President Donald Trump’s executive orders that suspended immigration earlier this year brought worldwide attention to the plight of refugees and immigrants.
Lincoln, Nebraska, has a long history of offering refugees a new home, so students in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Nebraska Mosaic journalism course decided to take an in-depth look at the city’s role in the resettlement of the world’s refugees. Their stories focus on these questions:
- Who are the refugees in Lincoln and why do they come?
- How do these refugees benefit the greater Lincoln community?
- How has the national anti-immigration rhetoric affected refugees and immigrants here?
- What misconceptions do Nebraskans have about immigration?
Students interviewed refugees, employers, refugee advocates, educators, friends of refugees, rural and urban Nebraskans, social workers and educators to provide perspective about Lincoln and its role as a refuge on the prairie.
In an increasingly turbulent world, Lincoln and the state of Nebraska have played a steady part in the resettling of refugees. For almost half of a century, many of those forced from their homes found new ones here in the middle of America — whether they came in the 1970s to flee a Communist regime or they arrived a week ago to escape the terror of ISIS.
The tide of refugees into Lincoln has ebbed and flowed as the world’s latest tragedies simmer, boil over or erupt. Southeast Asia. The Balkans. Sudan. Somalia. Iraq. Ukraine. Myanmar (also known as Burma).
Last year was a milestone in the state’s history. Nebraska settled more refugees per capita than any other state in the country (76 per 100,000 Nebraskans, according to the Refugee Processing Center in the State Department). Nebraska had been climbing toward its record per capita rate for years, but 2016 was its biggest. It accepted roughly 1,750 refugees, a more than 50 percent increase from 2015 (according to the RPC).
How the state came to be a per capita national leader is a combination of interconnected factors that include the state’s history, economy and attitude.
Lincoln has always played a big role in resettlement. In fact, from 1997 to 2000 more than 80 percent of all refugees resettled in Nebraska were resettled in Lincoln. In 2000, 91 percent of all refugees resettled in Nebraska (501) were resettled in Lincoln, while only 9 percent (55) were resettled in Omaha, according to a University of Nebraska-Lincoln Center for Great Plains study. (But in subsequent years, the state’s largest city has taken a greater share, far surpassing Lincoln. Since 2002, Omaha has resettled 6,038 while Lincoln has resettled 2,973.)
The State Department took notice of the way Lincoln was resettling Southeast Asian refugees and named it a refugee destination. The city’s low cost of living, availability of jobs and the efficiency of the city’s two resettlement agencies contributed to the success.
As Lincoln continued through the years to settle more refugees from new countries, its national reputation solidified.
Meanwhile, the ebb and flow of refugees continued as political crises arose throughout the world.
With the new millennium, Lincoln had found itself caught up in the after-effects of another conflict in a far-away place. The Karen ethnic minority faced danger from the Burmese military in response to their calls for more autonomy from the central Burmese government. The conflict between the groups had been going on the end of World War II, but came to a head in the 1980s and resulted in the violent suppression of the Karen.
Since 2002, Lincoln resettled 853 Burmese, making Burma among the most common countries of origin of refugees settled in Lincoln. From 2002 to the present, 4,876 Burmese were settled in Nebraska.
Yet the numbers are expected to dramatically decline this year, state officials say. The Karen refugee camps on the Burma-Thailand border are emptying out, and there are fewer family tie cases to settle, said Karen Parde, Nebraska’s state refugee coordinator.
Meanwhile, the state has seen an uptick in refugees from Iraq. Resettlement numbers picked up in 2014 with 249 Iraqis settling in Nebraska, and numbers have only increased from there. Nebraska settled 419 Iraqis in 2016, and 326 thus far in the 2017 fiscal year.
In Lincoln, Iraqi refugees are the most prevalent of the new arrivals: Lincoln accepted 1,203 of the 1,286 Nebraska resettled since 2002. A large number of the Iraqis resettled here since 2007 — 386 — hold special visas given to those who served in the U.S. military as translators. (The 386 doesn’t include family members of visa holders who also were resettled.)
A majority of the Iraqis settled in Nebraska are Yazidi, an ethnically Kurdish religious community that has been persecuted since the days of the Ottoman Empire and has been subject to programs of Arabization and Kurdification against threat of violence. More recently, ISIS has has forced many Yazidis from their homes as they terrorize them with kidnappings, killings and sex slavery.
Lincoln Yazidis estimate the size of their community at 2,000 people. Family tie cases, with the resulting secondary migration, could keep this population growing.
Lincoln continues to be an attractive city for refugees. It maintains its low cost of living and availability of housing and jobs. It’s safe. And the city’s two resettlement agencies have a demonstrated record of efficient resettlement.
“I think it’s an attractive place for people to come because there are a lot of jobs available and they pay decently,” said Ryan Overfield, manager of the refugee employment and education program at Lutheran Family Services said.
Lutheran Family Services’ refugee employment program has a wide network of employers willing to find work for refugees, he noted.
“We see employers, some obviously have concerns about the level of English they might need for certain positions, but we’ve received a great reception from employers,” he said. “They’re really eager to have more folks applying and to fill jobs that they have open.”
In 2013, Lincoln was named one of the Top 10 welcoming cities in America. Welcoming America, the organization that bestowed the designation, cited Lincoln’s efforts to integrate immigrants into the community by creating a welcoming atmosphere that embraces people from all nationalities and backgrounds.
For many, it might seem contradictory that a conservative red state that voted for Trump is a national per capita leader in resettlement and is home to a Top 10 welcoming city. But not to Courtney Hillebrecht, a political science associate professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
“Nebraska is a very conservative state, but it’s also a very religious state,” she said. “We have this religious community that is very robust in Lincoln and in Omaha so serving is kind of the main driver of bringing refugees into this state. And what that is doing is cross-cutting this partisan divide with respect to refugees.”
Where Lincoln and the state go from here is unclear. With the most recent disruption in the ebb and flow — the dramatic immigration executive orders made in the early days of the Trump administration — speculation about resettlement trends and the state’s role in them are more difficult to make than in previous years.
The executive order suspended the refugee admissions program for 120 days; capped at 50,000 refugees for the 2017 fiscal year (down from Obama’s 110,000 ceiling); indefinitely blocked entrance by Syrian refugees; and suspended for 90 days refugees from Syria, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen and Syria.
That order later was revised to remove Iraq from the list of countries facing a 90-day suspension.
Both orders are working their way through the U.S. federal courts.
