A New Era of Inclusive Disaster Response

Michael McCusker | April 20, 2022

Debris in the aftermath of recent tornadoes in Mayfield, Kentucky.

A natural disaster is a devastating and terrifying event for those affected. As communities work to rebuild, they must undergo a long and complicated recovery process. This process can be even more difficult for some immigrant and refugee families, especially those who don’t speak English. At CWS we are committed to understanding the needs of immigrant communities and ensuring that they are helped and included in this process.

Language barriers and lack of information often make it difficult for some immigrants to get help, especially if they are undocumented. These groups also often avoid distribution centers and cash programs out of fear and distrust of authorities. To bridge this gap, we examined the tornado disaster in Mayfield, Kentucky and its effect on the immigrant community. 

In the past fiscal year, 700 unaccompanied children entered Kentucky during the pandemic. Many of these children were still without their parents during the disaster, which made them ineligible for government assistance. This challenge also applied to immigrant families without documentation or with unique statuses.

In partnership with the government, CWS is providing assistance to refugees and unaccompanied children who otherwise would be ineligible. So far, we have distributed $20,000 to 20 immigrant families affected by the tornado. Outreach to the Mayfield school district has also allowed CWS to identify 35 immigrant youth who were affected. Many of these youth lost employment, lost their home or were injured due to the disaster. These children are now receiving assistance through the Office of Refugee Resettlement. They have also been referred to other refugee organizations for continued services.

Home in Mayfield, Kentucky destroyed by recent tornadoes.

As part of our renewed strategy, CWS is also working to provide resources in various languages to disaster-affected communities. We are strengthening our engagement with these families to ensure that when the next disaster strikes, they will be able to access support from day one. We are also working to ensure that CWS has a strong relationship with these communities to establish trust and credibility.

The partnerships we build  are key to ensuring that no one is left out of the relief effort. CWS aims to build partnerships with Spanish-speaking and Latinx organizations in vulnerable communities. This will help us ensure a culturally sensitive approach is accomplished. We also plan to strengthen our relationship with faith partners to facilitate community outreach. (This doesn’t just apply to our disaster response programs, either! By strengthening these partnerships, we can also enhance our programs for adults and unaccompanied children seeking asylum on the U.S.-Mexico border and nationwide.)

Through these new strategies and partnerships, CWS aims to be a source of support and care for our refugee and immigrant neighbors. Our vision is to help develop resilient communities where all can be prepared for a disaster and can ask for help when they need it.

Michael McCusker is the Senior Director of Migrant and Emergency Services at CWS.


We are grateful for our valued partners, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Brother’s Brother Foundation and Church of the Brethren for their support in our Kentucky response.  Their kind generosity has allowed this project to be possible.