Kanyankogote and Sperto have known each other since they were forced to leave the war zone that their homeland in the Congo had become and forge new, if temporary, lives in a Ugandan refugee camp.
That was in 1996. Twenty years later, they arrived as refugees but to different parts of the U.S. Kanyan, as he is called, was resettled in Kentucky, and Sperto lived in Atlanta. But ultimately, they found themselves in Knoxville, reunited and settling into the life of senior citizens in America. Both are 67.
“Knoxville is really good,” says Kanyan. “They care about us, especially the elders.”
Kanyan and Sperto are what are known as “secondary migrants.” These refugees arrive in one location in the U.S. but ultimately move to another part of the country. The Knoxville Bridge office has seen a spike in these refugees, serving 149 secondary migrants in 2018 compared to 79 the year before.
Some secondary migrants leave their original cities to join friends and family elsewhere, others are seeking a lower cost of living or better job opportunities. Because refugees are eligible for services through agencies like Bridge for up to five years, many of them come for assistance in everything from finding jobs to getting appointments with local doctors.
“I was initially hired at Bridge in 2017 as the intensive case manager, and I was also assigned secondary migrant cases as a small side job, since this population made up a relatively small percentage of our caseload,” says Bridge’s Summer Awad, who works in the Knoxville office. “However, that summer it became clear that secondary migrants were choosing Knoxville as their home in larger and larger numbers, and I soon became a full-time secondary migrant case manager.”
Kanyan came to Knoxville live with one of his sons, who had come as a refugee to Knoxville and lost his wife in a car accident the following year. He now has an apartment of his own in a senior living complex and serves as daytime caregiver for his five-year-old grandson. Sperto came to escape the $1000 monthly rent for his two-room apartment in Georgia.
The challenge in assisting secondary migrants is that, although they come with similar needs for housing, employment (in the case of younger refugees), interpretation, healthcare and school assistance, the federal government does not provide extra funding to cover these resettlement costs. Thus, private donations and volunteer assistance are vital to helping cover the needs of this growing number of refugee clients and their families.
“They often do not have the resources to move their furniture with them from out of state, and there are not a lot of options for furniture donations,” Summer says. “We also run into emergency funding needs with these clients, particularly for single mothers who struggle to become self-sufficient on a single income. And we rely a great deal on volunteers, because we do not have the budget to provide transportation for clients who relocate months or years after their initial arrival to the U.S.”
Life is definitely different from the refugee settlement where Kanyan and Sperto lived much of their lives. They settled there with wives and children, who were scattered as the Rwandan-born conflict sent them fleeing their family farms. They camped for a while, exposed to the elements and at the mercy of compassionate volunteers and ministers in Uganda. Then the camps were established, and they made homes there, reuniting with their families.
Approval to travel to the U.S. came in 2014, but Sperto’s wife died before she could make the trip. He says he believes if he’d stayed at the camp he would be dead too. Here, he and Kanyan receive Social Security—a new concept to both of them. They spend their time with family, Sperto cooks and both attend twice weekly English classes at West Lonsdale Baptist Church.
The men say Bridge’s help in finding housing, dealing with government bureaucracy and helping them with basics like groceries and medicine has been an invaluable part of their lives.
“When I ask Summer, she is always there for me,” says Sperto. “I really, really love that.”
There are definitely things they miss from home—gardening, especially. Learning English is a challenge, and Kanyan says that’s what has made reconnecting with Sperto so valuable.
“I don’t know the language, but I found Sperto, and now we are together,” he says.