Leyda Becker is an expert on immigrants and refugees who come from all over the world in search of a new life in Kentucky. As the international communities liaison for the City of Bowling Green, Becker knows where they live, what languages they speak and their cultural needs.
Becker’s knowledge of the city’s international community was put to the test when historic out-of-season storms and tornadoes rocked Kentucky in December. For the past 10 years, she has coordinated the city’s relationships with its richly diverse immigrant communities, advocating for those who speak little or no English and come from far-flung places like Qatar, Rwanda, Afghanistan and Cambodia.
In Bowling Green, the tornadoes’ harshest swipe took aim at the Moss Meadows neighborhood, home to native born Kentuckians and families from Bosnia, Albania, Turkey, China and Japan. The casualty count was high. At least 20 houses were destroyed. The limited English skills of many survivors impeded their ability to get help.
“When nearly 16% of the city’s residents are foreign-born and more than 89 languages are spoken in our largest school district, the challenges with navigating information and resources for those with limited English proficiency is magnified,” Becker told her alumni magazine at Western Kentucky University.
Located in western Kentucky, Bowling Green is an agricultural and manufacturing hub with a population of 76,200. The city is home to the Fruit of the Loom global underwear brand but may be best known for the assembly plant that makes the Corvette sports car and for the National Corvette Museum. About one in seven Bowling Green residents was born outside the United States, many lured by the promise of jobs in the city’s manufacturing economy.
After a federal disaster was declared for the tornadoes, FEMA staff checked U.S. Census data to determine if there were survivors with language barriers. That was only the first step. They also sought out community leaders whose ground-level knowledge of the population would help them reach survivors in any language.
FEMA staff were fortunate to find Becker. A naturalized U.S. citizen from Venezuela who has lived in Bowling Green since she was 13, Becker finds herself well-suited to the role of informing, training and engaging with community members in culturally and linguistically diverse populations.
After the storms, she went to work, checking on community members she knew. At a local hospital, she found a leader of the Karenni community, an ethnic group from Myanmar, interpreting for a family that had suffered a casualty. She learned the tornadoes obliterated the home of a father of six, a leader in the Congolese community.
Recognizing there was a desperate need, she set about calculating how to reach more survivors.
“We gathered data on impacted families, including the primary languages spoken, as we knew this was critical for their recovery,” Becker said. “Community partners also rallied to ensure that vulnerable victims would be served.”
Under Becker’s guidance, with help from local officials, the languages identified in Bowling Green are Arabic, Bosnia, Burmese, Dari, Karen (S’gaw & Poe), Karenni (or Kayah), Pashto, Somali, Spanish, Swahili and Khmer, to name a few. FEMA was able to use this information to translate important messages to the communities in their native language.
The demographic information Becker’s team collected was shared with FEMA, helping the agency prepare its disaster recovery messaging in 11 languages. To help non-English speakers sign up for disaster assistance, residents were guided to call the FEMA Helpline, where interpreters are available in 120 languages. Disaster workers had the same opportunity to access FEMA’s over-the-phone interpretation service.
In addition to studying the immigrant community on a granular level, Becker contributes to a weekly two-hour Spanish talk radio program, La Nuestra, on WKCT. It’s the only Spanish radio broadcast serving the Bowling Green area. After the tornadoes, La Nuestra aired a segment on the basics of federal disaster assistance and how to apply for it.
Disaster workers embraced Becker as a valuable resource to spread the FEMA message, whether by radio broadcast, flyers or community meetings. In turn, she pointed FEMA and other disaster agencies to immigrants who were among the most vulnerable. And they shared their stories in their own language.
By mid-April, four months after the tornadoes upended their lives, those who were looking for jobs got some welcome news. Japanese battery maker Envision AESC announced it is making a $2 billion investment in Bowling Green with a factory that produces battery cells to power electric vehicles. The investment is expected to bring 2,000 jobs to the city.