The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Kentucky neighborhood was a haven for refugees. Then the tornado struck.

After a tornado moved through Bowling Green, Ky., one family took in neighbors from down the street. Four of their children, including two infants, died. (Video: Mike Schuh, Lee Powell/The Washington Post)
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BOWLING GREEN, Ky. — When the tornado came roaring by Ruben Carrazan’s home Friday night, his bathroom window shattered, but no one in his family was hurt. He thought the worst had passed.

Then came the shouts outside his front door. A woman from the Bosnian family who lived across the street was there, cradling a baby girl with a shard of glass lodged in the back of her skull. “She’s not breathing!” the woman yelled.

Elsewhere in the neighborhood, the storm had punched a hole in the roof of Winner Mweneshele’s apartment and pummeled it with debris. The home he had provided for his family last year after decades in a Tanzanian refugee camp was no longer habitable.

And just a short walk away, Myanmar native Hau Kim, his wife and two daughters had huddled for safety in a closet. The tornado picked up their house and tossed it down a hill.

They had fled wars and persecution, crossed oceans and continents. They had come to America and made a life for themselves, learning English, earning paychecks, buying or renting homes, and raising children. Now — in a tidy, safe community of three-bedroom houses and postage-stamp lawns, pieces of the American Dream — they were facing down a tornado.

The raging, swirling winds that struck Bowling Green did not mete out their damage evenly. Rather, the tornado focused its fury on a newly built neighborhood, Moss Meadows, that has become a haven for refugees and immigrants, a global village nestled among forests and fields in southern Kentucky.

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Of the 15 people killed in Bowling Green and the surrounding county, at least 13 lived in Moss Meadows, a family-friendly subdivision that’s now a sea of wreckage. Among the debris: a child’s plastic push car, a pink laundry hamper, a white unicorn toy, small bicycles and running shoes. An overturned minivan rested three driveways down from where a neighbor said it was last parked.

Eleven victims lived along one street: Moss Creek Avenue.

Bowling Green, home to the Corvette museum and a low-slung downtown arrayed around a leafy park that dates to the 19th century, has long been predominantly White. But the city’s complexion has changed in recent years, in part because approximately 1 in 7 Bowling Green residents are born outside the United States.

The refugee community in Bowling Green has grown dramatically, built on successive waves of migration: first from Bosnia in the 1990s, then Myanmar and Congo, and most recently — within the past several months — Afghanistan. With plentiful jobs, affordable housing, and church and other communities that have welcomed the newcomers, the city has earned a reputation as an attractive landing spot.

Bowling Green leaders say it has been a positive development for a city of nearly 75,000 that needs new people to help fuel the local economy.

“I don’t know that we expected to see a city in south-central Kentucky to become so ethnically diverse,” said Leyda Becker, Bowling Green’s international communities liaison. “But we have embraced it fully.”

The toll from Friday’s disaster, which left at least 74 people dead statewide, reflected that diversity. It upended the lives of native Kentuckians alongside people who had started their lives scattered across the globe but had converged on Bowling Green in search of safety and opportunity. Many had found it — until Friday.

“It was so hard for my parents to come here, to escape,” said Ko Meh, a 20-year-old whose family had arrived from a refugee camp in Thailand a decade ago. “This was our first home, and it was so nice and beautiful. My parents worked so hard to provide for us.”

But now, she said while standing amid debris at the family’s battered home, “all this trouble has come.”

Compared with many of their neighbors, the first-year student at Western Kentucky University knew her family had been fortunate. The property damage was serious: Their home, which they purchased six years ago, may have been knocked off its foundation, but no one had been hurt.

Others in Moss Meadows were not nearly as lucky.

Selveta Besic, 35, came with her family to the United States as a refugee from Bosnia in 1998. Their home had been torn up by years of war. “I remember everything,” Besic said. “I went through hell there.”

But the catastrophe her family suffered when the tornado struck was the worst thing she’s ever been through, Besic said.

After the storm passed over her own home, she began calling family members, but no one was answering. So she went around the block to the southern edge of the neighborhood where her twin brothers have homes. She found one of her brothers digging his family out of the rubble of what used to be his house.

