Those tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free in America include refugees and asylees fleeing war and persecution. Displaced persons also include victims of international trafficking. Regardless of what’s uprooted them, these souls without countries come from homelands too risky or unstable to remain in or return to.
Most newcomers escaping duress lean on enclaves of fellow countrymen who preceded them here to show them the ropes.
“In Nebraska, 95 percent of our families coming here are reuniting with friends and family already here,” said Lutheran Family Services (LFS) program development officer Lacey Studnicka. “It’s really those ethnic communities that show the new arrivals the most support and you see that historically in our country. It’s the ethnic community that does the heavy lifting in welcoming them and getting them going. That just happens organically.
“Our agency provides newcomers a network of American connections.”
Whatever their story, she said, new arrivals “are here for their children,” adding, “They want a better life and they want their children to never experience what they had to go through. When you see them get an opportunity for a second chance and what they do with that opportunity – the parents starting businesses, buying homes, their children excelling in school and just thriving in their new surroundings – it’s the American Dream. And it gets played out every single day.”
Those looking to resettle don’t care if its crass calculus, noble ideals, human compassion or luck of the draw that gets them out as long as they touch freedom again or perhaps for the first time. Subsisting in camps or war zones awaiting release means base survival marked by uncertainty. Resettlement is bittersweet. It means leaving everything you know for a fresh start in a safe new place. Relocation and assimilation bring stressors but mainly brings opportunities.
LFS, the state’s largest resettlement agency, offers access to medical, behavioral health and legal services, ESL classes, career and life skills mentoring and employment searches.
“We have an 85 percent success rate placing refugees into jobs within the first 60 to 90 days they’re in the U.S.,” Studnicka said.
Most caseworkers are former refugees.
“It’s very demanding work,” she said. “You really are helping rebuild people’s lives and you have a lot of responsibility in that. They’re looking to you for guidance at all times. Refugee caseworkers get it because they lived it. They have a different commitment and passion. We try to have them set boundaries, but when your home and worship place is in the same community you serve, you can’t shut it off.”
The U. S. is a major safe harbor, though ever tighter screening means individual cases can take years to clear. Nebraska’s done its part receiving and resettling folks, especially since the 1970s.
“We have seen our numbers double over the last five years,” said Studnicka, who estimates 25,000-plus refugees reside in the metro.
No one knows if President Trump will follow through on vowed policies to close America’s southern borders and restrict Muslim arrivals.
Middle East crises have propelled a migration flood in Europe. Refugee numbers worldwide are at levels not seen since World War II. An estimated 14 million await return or resettlement. Only a fraction will be permanently resettled due to capacity, security or political considerations.
America annually receives 75,000 to 100,000 refugees.
Each year the President in consultation with Congress decides how many and from what countries of origin will be accepted. Who Nebraska takes depends on what groups the state’s best resourced to accommodate in terms of available language-cultural-technical support. After past waves of Vietnamese, Russian Jews, Bosnians, Croatians, Afghans, Sudanese, Somalis, Iraqsi, Burundi, Rwandans, Butanese and Karen. The newest groups include Congolese. Despite objections by Gov. Peter Ricketts Syrians are being resettled, too.
LFS officials say they receive little opposition to its refugee work and are unaware of any hate crimes directed at refugees in the area.
Studnicka said the state’s proved to be “a very favorable place for resettlement because we have an excellent economy and a friendly welcoming environment.” She added, “Refugees can find jobs. It’s a really good place to live.”
Still, she conceded, “It’s hard. There are language and transportation barriers.” Most newcomers find their education and professional training doesn’t meet certifications here and that forces them to fill the same unskilled jobs as many immigrants – meatpacking, hospitality, transportation.
Former Somali refugee Dekow Sagar said, “I do remember thinking if I had the means to go back to the refugee camp I would.” But his persistence paid off and he’s now program director at the International Center of the Heartland, an LFS operation that extends services as needed to refugee clients beyond the initial federally funded 90 days.
Sagar was 8 when he and his family left the carnage of the Somali war for a camp in Kenya. They expected to be there a short while but remained years. He grew to adulthood there and after assisting Doctors Without Borders and the United Nations, he came to the U.S. in 2007. He lived and worked in Des Moines, Iowa before taking a job with the Sate of Nebraska and then joining LFS.
The thousands of clients served by the International Center yearly,
Sagar said, “have high motivation to be self-sufficient and to be economically independent. Most work two jobs to make ends meet.”
“Their resiliency” in the face of obstacles is what Studnicka most admires. “They’re aware of how challenging it’s going to be and they’re like, ‘Let’s do this.’ They’re the hardest working people I know.”
