For much of his adult life, Moses Sang was wary of law enforcement officials.

But, on Saturday, the 30-year-old Myanmar native posed for a photo with Owensboro Police Department officer Loren Yonts, and Sang was quick to show off his OPD junior officer badge, a decal which Yonts handed out at the International Center of Kentucky's World Refugee Day celebration, which took place from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at Owensboro Christian Church.

Sang quickly attached the OPD decal to the back of his cellphone.

"Police here are very kind and very good to us," he said.

Two years ago, Sang moved to Owensboro. In his homeland, he said, Christian residents feared police officers, who were mostly Buddhists.

When he arrived in Owensboro, the International Center's local site secured Sang an apartment with everything he needed and enrolled him in English classes at Owensboro Community & Technical College. He now speaks English fluently and works full time at Total Packaging.

He also shares Sunday preaching duties with other members of Bellevue Myanmar Baptist Church. In Myanmar, he earned a bachelor's degree in theology and was working on a degree in divinity.

"I want to be a minister," Sang said. "I want to be a theologian."

Sang loves Owensboro's weather, educational opportunities and the ability to thrive through hard work and determination. He never owned a car before. Now, he drives a Toyota Rav4.

"In the United States, everything we want we can get with a job," Sang said. "God bless America."

At least 300 people attended the International Center's World Refugee Day celebration Saturday. Several sponsor booths lined the auditorium, providing information and handing out free items. For example, Owensboro Health gave away nearly 30 bicycle helmets by 12:30 p.m.

Lunch included a mix of local food and ethnic dishes. The celebration also featured ethnic dancing and children's games.

Each year, the United Nations, the U.N. Refugee Agency and countless civic groups around the world host World Refugee Day events. They honor the strength, courage and perseverance of resettlement agencies and their clients and set aside a special time for the public to show support for refugees and their families.

Presently, Kentucky ranks fifth in the nation for refugee arrivals, according to the Kentucky Office of Refugees. Bowling Green's International Center is one of the nation's largest resettlement agencies.

Owensboro's center hopes to serve 100 new arrivals this year, said Anna Allen, site director of the local International Center.

The center helps clients find jobs that can sustain a family within 60 days of their arrival. Allen said 97% of the center's clients are self-sufficient within one year.

"They're paying taxes," she said. "They're contributing to the community."

Natives of Myanmar are the largest group relocating to Owensboro at this time, Allen said.

In 2016, the center started settling Somalis, and, today, three Congolese families reside in Owensboro. Several more are expected by the end of summer.

"We have a community of internationals here, and many people are not aware," said Susann Bartlett, employment specialist at the International Center.

Many of the center's clients have earned their U.S. citizenship, Bartlett said. "A lot of times, with all the rhetoric in the news, people get the wrong impression about what immigration is."

The International Center is funded by state and federal funds, she said.

Allen Youngman is chairman of the International Center's local board of directors.

"One of the best-kept secrets in town is our international community," Youngman said. "Refugees bring fresh talent and skills. They make a town a better place to live."

He hopes more local residents become aware of the international community and get involved with its welfare.

"These folks are really excited about stuff (Americans) take for granted: opportunity, freedom from oppression, access to education. They give back 10 times over," Youngman said.

Renee Beasley Jones, 270-228-2835, rbeasleyjones@messenger-inquirer.com

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