Jason Shaneyfelt contributed to this report.
The personal stories of Lincoln’s refugees are diverse and poignant.
Some endured harrowing journeys on the seas or on foot while others simply boarded a plane. Some lived in refugee camps for a few months — or for decades; others lived in hiding.
The reasons they sought shelter are just as varied and gripping — war, persecution, political turmoil.
But they all share one thing in common: They had to flee, leaving behind loved ones and the lives they once had.
Here are the stories of four of Lincoln’s new Americans: a Vietnamese seamstress, an Iraqi interpreter, a Croatian public health worker and a South Sudanese relief organizer. They share their recollections about why they fled and how they found new homes in Lincoln.
By Alanna Johnson
It was well past midnight in the city of Saigon in 1985 when May Nguyen and her family made the decision. The mother of two toddlers was pregnant. Her husband, Diep, who had served as a South Vietnam Marine, was in danger of being sent back to a prison camp, where he had spent three years.
It was time.
The family would flee by boat. May Nguyen’s hope was to keep the family together and escape the clutches of the North Vietnam’s communistic government. She wanted to raise a family without fear.
“We needed to get out of Vietnam because my husband could go to jail at any time again,” she said.
He was among the military and government workers who were imprisoned at re-education camps because of their support of the South.
Twenty-eight-year-old May had lost her job as a school teacher when the Communist government replaced her.
She would have to leave behind her mother and six sisters and her homeland.
Was the journey going to be worth it?
In the early dawn, May grabbed one daughter and Diep grabbed the other. They took nothing else as they headed into the dark streets and made their way to the coast.
They boarded a small boat crowded with more than 100 people also anxious to leave Vietnam. May handed over five bars of gold, which ensured passage for the family. As the boat left the dock, she watched the panicked people left behind because they didn’t have enough money.
The days on the tiny boat were frightening. The waves seemed to tower over them. The young parents desperately clung to their children. After three days, the water and food ran out. One of their daughters was so hungry and thirsty that she scratched May’s face until it bled.
Somewhere between the Gulf of Thailand and the Java Sea, the boat arrived at what May described as an off-shore oil rig. The people in the boat were instructed to make a harrowing leap from the boat onto the rig. With a daughter in her arms, May carefully jumped — and made it to the structure, where food and water awaited them.
“If we wouldn’t have stopped there, we could have died,” she said.
They soon found themselves on a bigger ship, which was staffed with a doctor. A day and night later they arrived in Indonesia, where a square metal room at a refugee camp would be their new home for a year. May sold her wedding ring to buy toothbrushes and shoes for the family.
May also gave birth to her third baby girl at the camp.
During their time in Indonesia, the Nguyens had contacted a Vietnamese family they knew were living in Lincoln. The family encouraged them to join them.
In September 1986, the family boarded a plane for San Francisco. Resettlement agency members met the family when they landed, paid for a hotel room and took them out for Chinese food.
From there, they flew to Lincoln, where their friends met them. They lived with the family in cramped quarters until the Nguyens moved into a one-bedroom apartment.
Diep worked nights at Farmland Foods, cutting meat for eight hours. May stayed home to take care of the kids, but she wanted to do more. So she got two jobs, although she didn’t tell her husband she had applied because he didn’t want her working.
She worked at an alterations store near 27th and Vine streets and at Centurion, where she pieced cellphone batteries together on an assembly line.
The two jobs proved their worth in more ways than one. May’s boss at the alterations store quizzed her for the citizenship test during downtime and her English began to improve dramatically when she interacted with customers.
Acclimation wasn’t always easy. For Diep, who rarely got the chance to practice his English, it was especially difficult, May said.
But they worked hard, and 10 years later, the couple saved enough to buy a vacant store near 33rd Street and Pioneers Boulevard where May could have her own alterations shop. She had made clothes for her children and had learned the skills at her alterations job. Still, she was nervous.
“Even if we try to open, there won’t be many people,” May recalls about that first day in 2001, where big red and white letters announced the opening of “May’s Alterations.”
But May has always had a sense for when the time was right.
Business was slow at first. Customers were patient with her as she hemmed and sewed her best.
She is so busy now that she has three other Vietnamese who work for doing alterations from their homes.
May, now 61, visits Vietnam was much as she can. Her most recent trip was for three weeks in April 2016. Otherwise, she keeps in contact via FaceTime and Skype. She wants to make sure her four daughters have a relationship with their grandmother, aunts and uncles.
“We are lucky,” she said of the family’s life in America. “My daughters are all in college. I’m happy.”
“When we come here, we were lucky.”
By Andy Vipond
In 2009, Harman Aljawhari found himself in a dangerous limbo in his native Iraq. ISIS wanted him dead because he had served alongside American soldiers, including U.S. Navy Seal Chris Kyle, made famous in the movie “American Sniper.”
So for seven long years, Aljawhari said, he lived in fear that ISIS would discover his whereabouts. He couldn’t talk to his family or friends. Even childhood friends with whom he grew up with in Duhok in northern Iraq couldn’t be trusted. He worried about trusting anyone. Family and friends were equally fearful of their own lives because of their association with him.
He grew out his hair and beard — anything to change his appearance. He moved between Duhok and Erbil, also in northern Iraq. At one point, he traveled to Istanbul, Turkey, with plans to move on to Europe until he realized it was nearly impossible to enter Europe safely.
Those seven years were the worst of his life, even worse than the war, when he accompanied U.S. troops as a translator and saw horrors at every turn. But then, in 2016, his Special Immigrant Visa was granted, thanks in large part, he said, to Douglas Whittaker, an Army sergeant who served with Aljawhari and helped speed up the process.
“He was a very good man to me and helping me out,” Aljawhari said. “I cannot thank him enough for what he did.”
Aljawhari, 29, moved to the United States in 2016 with his wife and infant son. He was originally resettled in Florida, but moved to Lincoln just two days later. He had done his homework on U.S. locations.
“When you move to a new country, you have to do your research before you pick a place to go,” he said. “Lincoln is a small enough city for my family and me. It’s a good city.”
Lincoln has provided him a new culture and a new way of life for his family. He is grateful to be able to come to the U.S. He said he didn’t want his infant son to grow up and witness what he had seen during the war.
Aljawhari spent three years in the Army as part of the Special Immigrant Visa program, which allowed Iraqis to work for the U.S. Armed Forces as interpreters then apply for a visa to stay in the U.S. after their service was completed.
But the everyday fighting he experienced took a toll, he said. His daily routine was the same.