“He said, ‘They are gone,’ ” Besic said.

Across the street, Ruben Carrazan and his family were witnessing the awful aftermath play out in their living room. Besic’s sister-in-law had brought her infant daughter, whose skull had been pierced by glass.

“She thought her baby was alive,” said Carrazan, who is originally from Argentina. “And she was already dead. The baby was already dead.”

Carrazan began to tremble as he and his 17-year-old son helped the woman place the tiny, lifeless form on the couch. But it wasn’t over.

“She said, ‘Let me get my other kid,’ ” Carrazan recalled.

She and Besic’s father soon returned with another infant — also lifeless. Then, a third child — a 7-year-old boy. Also dead.

Between the families of the twin brothers, they lost five members — four of them children. Three were in Carrazan’s living room.

“What happened was a nightmare,” Carrazan said. “It was horrible.”

All across the neighborhood, others were enduring their own nightmares. Next door to the Besics, the Brown family also lost five members: two adults and three children.

Hau Kim, the Myanmar native, said he, his wife and two daughters had been sleeping in their home in the heart of the subdivision when they were awakened by tornado emergency alerts sounding on their cellphones. The family tried to huddle in a closet.

“But within five minutes, we were just swept away,” the 48-year-old said.

The next thing he knew, his house had been transformed into a debris field, and he had been flung 100 feet from where it had once stood. Somehow, against all odds, the family escaped serious injury.

One of the family’s good friends did not.

Say Meh, 42, had been planning to spend her Saturday preparing food for a celebration: A fellow refugee from the Karenni ethnic group had a child who had just graduated from college, and she and others were planning to mark the occasion with a party.

There were other reasons to rejoice. Her husband had passed his citizenship test earlier this month, and when she wasn’t working shifts at a chicken processing plant, she was studying for her own test, said a friend, Jennifer Kash.

But she would never have the chance. Her home was smashed to pieces, and though her husband and three children survived, she did not.

“She was very outgoing, always wanted to meet new people,” said Kash, who was among a troupe of volunteers helping families in Moss Meadows to recover. “And she was working really hard.”

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Winner Mweneshele, 25, came to the city in 2020 after living most of his life in a Tanzanian refugee camp. His family fled their home in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1996 as violence swept the region during the country’s civil war.

But less than two years after leaving the camp, Mweneshele is once again looking for a permanent home. With their apartment building badly damaged, he, his wife and their three young children have been forced to stay in a Red Cross shelter set up in a nearby elementary school.

Mweneshele, who works at a warehouse and leads a local refugee organization, has been busy in recent days calling friends and contacts to help others get out of damaged homes and into shelters.

“I told them, ‘We have a disaster, we have to mobilize people,’ ” he said.

Many were heeding the call.

Zach Salchli organized a soccer game in a local park for kids on Tuesday so that parents could help with the volunteer effort or work on cleaning out their own damaged homes.

Salchli, a former schoolteacher who now owns a youth soccer training company, said Bowling Green’s refugee community sets it apart from other cities in the state.

“Bowling Green has become a very diverse community,” he said. “That’s why we love being here.”

Salchli started a soccer program for children from refugee families in 2017, and when word spread of where the storm had struck Friday night, he was thinking of them. What would it mean for people who had come to Bowling Green because they had lost homes in their native lands to be displaced once more?

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Nearly a quarter-century after fleeing Bosnia with her family, Selveta Besic said she and her daughter had been moving constantly in recent days, trying to help her surviving family members and find a place for them all to live.

Her brothers both remain in the hospital. One lost his wife, while two of their children survived.

“Who is going to take care of them?” she asked.

She pleads with God to do that awful Friday night over again, to let fate take a different course when the tornado ripped through town.

“I wish I could go back and say, ‘Take me and let all my family be alive,’ ” she said. “I would give my life just to have everybody back.”

De Vynck and Craig reported from Bowling Green and Hill and Witte reported from Washington. Mike Schuh in Bowling Green and Alice Crites and Magda Jean-Louis in Washington contributed to this report.

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