The Neighborhood and Community Services Building rests atop a hill overlooking Bowling Green. Inside the waiting room, newspapers lie on a table, some of them in Spanish. A quick turn through the corridor takes leads to the office of Leyda Becker, international communities liaison.
Becker has been the international communities liaison since January 2012. Her job involves assisting immigrants and refugees as they integrate into the United States.
A native of Venezuela, Becker, 36, was born in Venezuela as Leyda Manijeh Muñoz Sadeghi. Her father was a Venezuelan native, and her mother was from Iran. The two met as international transfer students at WKU as they were pursuing their master’s degrees. Becker’s father moved back to Venezuela after a job offer as a professor, and took Becker’s mother with him.
The oldest of three children, Becker lived in the capital city of Merida. Her mother struggled to integrate to Venezuelan culture and did not know Spanish. When Becker was 8 years old, her parents split up and the children lived with their mother.
Becker’s mother did not want to move back to Iran.
“She thought it would be too drastic of a cultural change for her kids,” Becker said. “She thought the U.S. was a good opportunity for us.”
Becker left Venezuela for the United States when she was 13. However, it wasn’t because of an economic or political crisis.
“I had a great childhood,” Becker said.
Becker’s mother also had a brother who lived in Bowling Green. When Becker was 13, in 1993, the family moved to the United States and lived in Smiths Grove, a small town in Warren County, before Warren County had a surge of refugees. The schools weren’t prepared to handle her, according to Becker.
“I didn’t speak much English,” Becker said. “No one could communicate with me.”
There weren’t any English as a Second Language teachers to help her, and she was placed in remedial classes that were below the academic standard. However, Becker didn’t give up. She used dictionaries to learn English, and after a couple of years, she could speak fluently.
“I don’t know how I learned English,” she said. “I just did. It was a sink or swim effect. I needed to either swim or drown. I refused to drown and didn’t want to be a failure.”
Becker soon caught up on her education and even joined the Girl Scouts. By the time she was a junior in high school, she was on the honor roll. After graduating, she enrolled at WKU.
“I wanted to give back to the community,” she said. “The Girl Scouts had shaped me and gave me leadership. I wanted to be involved in something that makes a difference in the lives of people. I don’t want to work just to work.”
Becker soon became interested in nonprofit work. She became an educator for Hope Harbor, a local nonprofit sexual trauma recovery center. It was a part-time job, and she did it for experience. Later, she worked as a program director for Girls, Inc., an organization designed to inspire girls.
Before the position of international communities liaison was established, there was a similar function in the Bowling Green Police Department. The job was to help the Hispanic community have confidence to contact the police if they were ever victims of any crime. The job of International Communities Liaison was established after the city realized having a relationship with international communities needed to go beyond the police department. The position was created based on feedback from the international community.
Becker worked with the officer involved with Hispanic relations, and was soon offered the job as International Communities Liaison. Monica Woods, the officer working with Hispanic relations, referred Becker. After working with Becker, Woods knew she was the one.
“She was intelligent, educated, and kind,” Woods said. “Furthermore, because she herself had experienced coming to Bowling Green as an immigrant, she provided a perspective that I personally did not have, but needed in our efforts within the city.”
“I never considered working for the city government, but I decided to give it a try,” Becker said.
In her position, Becker teaches refugees about the different services the city offers and gives them a way to connect to the community. Becker goes to the International Center frequently to teach English classes for refugees. She works with other foreign-born citizens as well.
Becker established a volunteer advisory council in June 2012, which identifies refugee leaders via informal surveying.
This year, Becker worked on the Academy for New Americans, the first local academy for refugee integration implemented by local government. The academy ran from February to July, and had 17 participants who met once a month and worked with various employers. The academy plans to have another class next year and has been contracted by the city of Louisville to duplicate the program there.
Becker is currently working on a project to make it easier for refugees to obtain a driver’s license. Becker said although the permit test is available in different translations, the translations tend to be poor. Another language barrier for a refugee who wants to drive is the driving test itself. Most instructors can only speak English, making it difficult for a refugee to pass the test.
“It’s one of the primary complaints from the refugees,” Becker said. “The city can’t do anything about it.”
Becker is working with the Kentucky State Police to fix this issue.
Becker projects the trend of international growth in Bowling Green increasing. The 2010-2014 Census revealed the foreign-born population is 8.8 percent. One of the reasons she believes is because of secondary migration patterns, where a refugee is settled in one city, but moves to another. She believes there are a few reasons why many refugees like living in Bowling Green.
“This is a great town for refugees because they don’t get lost in the shuffle,” Becker said. “In a larger city, there is isolation, and isolation means they don’t get integrated.”
Bowling Green offers a feeling of peace to refugees who come from war-torn towns, Becker said.
“This job has grown into something no one had ever imagined it would be,” she said. “It’s an interesting and rewarding job.”
Becker said she feels lucky to live in America.
“The things I have been able to do here have let me create a life for myself,” she said. “That would not be my life in Venezuela.”
Although she arrived in America when she was 13, Becker became a naturalized citizen of the United States four years ago. Now, she knows for sure she is here to stay.
“Once I got U.S. citizenship, I embraced the idea of being a part of this country,” she said. “I felt like I always have been here.”