“You wake up for breakfast and you see heads on backpacks, people sleeping. Lunch is fighting. Dinner is hoping you don’t die at any moment,” Aljawhari said. “That was the routine for three years, and I still have vivid pictures and can hear the noises of bombs going off. I’m still paranoid. I always feel like someone is behind me, ready to kill me.”
Yet he is proud of the work he and his Army unit undertook to help provide for the people of the U.S. Aljawhari said he unit called him a soldier rather than an interpreter — and he said was ready to die with them.
During different missions Aljawhari moved between three bases, most of them within an hour of Baghdad. He went on several missions with Kyle, a sniper who served four tours in the Iraq War. In one of those those, Aljawhari and his unit were trying to locate a sniper in a village. He remembers Kyle didn’t move for 48 hours and maintained his sniping position the entire time.
“We were helping him with whatever he needed, to pee, eat, whatever,” Aljawhari said. “Chris was so silent. He was a killing machine, I think he lost his emotions somewhere along the way.”
Kyle was honorably discharged from the Navy in 2009 and published his autobiography “American Sniper” in 2012. He and a friend were shot to death in 2013 at a gun range outside of Forth Worth, Texas, by an ex-Marine with a history of mental illness.
Serving in the U.S. Army wasn’t something Aljawhari could have imagined growing up in Duhok. After graduating from high school in 2003, he worked for an oil company. That was the same year the U.S. had invaded the country to depose Saddam Hussein.
Later Aljawhari learned about the SIV program, which he saw as an opportunity to better his own life. He was promised that if he worked with the Army for one year, he and his family members would get visas to come to the United States.
The process to become an interpreter, which leads to the SIV, lasted the entire three years and included many tests. The Army kept testing Aljawhari to be sure he could be trusted.
“There are many background checks, language tests, reading and writing tests, body checks and you can’t go anywhere, no contact with family even” he said. “They put you in a tent for 10 days alone and keep questioning you to see if they can trust you.”
While the war took its toll and the seven years in hiding was traumatic, the effects on family members in Iraq is an even greater burden, he said. The second day he was in the U.S., he applied for his brother and sister to travel here. Aljawhari has no idea how long it will take to get his family members here, if at all.
“I blame myself and my family does too. They think I ran away, but I did it for them,” he said. “I show them I have my bag ready for the door the minute I come back to them to let them know I haven’t forgotten about them.”
He deeply regrets putting family members’ lives at risk.
“I’ve lost 11 members of my family, all relatives and cousins, since I joined the Army,” he said. “ISIS wants me dead because I helped the Army rather than join them.”
Aljawhari says it is heart-wrenching for refugees and immigrants to leave their families and home country behind.
Aljawhari is now an interpreter at several Lincoln hospitals, helping patients communicate and get the medical help they need.
“I believe in hope,” he said. “I look at my son and realize that’s why I am here.”
While Aljawhari knows he is making his life better here, he also is conflicted because family members and other refugees have to deal with terror everyday.
“I just want everyone to realize we are all the same, we are all humans,” he said. “In the end, I am 100 percent happy with my different life but also sad with it.”
By Madeline Christensen
Even though she was young, Adrijana Pušnik has vivid memories of refugee life in Metković, Croatia, where she spent her first five years after her family fled from Bosnia and Herzegovina.
She remembers the hunger pangs, chronic diarrhea and donated clothes. The family was crammed into a tiny room in an old building turned into a refugee housing.
But she has good memories, too. She remembers the sparkling turquoise water of the sea, the palm trees and the pomegranates. The Adriatic in the summertime feels like swimming in a bathtub, and her connection to it runs deep — she’s named after it, after all.
Once she found a turtle that became a beloved playmate to her and the local kids. When her family received word in 1999 that they’d be heading to Lincoln as refugees, she had tried to pack it in her suitcase.
Today, Pušnik lives in Denver, where a turtle figurine sits in her bedroom. It’s a small reminder of where she came from and the sacrifices her parents made to give her and her younger brother a future in America.
“As kids, I think we try to make sense of the world, and my parents tried to protect both my brother and I,” she said. “But I was curious and I had questions. I knew, growing up, there weren’t good things around me. But we did our best.”
Pušnik was born in 1991 in the city of Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a warzone during the Croatian War of Independence. The hospital she was born in was bombed, and to avoid persecution for their ethnicity, her family fled across the border to Metković, Croatia.
Pušnik was born the year Croatia declared its independence from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The majority of Croats wanted Croatia to become a sovereign country, but ethnic Serbs living in Croatia opposed the succession. Religious and ethnic differences were the roots of a longstanding tension throughout the population.
Croatian Serbs in the east of the country expelled Croats with the aid of the Yugoslav army, and Pušnik’s parents were forced to cross the border into Croatia with their first newborn in tow. Pušnik became malnourished because her mother could not breastfeed.
The United Nations set up four protected areas in Croatia, and in 1992, 14,000 UN troops kept Croats and Serbs apart.
“If you can imagine, it’s been centuries of propaganda and hatred against a certain group,” she said. “It’s that kind of mentality, like in this nation right now — an ‘us against them’ kind of thing.”
Her younger brother, now a junior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, was born in Metković a few years later.
Growing up, she remembers her parents struggling and working long days doing whatever jobs they could find to get by. They were surrounded by poverty — even clean water was hard to come by.
“I remember life being really difficult,” she said. “I remember being hungry and not having enough food. My brother would get most of the nutritious food that we could afford or that we’d grow ourselves. We were all pretty malnourished, and being a little girl, I needed all the nutrients I could get.”
Tensions during the war were high, and living in Croatia as a refugee was difficult.
“The local Croatians did not really like their homeland being invaded,” she said. “I remember being picked on at school because I was a refugee from Bosnia — I wasn’t what they called a ‘true Croat.’”
Pušnik’s clothes came from donations from international organizations. She used to pick out T-shirts with English writing on them. Although she had no idea what the words meant, she laughs when she remembers that they made her feel stylish.
“To me, America was — you know, like in the 1800s, the land of gold,” she said. “The opportunities seemed endless. You’re not hungry, and you’re clean.”
They had lived as refugees for six years, until one day when her father heard that the United States and Canada were accepting refugees. The family soon began the vetting process. This meant waking up at sunrise to take the bus to Split, where the family would go through what seemed like countless interviews and screenings at the immigration agency. Physical examinations were stressful. Any disease — even cancer — could bar your entrance to the U.S.