“Part of the benefits from the federal government are eight months of cash assistance, food stamps and Medicaid, or until they start working,” she said. “A lot of our families start working quickly. So they’re off that assistance quickly. This is not a handout, this is a hand-up. We’re going to give you an opportunity but it’s very American – you’re going to work for it.”
Abdullah Alalo was a married, 26-year-old medical school graduate when the terror threat in Syria forced him to seek asylum. He came to the U.S, in 2013 and after living in Los Angeles and Phoenix, he moved to Omaha, where he works as a machine operator. He and his wife, who joined him in the States a year after his arrival, just bought their first home and are expecting their first child.
After despairing he couldn’t follow his intended career field here, he’s found contentment.
“We live very comfortably now. We’re happy here. We like the city, we like the people, we’ve made a lot of friends. Everybody’s been very supportive.”
Khalid Khan worked as a U.S. military interpreter for 10-plus years in his native Afghanistan until it got too hot to stay. He and fellow interpreters were made hard targets by the Taliban. He came here as a Special Immigrant Visa holder under the Afghan Allies Protection Act. He works in IT and drives for Uber.
Once, Khan said, a local passenger questioned his fealty as a Muslim to America. He replied he helped defeat a common enemy to persevere America’s freedom, faced death threats, suffered a stoke and PTSD and left his life to move here.
“He thanked me for my service to America,” Khan said.
He, his wife and their children spent months in hiding before coming to the U.S. in 2014.
Studnicka said as the public learns the sacrifices newcomers make and hardships they face, more assistance flows.
“In the past, refugees in our community were invisible. That’s not true anymore. People are more educated and seeking out information and wanting to help. We’re trying to keep up with the demand. We didn’t have the infrastructure we do now.”
As a result, she said, “We’ve never been more prepared.”
LFS partners with Christian, Jewish and Muslim faith communities and local businesses, from corporations to small companies, to outfit the residences of new arrivals, welcome them at the airport, do grocery shopping, teach English, make home visits, mentor, et cetera.
Staff are often asked to present on resettlement. Some refugees tell their stories before these audiences.
Where there may be service gaps, refugees fill them.
“We didn’t have a strong enclave of Congolese before they started coming, so the Burundians and Rwandans stepped up and welcomed them. They’re from the same region and lived in the same refugee camps together. That sense of solidarity and community is awesome.”
Studnicka said. “People struggle when they don’t have enough resources around them. The more resources, the more success they have,” adding that resources are no problem here.
“The goal,” she said, is for newcomers to reach “self-sufficiency.”
How much help a family needs, varies.
“If the parents are working and the kids are in school and they’ve gotten their routine down, they might not need us. They might come in if they get an unexpected or unfamiliar bill in the mail or need to sign up for health insurance or a 401k or something else they need guidance on. Then we have some cases where a child might be disabled or the family really needs someone to help navigate the health care system, and there we’ll do more intensive case managing for a period or long-term basis.”
Regardless, she said, “the door is always open.”
Omaha has some fairly well-established refugee communities.
“The Sudanese have been here a (relatively) long time and they have quite a robust community,” she said. “The Karen from Burma are just exceptionally organized and cohesive. They’re building a multi-million dollar church and community center. We have about 5,000 refugees from Burma that live in Omaha and over 400 families have purchased homes — a lot within the first two years they lived here. They’re working at meatpacking plants, their kids are going to college with full ride scholarships because they’re such excellent students.
“The Bhutanese community is really rising.”
Whatever the group, Studnicka said gratitude and generosity abound.
“They may have nothing but will always want to feed you and give you gifts, et cetera. Hospitality is a common thread amongst all the groups we welcome.”
For Studnicka, it’s a no-brainer that an immigrant nation like America should welcome newcomers who bring good spirits, high aspirations, strong work ethic and rich culture.
“It really just blows my mind anyone would be afraid of refugees. What are you afraid of – delicious food?”
Those who’d block certain groups, she said, have unfounded fears, inflamed by rhetoric.
“I think fear is a powerful political tool. It wins elections and races. It’s a lesson to all of us to be mindful and to get education.”
She invites the public to be neighbors, not strangers.
“Come to the airport and welcome them. Tour our center to meet them and learn about them. Let’s just get it all on the table.”
Two events this summer offer meet and greet opportunities: The June 30 World Refugee Day festival at Joslyn Art Museum and the August 4 New American Arts Festival in Benson.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The new administration is issuing its first immigration orders as we go to press. Local groups, especially the ones mentioned in this story, are organizing now to respond to changes that threaten decades of proven, peaceful resettlement processes, with little to no promise of improving safety, while feeding into and supporting extremist narratives and recruitment. Stay tuned to follow-up coverage online at TheReader.com.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.