LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Koussay Ghalyoun was 11 years old when he and his mother fled the civil war in Syria that was destroying homes and killing hundreds in their province.

For four years, they lived in camps in Jordan as they sought resettlement aid from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. They didn’t know where they would end up.

“There was a lot of death, lot of suffering,” recalls Koussay, now 15. “We were looking for a better life.”

It took nearly two years for Koussay and his mother to make it through the vetting process, which included background checks and in-person interviews with UN and U.S. officials.

Eight months ago they were granted refugee status and provided one-way tickets to Louisville. They are among 113 Syrian refugees who resettled in the commonwealth in 2015, according to the Kentucky Office of Refugees.

Koussay enrolled in Jefferson County Public Schools’ ESL Newcomer Academy for beginning English speakers in grades 6-10, joining hundreds of other students who have fled war, oppression and disasters in their native countries.

Roughly two-thirds of the students at Newcomer Academy are refugees and represent more than two dozen countries, with the largest group from Cuba, principal Gwen Snow said.

“We have a lot of students who have experienced war or some kind of violence,” she said. “Sometimes being in school is the kind of thing that keeps them sane.”

Newcomer Academy celebrates its 10th anniversary in 2016, with enrollment is expected to climb to 600 students, an increase of 46 percent in a two-year period. The school is housed at the Academy @ Shawnee at 39th and Market streets.

Snow, who is in her sixth year as Newcomer’s principal, said most students are in their first year of instruction in an American school and many have had limited or interrupted educational experiences in their native countries.

“Our goal is to help our students become prepared to transition to a mainstream comprehensive program and be successful in that,” she said. “They will stay here for one to two years, depending on their needs.”

The growth at Newcomer comes as JCPS continues to add more students who are studying English as a second language. There were roughly 5,500 such students this year – an increase from 3,000 in 2010, according to data provided by the district.

To help accommodate that growth, JCPS opened the International Academy at Iroquois High – a program similar to Newcomer – at the start of the 2014-15 school year.

Six months later, Newcomer added a satellite campus of four classrooms at the former Myers Middle School building in Hikes Point, which is close to where many of the immigrant and refugee students live.

“Louisville is becoming more and more a global city – it’s important to our economy,” Snow said. “And then you think about the diversity these students bring to overall instruction. It’s pretty phenomenal.”

Louisville lands most refugees

In a way, Newcomer is a microcosm of the refugee and immigrant populations in Louisville and across the state.

Only 14 states help more refugees than Kentucky, which resettled 2,048 in fiscal 2015, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

The majority of those – 61 percent – moved to Louisville. The others were placed in Bowling Green, Lexington and Owensboro.

Each city accepts a certain number of refugees each year based on the capacity of that area, said Maria Koerner, assistant director for the Kentucky Office of Refugees.

Louisville accepts many refugees because it’s the state’s largest city and “agencies there have the capacity to resettle more refugees than the other Kentucky cities,” she said.

Of the 113 Syrian refugees who were resettled in 2015, 102 have found homes in Louisville. The others are living in Lexington.

Koerner said more than half of them are children under the age of 18.

John Koehlinger, executive director of the Kentucky Refugee Ministries, said a low cost of living and available jobs in Louisville help when placing families.

“Louisville is a very welcoming community, we leverage a lot of refugee support from a variety of church and community groups,” he said. “Hundreds of these refugees will become natural citizens.”

His agency resettles about 600 refugees each year and also places 600 Cuban immigrants.

He said JCPS plays a critical role in helping the city’s youngest refugees and immigrants succeed.

“The Newcomer Academy has been a great place for these kids,” he said. “They do very well in JCPS.”

 ‘I want to help people’

During a recent morning inside teacher Scott Wade’s classroom at the Newcomer Academy, Nour Alkunuss sat at a desk going over a list of words with a classmate.

Like Koussay, Nour is from Syria.

“It doesn't feel safe in my country,” she said. “It’s not safe.”

The 18-year-old and her mother, father and three younger brothers arrived in Louisville four months ago from Jordan.

“Everything here is different for me…the culture, food, many things,” she said. “When you come here, you can have choice to start with new things, a new life.”

Shortly after resettling in Louisville, Nour’s family faced an immediate crisis when her mother was diagnosed with leukemia.

“She got sick in Jordan, but the cancer was diagnosed here,” she said. “Sometimes it’s bad for me…hard for me to focus. But I have many friends here so I'm happy to study here.”

While Nour’s mother is getting treatment for the cancer, her father works full time making car parts. She helps out with her younger brothers, one of whom has Down syndrome.

Nour said she wants to be a doctor or a journalist.

“I want to help people,” she said.

Louisville is a ‘beautiful place’

Both Nour and Koussay said Louisvillians and the students and staff at the Newcomer Academy have been friendly and helpful.

“It’s been a positive experience,” Koussay said. “Everyone has been very welcoming.”

Nour said Louisville is a “beautiful place.”

“I feel lucky to be here,” she said.

Both of them hope to move to a regular JCPS high school within a year.

And when they aren’t at school or helping their families, they both spend a lot of time at the Southeast YMCA.

“I love to swim,” Nour said.

In addition to hanging out with his friends, Koussay said he loves to “watch American movies to improve my English.”

Following the terrorist attacks in Paris in November, the two teenagers said they were angered to learn that one of the attackers came from Syria and posed as a refugee to get into Europe.

“This is not the real image or picture of Islam,” Koussay said. “Those people don’t represent all of Syria or all of Muslims. There are millions and millions of peaceful Muslims.”

Ever since the Paris attacks, there has been a contentious debate over who should be allowed into the United States, with many perceiving Syrians as a security threat.

More than 30 governors across the U.S. have agreed, including Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, who has said he opposes the resettling of Syrian refugees in the state.

Koussay said wants politicians to “take into consideration of the suffering of refugees.”

“We are peaceful,” Nour said. “We are just here to live.”

Reporter Antoinette Konz can be reached at 585-0838 or @tkonz on Twitter.

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