By the end of the bus ride home late at night, they would be exhausted.
The trips and vetting process continued for two years.
“My mom had almost given up, but my father … his dad was dying, and my grandpa’s wish was for us kids to have a better life. Because my grandparents lived through World War II and then there was the Yugoslavian war, they understood the trauma and the hardship. I think they didn’t want my brother and I growing up in that environment, especially being so young. They always talked about us going to school and following our dreams.”
Finally, in the spring of 1999, the family received a phone call: They were going to Lincoln, Nebraska.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” she said.
All Pušnik knew about Nebraska came from a library book, which only described the farmland; she thought they might live with a pig. But instead, Catholic Social Services staff helped them settle into an apartment decorated with second-hand furnishings, including a 1970s lava lamp. A sign in the dining area said “welcome” in Croatian.
“It was misspelled,” she said. “But it was really touching.”
Pušnik entered the third grade at Holmes Elementary only knowing the English words “apple” and “blankie.” But she found sanctuary in her small English Learned Language class.
A year later, she had tested out of ELL classes and transferred to McPhee elementary, which was closer to their apartment. McPhee wasn’t as diverse as her old school, and kids made fun of her thick accent.
“In fifth grade, I really came to terms with the fact that I was going through an identity crisis,” she said. “I started becoming an interpreter for my parents.”
Pušnik’s parents had difficulty finding jobs. Her father was overworked and underpaid in the construction business. Her mother hurt her shoulder working a housekeeping job.
Pušnik soon became an expert in Nebraska’s workers’ compensation laws.
The harder her parents worked and the more income they made, the less welfare and food stamps they would receive. It became harder to make ends meet. Pušnik’s father soon took a job at a Crete slaughtering plant.
“People made comments — and they still do — that immigrants were stealing their jobs,” she said. “But my father was slaughtering pigs for almost nothing an hour in 36 degree weather. He’d put in eleven-hour days. My mom used to get up at 4 in the morning to clean at Bryan Hospital so she could pick us up from school.”
The resilience of her parents has inspired Pušnik.
“They always said, ‘We will do anything for you kids,’” she said. “’We’ll go through fire and ice and storms and tornadoes.’”
Pušnik’s childhood memories of being hungry and her experiences with public health services motivated her to study nutrition health sciences as an undergraduate at UNL and continue on to graduate school for public health. Today, she works in a children’s hospital that serves underprivileged populations.
She also is heavily involved with pro-immigration groups that deal with public health initiatives and food access in Denver. She said she’s angry about current political climate in the U.S. about immigrants and refugees. She’s angry because she knows what it is like to live with nothing.
“We lived at rock bottom for five or six years,” she said. “My parents got married in 1990, they had a beautiful apartment, they had me — they had this whole life planned. And then suddenly, someone comes to your house and tells you to get out because of your religious and ethnic background. Suddenly you’re a disease of society that needs to be exterminated. That’s exactly what it was — one group trying to exterminate the other. It really makes me think about what I want to do with my life and how it impacts who I surround myself with.”
People never think it will happen to them, Pušnik said.
“If whenever groups are being marginalized, you don’t speak up because it’s not your problem, when it comes to your group, who is going to stand up for you?”
By Mekenzie Kerr
Born in 1987 in South Sudan during the Second Sudanese Civil War, Jacob Manyang’s early memories are of gunfire, bombs and death. His native village, Bor, was often invaded by Northern Sudanese soldiers in search of South Sudanese soldiers. They killed anyone they could find and burned down buildings.
The violence continued to escalate, and after a devastating attack in 1991, Manyang and his mother, father, older sister and brother fled and began a six-year odyssey. The family moved from village to village to stay safe in the midst of war.
They would sometimes have to walk for days. Manyang was only 4 when their journey began.
“It was confusing,” he said. “I was always tired because I had to try to walk and if I couldn’t walk my dad would carry me.”
During this journey, Manyang’s pregnant mother died for lack of medicine and his father was captured by military police. (Manyang would find out a year later that his father had been killed by his captors.) Along the way Manyang lived with his cousins, who also became displaced and joined him as he fled from town to town. His sister was married in a town called Manghali, and the two were separated.
Manyang, his brother and cousins settled in the Dimma Refugee Camp in 1997. Here he could get some education, build a house and settle down. Although refugee camps offered more safety than war-torn Sudan, there were struggles.
“There were fights that would start as a conflict between two people, escalating to sub-cultural or sub-tribe fights and the military would come to stop them,” he said. “They would beat people with sticks and guns, and it didn’t matter if you were involved or not, they’d beat whoever they could find.”
Then, after eight years in the camp, a chance at hope came.
Manyang was told he and his family might have the opportunity to leave Dimma. A chance to leave behind the war, a chance to find a way to help his community stuck in the refugee camps, victims of war.
After a year’s worth of rigorous interviews, medical checks and paperwork, he learned that he would be resettling in America.
“We watched a lot of videos about the United States, so we were excited, but we didn’t know what to expect,” Manyang said. “We knew it was going to be a better place, so we were mostly excited.”
On Feb. 18, 2006, Manyang landed at the Eppley Airfield in Omaha. He was alone; his brother and cousins would join him a few months later.
“Oh man, my first day was crazy, I don’t even know how to use television,” he said. “Someone came to show me everything, but seeing it for the first time and walking around and trying it myself I couldn’t figure out most things.”
One of Manyang’s first biggest feats was cooking, a task culturally done by women back home.
“I opened my freezer and found a chicken, I didn’t know what it was,” he said. “I tried to cut it but it didn’t work so I just put it back.”
After some adjusting, Manyang began a full-time job at Tyson making boxes and packaging meat, took English classes and graduated from Metro Community College with an associate’s degree in liberal arts. Shortly after these accomplishments, he moved to Lincoln to pursue his bachelor’s degree, knowing he wanted to do work in agriculture.
“Most refugees have more difficulties because we’re trying to help family back home, be a student, but also work full-time,” he said. “So you have to study at night and no one to help you.”
Despite long days of work and studies, Manyang was able to thrive. To work toward his goal to send help and hope back to South Sudan, he founded Save South Sudanese Orphans and Widows in 2013. The UNL-based group was formed to create awareness on the issues facing South Sudanese refugees and to raise money to help them.
After three years of work, school and running his organization, Manyang graduated in 2015 with a bachelor’s in agronomy and is working as a direct service professional for Developmental Services of Nebraska. But agriculture is not his passion. He wants his money and education in America to benefit his community back home.
