleges.
"I had a dream to see my children graduate from college. But, I didn't think it would happen after freeing my country. But, they all went to college. They graduated. They're independent. Now, I am a grandma! " Mugorewera said.
However, she needed help for the first few years to find her footing.
That's where volunteer groups come in. Each refugee gets a community assistance team. This team does everything from teach them how to navigate transportation systems, American money, employment and housing.
Central Baptist Church in Fountain City is acting as a community assistance team with Bridge for the first time.
"We got involved with Bridge Refugee Services. We're paired with two different Afghan families that had recently arrived in Knoxville," Martha Robinson said.
The church members have already taken their families to the grocery store, on KAT buses and helped them organize their apartment.
The community assistance team will remain a point of contact for the refugees until they feel integrated and self-sufficient in Knoxville.
Robinson said it's already been great to learn about each person and see their excitement to be here.
"They are thrilled to be here," Robinson said. "One of the families could not say enough, 'I love America. I love Americans.' They are so thankful to be here. They are so appreciative," Robinson said.
She also said her team has learned a lot about Afghan culture.
"It has definitely broadened our cultural knowledge already, of just the communities from which they've come and their languages and customs and foods," Robinson said.
WBIR anchor emeritus Bill Williams is a part of that integration team. He said he has always found Knoxville to be a very welcoming place. The hope is that Knoxville can continue that outlook when it comes to these 35 new members of our community.
"With this kind of program, we can say, come and be a part of our community. Let us help you. Let us love you," Williams said.
"It's sort of the same as if somebody moved in next door to your house, you know, what would you do to welcome them to your neighborhood? Same sort of thing, just on a broader scale," Robinson said.
During the refugees' time working with Bridge and their community assistance team, they will learn the three pillars of American integration: learn English, employment, and community engagement.
Mugorewera said Bridge is always looking for more people to get involved with volunteering. They are in constant need of ESL tutors, drivers to help with transportation needs, and community assistance teams.
You can find those volunteer opportunities here.
If you prefer to give in a monetary way, Mugorewera says those funds can be used to pay for furniture, rent, utilities, and transportation until the refugees are able to get jobs and support themselves.