Funding Shortfalls Challenge Knoxville's Bridge Refugee Services

"Knoxville is a garden," said the girl from Baghdad. "There are so many trees! Where are all the tall buildings?"

She was settling in her new home, with the help of Bridge Refugee Services. Since 1982, the unusual organization, which combines federal grants with mostly church-based volunteer efforts, has resettled hundreds of approved refugees in the Knoxville area. Most who are granted asylum by the U.S. government are victims of war or severe oppression. The majority of the immigrants Bridge has worked with lately are Iraqis, but the organization has also established colonies of Burmese, Rwandans, Ethiopians, Cubans, and others. Knoxville has recently welcomed a significant population of refugees from the tiny, extremely poor African nation of Burundi.

Bridge's federal grant money is tied to the number of refugees allocated to Knoxville. That number had been growing until recently, but because of a new security protocol instituted this year, the paperwork involved in approving refugees has slowed—and so, temporarily, has the organization's revenue. Bridge got only 14 refugees to process this past April, just under a third as many as arrived the previous April, and therefore much less federal funding allocated. Though Bridge has fewer incoming refugees this summer, they're still dealing with the settlers they've taken on. They still have administrative costs to keep up with, and need to make up for what they believe to be a temporary gap.

Jennifer Cornwell is director of the organization, based on Middlebrook Pike in West Knoxville. It employs a staff of eight but relies heavily on as many as 100 local volunteers, who teach English or help with critical transportation. Local churches help sponsor some refugee families, Cornwell says, but about 95 percent of their funding comes from the federal refugee-resettlement programs.

To help, Bridge is throwing an unusual fund-raiser from 5-8 p.m. on Monday, June 20, which is World Refugee Day, at the Emporium on Gay Street. Bridge board member Leah Berry offered her artist husband's Emporium gallery for the fete. Mike Berry, who coordinates UT's downtown gallery, is well known for his boldly colorful urban landscapes. Several other area artists, including Bobby Crews, Katie Gamble, Katy Smith, and Bobby Mooring will participate, along with Nashville artist Eric Swanagin. Forty percent of proceeds from the art sale will go to Bridge; and though the wine-and-appetizers event is free to the public, a donation of at least $10 is requested. "We want lots of people to come and help us recover from some of our lower-level funding problems," says Cornwell.

Founded in 1982, Bridge works with both the government and Church World Service and Episcopal Migration Ministries. Local churches involved also include Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian congregations. The job comes with rewards and challenges.

"Some children who were kidnapped are afraid to leave their apartments," Cornwell says. Others remark on the strange absence of gunfire in their new Knoxville neighborhoods.

Decisions on who comes to Knoxville are made by federal refugee-resettlement programs, and are based on factors including cost of living and employment opportunities, but especially on the populations already here. Knoxville is already home to a large enough population of Iraqis that new refugees can make connections with them and find their way around; with Bridge's help, 153 more Iraqis joined them last year.

One challenge Knoxville presents is language. "A lot of our clients already speak English, but there are a lot that don't," Cornwell says. Much of their efforts are focused on teaching English as a second language, especially to children.

Cornwell says Knoxville's a fairly welcoming city. "We're not Minneapolis, not Chicago," she says. "But we have a low cost of living, affordable apartments, and a strong employment market for the kinds of jobs we're looking for."