With his degree, Manyang wants to teach the South Sudanese communities about agriculture. He plans to teach people about different crops, which will grow best on the kind of land they own, which are most nutritive for consumption and how to sell them to make a profit.
“The reason I studied agronomy is not because I like to do farming, but I like to be able to help people. I understood food security was one of my biggest issues growing up, no matter if the country is in war or not, food will always be an issue,” he said. “I plan to make sure my organization can progress to the level to have funding to go back and train orphans, widows and elders how to grow crops.”
Manyang also desires to challenge the major corporations and organizations sending money to refugee camps to ask if they understand the realities a refugee faces. From his time in Dimma, Manyang watched as food given by UNICEF and UNCR was handed off to refugee camp leaders, taken for their personal gain and then unfairly distributed. When these organizations’ leaders visited, the people who ran the camp would lie and run it differently to leave a positive impression.
“I now have the capacity to give awareness to refugees. I have always wanted to reach out to big organization leaders helping refugees and ask if they really know what’s going on in refugee camps,” he said. “The way refugees are treated, how resources are spent, and having the leaders get education of the things they don’t know – the things that are really happening.”
Armed with compassion, Manyang plans to continue dedicating his work to helping the refugees of South Sudan.
For some Americans, the Great Recession of 2008 brought the death of the American Dream.
Yet many refugees and immigrants still fiercely believe in America as the “land of opportunity.”
Anwar Rida is one of those immigrants.
The Iraq-born Rida, who was close to obtaining a law degree in Syria, realized his opportunities there were bleak, so he joined family members and immigrated to America in 1999.
He put his head down and worked hard, despite feeling disrespected and stunted by some employers. But everything changed in 2001 when he took a job at Total Manufacturing Co. in Lincoln.
Rida, who started as a machine operator, was promoted to president of the company last year.
His success story is no surprise to his boss, CEO Roland Temme, who founded the metal manufacturing services company in 1974.
“When they come over here, they’re seeking the American dream and the opportunity to start a new life,” he said of immigrants and refugees. “They work harder. Because they believe if you work hard you’ll find success.”
Rida’s story is one of many in Nebraska. Lincoln can boast numerous success stories, both big and small. A top-selling Realtor. A shopping center owner who helped revitalize a neighborhood. A student artist trying to highlight the works of people of color. Day care center operators who nurture 46 children.
Aside from their personal successes, these workers and entrepreneurs make a bigger mark in their communities. Consider these statistics:
- In 2014, immigrants in Nebraska earned $2.5 billion. More than $200 million went to state and local taxes, and an additional $380 million went to federal taxes, according to the New American Economy.
- The age of immigrants also greatly benefits the economy. More than 73 percent of the foreign-born population in Nebraska are of working age—between the ages of 25 and 64, according to the demographic section of the New American Economy report. Less than half of the native-born population is of working age.
- Immigrant-owned businesses currently employ 16,000 people in Nebraska, according to one study.
- Immigrants were almost twice as likely to start a new business in 2015 than the native-born population, according to The Kauffman Foundation, a nonprofit group that studies entrepreneurship.
Hard work is part of the refugee and immigrant mentality, said Vladmir Oulianov, who emigrated from Moscow, Russia, in 1997.
“You come from a situation where you do not have much,” Oulianov said. “You’re raised in countries where you work hard and that determines your success in life. You work seventy and eighty hours a week and try to be an example for your kids.”
This mentality has worked for him as he was Woods Bros Realty Salesperson of the Year in 2016, in addition to winning four other sales awards.
For another immigrant, Thuy Nguyen, a drive to succeed in business ultimately resulted in big benefits for a blighted neighborhood. City officials cite her family’s 13,000-square-foot strip mall as one of the newest examples of redevelopment along North 27th Street, an area business owners and the city have been trying to revitalize.
And the mall also has helped launch new businesses, such as the popular Bánhwich Café.
“I think we’ve had a very positive influence on the area,” Nguyen said. “Lincoln is a great place for an immigrant to start a business. It’s a diverse and welcoming place.”
Nguyen, a Vietnamese refugee who came to Lincoln in 1980 when she was 14, opened Little Saigon Oriental Market in 1992.
“We needed an international grocery store,” she said. “There wasn’t a place like (Little Saigon) anywhere in town.”
When Little Saigon Oriental Market opened, it became one of the pioneer businesses on North 27th Street. The business has expanded four times in 25 years — and now is part of the larger Saigon Plaza. In addition to the grocery store and Bánhwich Café, the shopping center houses a Vietnamese restaurant, a hair salon and a space for an additional entrepreneur.
Throughout its history, the business has been a family affair, Nguyen said. All four of her children — Linh, Danny, My-Khahn and Jessica — have worked, or still work, at the store. Daughter My-Khahn opened a Vietnamese restaurant, Pho Factory, in the mall in 2012.
Nguyen said the grocery keeps growing because it is a staple for Vietnamese and Asian families in the area. It carries special cuts of fish and crab, fresh vegetables and brands not found at other grocery stores in Lincoln.
“We have a lot of regular customers we see every week,” said son Danny Nguyen. “But we also see a lot of people who I think want to try something new.”
But it’s not just in the business sector in Lincoln that new Americans are leaving their mark.
Immigrant Letura Idigima is working on a more cultural enterprise. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln student and fellow student Lexis Harris plan to launch an online and print magazine called “Gumbo,” featuring art media done by local artists of color.
Idigima was born in a refugee camp in 1996. Her parents fled Nigeria after her father was arrested and set to be executed for his opposition to the pipelines there. Idigima’s family arrived in Lincoln in 1998.
She said being a member of a refugee family has contributed to her strong work ethic.
The criminal justice major is excited to work on a magazine that will showcase Lincoln artists.
“There are a lot of artists of color in Lincoln, but not everyone has the opportunity, or the pedestal to share their art,” she said. “We plan on broadcasting unseen art.”
At another immigrant-owned business in Lincoln, the focus is on a different type of product: children.
The Little Flower Childcare Center is run by six missionary sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Queen of Mercy congregation. The nuns emigrated from Vietnam in 1985 to help care for refugees in Lincoln, said Sister Rosaria Hoang, one of the original 10 nuns who came.
Only later did the sisters get involved in day care, but it turned out to be a popular endeavor. What started as an in-home day care grew and they moved to their current location at 9141 S. 78th St. in 2012. The center now cares for 46 children from six weeks up to five years old — and it’s always full.
That’s because the sisters have built trust with parents, Hoang said, and they have peace of mind when they go to work.
“We want to nurture the children when they are little,” she said. “We teach them so they’ll be successful in school as well as spiritually, physically and mentally.”
Encouraging entrepreneurship among immigrants and cultivating new American workers requires some effort, but those who lead such efforts said it pays off.
The Rural Enterprise Assistance Program, which has helped finance small businesses in communities outside Lincoln and Omaha since 1990, has seen a dramatic increase in activity. When Juan Sandoval started as the program’s Latino business center director in 2010, he issued 12 loans. Last year, he issued 50 totaling over $600,000. These loans help a variety of businesses like construction companies, restaurants and food trucks that go on to employ hundreds of rural Nebraskans get started.
“The more people we help, the faster the word spreads about our loan services,” he said.
In addition to loan assistance, the rural program provides small business training. Sandoval said more than 1,000 Latino business owners and employees have been counseled by the program since the start of 2016.
Such support is important, says Temme, the CEO at Total Manufacturing Co., where 30 percent of hte workforce are refugees and immigrants. The company often brings in translators for new hires and provides English classes on Fridays to help new Americans learn the language because learning English can be a large barrier to success.
Temme believes this initial investment is more than paid off in the work and dedication these people bring to the company.
“You have to do some things to make it work really well at first,” he said. “You have to have patience and understanding. But given the opportunity to work in the right job, they’re the best part of our employees. They give of themselves the most.”
In the three months since she’s befriended an Iraqi family, Michelle DeRusha has felt her perspective about life and the world shift dramatically.
Before, DeRusha described herself as sheltered and apolitical. She admitted that she hadn’t given much thought to the plight of refugees. She was focused on her own family — two young sons and a husband.
Now, she and her family have been inspired by their new Yazidi friends.
DeRusha is one of many Lincoln residents who say their lives have been changed — and enriched — by the refugees they’ve had the opportunity to meet.
Here are some of their stories of friendship:
By Madison Wurtele
Michelle DeRusha first met Azzat Aldake, his wife, Afia, and their four children in December at the Lincoln Municipal Airport at the end of a long and arduous journey for the Iraqi refugees.
DeRusha and her family had volunteered to sponsor the Yazidi family and help ease their transition into America. She and other volunteers had transformed an empty apartment into a home filled with furniture, food and clothing.
Everyone was a bit anxious and tentative.
DeRusha admitted that she, her husband, Brad Johnson, and two sons, ages 12 and 15, were nervous about interacting with people from a different culture who spoke a different language.
Yet they found common ground.
“It’s amazing how much you can interact with someone without even speaking the same language,” she said. “It’s a beautiful experience.”
The families now get together often for meals and occasional trips around Lincoln. As they’ve become friends, the anxieties have faded.
“They’re not that different from us,” she said. “Their kids love to play on the playground and swing on the swings, and siblings fight. They’re just like my kids.”
Before meeting the Yazidi family, DeRusha said she had not been exposed to different cultures. And she hadn’t thought much about the struggles of refugees.
Now that she has a personal connection, she has a new view. When she hears Azzat tell the story of his family fleeing from ISIS in 2014, she better understands the persecution oppressed people face daily.
“We are just so removed and detached from the reality of it because it’s hard to even fathom,” she said. “We live a very privileged, protected life, most of us, so it’s hard to even wrap your head around it.”
Her relationship with the Aldakes also has made her more politically involved.
“When President Trump passed the ban on refugees, I had a personal investment in it, rallied against it and did things I’ve never done before,” she said. “It’s brought out a new side of me that I haven’t seen before.”
The friendship has changed the perspective of her entire family, she said. They now recognize the privileges they have and are inspired to fight for those who aren’t as privileged.
By Mekenzie Kerr
Anna Spethman has learned a valuable life lesson from her friendship with Jacob Manyang, a South Sudanese refugee.
“He has taught me the true meaning of generosity,” she said. “Helping your fellow man is a true value among the many refugees I have come to know. Jacob embodies this idea in everything he does.”
The two met at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Fall of 2015 Big Red Welcome event, where Manyang was promoting his organization Save South Sudanese Orphans and Widows. The organization raises money to send back to Kakuma refugee camps in Kenya.
Spethman, a global studies major with a regional specialization in African politics and culture, joined the group, and the pair have been working together ever since. She’s now the president.
“Jacob has inspired my future aspirations to pursue a career in international aid and development,” she said. “Hearing about his stories from South Sudan and seeing his resilience in the everyday efforts he makes to send hope to his people has motivated me to help in anyways I can manage.”
Manyang has become an “older brother” and mentor to her and her younger siblings, she said. And while his example motivates Spethman’s professional aspirations, it also inspires her to be giving, thankful and humble in everyday interactions, she said.
As the two work to make Save South Sudanese Orphans and Widows a recognized nonprofit, she said they look forward to what their friendship will bring them — laughter, opportunity and a growing passion to help refugees.
By Mekenzie Kerr
As a case aid for Catholic Social Services, Drew Miller has helped resettle more than 100 refugees since joining the agency in 2013. And in that time, he’s learned a lot about humanity.
“Humans are much more alike than they are different,” he said. “Be yourself. As people, I’ve found we all can bond over food, laughter and enjoying a beautiful day.”
Miller, a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said his political science degree also helps him to find a common ground with refugees.
He has befriended many refugees as part of his job, but he often loses touch once his work with them ends after 90 days. A young family from Darfur is a notable exception; his friendship with them has grown since the day they showed up unexpectedly at CSS in September 2013.
The family — a couple and their child — originally had been sent to Michigan as a result of an agency paperwork error. They then decided to travel on their own to Lincoln because of a connection they had there. Protocol states that if an agency has the means to take a case and they are not overburdened, it is up to them to do so. These cases are called post-arrival transfer cases. Miller, who met the family, had a gut feeling there was something special about them and felt they “would be a good family” to work with.
The woman and her husband were eager to work, continue to learn English and were open to any suggestions Miller had to offer. When he visited them, they always insisted he stay for a cup of tea or coffee. During these visits, they shared more of their story. The young couple had fled Darfur due to war and lived in Turkey for four years before coming to the United States.
“When they shared their life story, it showed their willingness to be vulnerable with me,” he said. “For me, friendships require vulnerability, and it’s something rarely seen these days. So many people have surface-level friendships, but they invited me not only into their home, but into their lives.”
Miller has enjoyed watching the family flourish in Lincoln. The husband is now a car salesman and the wife is finishing her education at a local community college. Their son will be enrolling in school in the fall.
“I always feel like a part of their family when I am with them,” he said. “How many people can feel at home with people in this way? It brought me a lot of peace and purpose in life with this case and friendship.”
By Mekenzie Kerr
When Meredith McGowan signed up as a volunteer to help aging Yazidi women learn to read, write and speak English, she planned to do it for a few months.
“I was told it was a three month project, but I kept coming,” she said. “I’m still here.”
So are fellow volunteers Linda Rabbe and Joan Reist. A year later, the three have stayed involved in the “Grandma Project” because of the relationships they’ve fostered and the progress they’ve seen.
“My time here has reinforced my feelings that it’s important to get to know newcomers to our country and to know how important they are,” Reist said. “This is what we as a community should be about.”
The Grandma Project was created to help teach older Yazidi women how to speak and write English, along with driving lessons. Older refugees have a harder time learning English and venturing out into the new community and are often disadvantaged because of this. The Grandma Project was created to better the living experiences of these women.
Although the volunteers are there to teach the Yazidi women, they say they have learned a lot in the process. They have gained a greater understanding of a new culture, exchanged cultural meals, from dolmas to naan, and better appreciate the opportunities they have as Americans.
Rabbe, program coordinator and driving instructor, has spent time with many Yazidi women while they wait to take their learner’s permit test. She said she has discovered that Yazidis and Americans have fewer differences and share more similarities.
She’s also found a deep connection with the women.
“I don’t have a lot of family or any older relatives, so that really got me interested,” she said. “I feel like they’re kind of like a family to me.”
By Madison Wurtele
In January, Kelly Kuwitzky stood near the Nebraska State Capitol among a crowd of hundreds who were protesting President Trump’s immigration ban. She was there not only as an activist, but as a friend of refugees.
Kuwitzky, a senior family science major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, grew up surrounded by refugees at First Covenant Church of Omaha, which was a place of worship for the Sudanese community.
“From a very young age I experienced traditional Sudanese clothing, scarring, family structure and language,” she said. “I always thought of this as normal. Understanding refugee/immigrant concepts is not a priority when you’re a kid.”
Growing up with the Sudanese and being immersed in their culture has greatly affected Kuwitzky’s outlook on life, she said. She learned not to follow anything blindly because initial instincts can be wrong. The diversity that refugees bring should encourage Americans to challenge their preconceptions and question why they take certain actions, she said. She believes that exposure to other cultures should result in greater introspection.
“There is so much to gain from refugees,” she said. “For me, it’s the differences in culture, creating more of an understanding of your own.”
Kuwitzky grew up spending a lot of time with her pastor and his family who were Sudanese refugees. She and one of the pastor’s daughters were especially close and worked as Sunday school teachers and Bible camp counselors.
“I’ve always thought of her as a pedestal of strength,” Kuwitzky said. “She had lost a lot of family members, and experienced a lot of heartbreak that I saw secondhand.”
The pastor and his family taught Kuwitzky about acceptance, a lesson that has inspired her as an activist and one that she carries with her at every rally, protest and vigil.
By Madison Wurtele
Martha and Lon Sorenson are fondly known as the adoptive “parents” of Karen refugees in Lincoln because of the help and support they have provided to the community for the past eight years.
But their volunteer work doesn’t only benefit refugees — it brings joy and fulfillment to the Sorenson’s retirement years.
Martha began working with the Karen Society Nebraska eight years ago. She taught an English class, and a translator she worked with invited her to get involved with the organization. She has been coming back a few days a week ever since. She answers phone calls, opens mail and whatever else might be needed.
Lon volunteers as a driver. He’s on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and gets called for help with everything from helping repair a car to transporting an expectant mother to the hospital.
“I don’t care what the problem is, they can call him,” Martha said.
Helping the Karen people brings her a sense of purpose, she said.
“If you don’t do some kind of a job that involves you with other people, I think you go nuts in retirement,” she said. “These people who spend all their time golfing or playing cards or something —there’s got to be something missing in their life.”
Martha is currently helping a father and son who are both mentally challenged and have had difficulties obtaining permanent citizenship. The couple has contributed $1,000 of their own money to help pay for legal help.
And they plan to keep helping in any way they can. Martha sees it as her to duty to help refugees because they benefit the community.
“When the refugees come in, it’s just bringing the world together.”
Submitted by Rayna Collins, Lincoln
Driving down my street in the Near South, I saw a group of neighborhood kids gathered around a teenage boy with a pit bull puppy on a rope. As a pit bull lover, I saw this as a dog tragedy waiting to happen. I pulled over, sat down with the kids, and proceeded to lecture the boy on his responsibilities as a dog owner. I ended with, “That’s my house. I’m going out now, but come by tomorrow and I’ll give you a real collar and leash.”
The next day at noon, there he was with his puppy. His name was Saeed. He started coming over every day after school and we’d go out in my yard and watch his puppy, Tank, play with my dogs—a pit bull and a Doberman. And we talked. We talked about dogs. We talked about life. He was an amazing and wonderful kid, with a depth and maturity way beyond the average 16-year old.
His family was Kurdish and had spent five years in a Pakistani refugee camp. He spoke five languages. He once said the best thing about Lincoln is that it’s safe. He told me his teacher tutored him after school “even though she doesn’t have to.” I met his parents and his older brother and sister. I loaned him books and movies.
Then his family had to move to a smaller place and he asked me to keep Tank while they moved. All my friends said, “I guess you have a new dog now.” No, of course not. He picked Tank up a week later. He came by to visit once more after he moved, and then I moved and we lost touch. I miss those visits. He was one of the finest young men I’ve ever met.
Submitted by Nikki Bates, Lincoln
Because of the work of so many wonderful agencies in Lincoln, I have made several friends who are refugees. Here are several stories from places I have made refugee/immigrant friends:
Mena Hope Project
At the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Hope Project, I met Zainab al Baaj. For a short time, I got to tutor some brave Iraqi women who wanted to learn English. During a recent visit, she was — as always — extremely busy. When I arrived, she was helping someone who dropped in with housing questions. She took a call begging her to attend a fundraiser that night (she of course, agreed). She calmed a worried mom who didn’t speak English well to seek legal help for her son. She led a class for Middle Eastern women. Despite all of the urgency surrounding her, she makes everyone feel like they matter. I will never forget the warmth that she has shown to me. I had mentioned in passing that I’d gotten a new job. The next time I saw Zainab, she presented me with a cake and flowers — even though we’d only known each other for a short time! The same overwhelming Iraqi generosity was shown when I dropped by recently with a new baby.
I tutored a Kurdish couple for many years through Lincoln Literacy. The husband was a hard worker, and during our time together, he got a better job and was able to get a house through Habitat for Humanity. That meant working long hours at his job, putting in “sweat equity” to build his family’s home, and studying English with me in the precious free time he had left. His wife already spoke multiple languages. I couldn’t point to Kurdistan on a map and had never heard of the Yazidi religion before meeting them, but they taught me all about the customs. (Did you know Lincoln has the biggest Yazidi population outside of Iraq?) She was always confident and welcoming — inviting me to birthday parties and often offering me homemade yogurt and baklava.(Yum!)
It has been several years since I have seen them, but it was only recently, after becoming a mother myself, that I realized how strong my Iraqi friends really are: They gave birth to two girls during our time together. Their first was born prematurely and had to stay in the NICU. Because her husband had to work, and because she could not drive and they only had one car, the wife was only able to visit her newborn baby when her husband or a friend could take her. Worse yet, there was a particularly bad winter storm during all of this. I remember how she diligently breastfed on the days I was able to take her to the hospital, how she rocked and gazed at her child with so much love, and how much it hurt her when we had to leave.
Through Teammates mentoring, I met a spectacular young woman whose family had fled Sudan and lived in an Ethiopian refugee camp during the Sudanese civil war. She has surpassed every expectation and made me proud at every turn. During our weekly hour together, she was in charge — she could choose to play computer games, play in the gym — whatever. Without fail, she always wanted to use the time to focus on homework. She excelled at multiple sports, participated in multicultural and student council groups, and was always so proud to show off her report card. Her parents both worked full-time jobs, and as the eldest, she did a lot of babysitting for her siblings, which kept her busy. I met her in the 8th grade and got to be her Teammate through graduation. She graduated college early as a student-athlete and is now working toward her masters in psychology. She has surpassed my own level of education, and I couldn’t be prouder. Never in my life have I met someone like her who can set goals, accomplish them and make it look so effortless. Her priorities are laser-focused, and I hope she rubs off on me! We still make a point to go out for lunch together when she’s back in town from college, and I always look forward to our visits.
Catholic Social Services
Finally, through Catholic Social Services, my American family has become friends with a family of refugees from Iraq. Our toddlers like to play together, and their daughters are always eager to talk with us and show us photos. I am FLOORED by how quickly they are learning English. It is amazing to me the amount of work that is required of refugees when they arrive here. Our friends were on a tight deadline to find a job, find an affordable car (that could accommodate their whole family incl. car seats), and learn English — all while navigating a new city and a whole new culture. (Can you imagine that pressure?!) This amazing family just takes it all in stride with heaps of gratitude — for how quiet Lincoln is (no explosions). For public school. For new American friends. And don’t even get me started on that Iraqi generosity again. … If you ever visit their home, you’ll be presented with plates stacked with fruit, bottles of water, glasses filled with fresh-squeezed orange juice, homemade cakes, and you’ll leave with gifts — no matter how hard you try to refuse.
It’s comfortable to hang out with old friends; to go about Lincoln and stick with your normal routine. But I think if more Lincolnites tried making a new friend from another part of the world, they’d find how easy (really!) it is. I hope more people reach out to our newest neighbors at a time when they could really use a friend. Volunteer with one of the many Lincoln agencies who serve new immigrants and refugees. Visit immigrant-owned businesses, restaurants and different places of worship. At a time when America is so divided, we could use some friendship.
Submitted by Geraldine Ann Marshall Mohler, Sacramento, California
In 1975 I was a junior in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln teacher ed program for secondary teachers, getting endorsements in English and reading. UNL Professor Elizabeth Platt invited those in the program to receive some training in ESL and tutor soon-to-arrive Vietnamese refugees. I worked with a high school age boy, meeting with him several times a week. Besides some “lessons,” I remember teaching him how to ride the city bus and the rules of football. I had dinner with his family once and said the Vietnamese word for hello (I thought), but I guess I actually said “frying pan.” I loved this experience and it opened my eyes to the many possibilities a teacher of reading and English could have — even in Nebraska. I met this student seven years later and he was an engineering student at UNL!
I moved to Aurora, Nebraska, after graduating in 1976. Aurora was your typical rural Nebraska community with very little diversity until a local church decided to sponsor a Laotian refugee family. I was a stay-at-home mom and realized I might be the only one in town who knew anything about English as a Second Language so I offered to help. This led to two years of adjunct teaching through the local community college. The sponsoring church provided a place for tutoring the high school age students and adults. The first year I picked many of them up four nights a week and brought them to the church for classes. The second year I recruited, trained and coached volunteers to take on the tutoring. During this time I not only held ESL classes, I volunteered in the high school with several who also attended my night classes, I helped them find jobs, taught them to drive, took them to doctor appointments, and even discovered one child was totally deaf due to his mother contracting German measles when first entering the U.S. I drove them to the doctor appointment in Omaha which confirmed my suspicion.
The original family of eight children (ranging in age from 7 to 21) and the father (the mother died in camp and one other child did not come with the family to the U.S.) had other relatives join them in Aurora over the next several years. My family spent lots of time with the 30 or more refugees who eventually ended up in the area. I attended many celebrations, funerals, and weddings. I learned to love their food and they taught me how to make it. My son was semi-bilingual: He could ask where the toys were and understand the answer, he could count to 10 in Laotian, he knew how to eat sticky rice — all before the age of 3! Several of the families had children my sons’ ages and they were friends in and out of school. I taught many middle schoolers (mostly Spanish-speaking in Grand Island in 1987) to read and speak English and co-directed the school’s Multicultural Club.
To make a lifelong story short, I am now retired after 20 years of teaching in Nebraska, getting my doctorate in education at UNL in 2002, becoming a tenured professor of teacher education in reading and ESL in a California university, and just recently ending my career after seven years at a state agency that accredits all teacher preparation in California. I truly believe that my extreme passion for education began after my first experience with a second language learner. Nebraska did not have much diversity during those earlier years but it has become a very welcoming and nurturing area for many from all over. The most per capita of any state, I understand! The immigrants I had the privilege of working with were some of the best people I have ever known. I would not have had the life that I had, which has been wonderful, if it had not been for those deeply fulfilling, human experiences.
In the middle of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s East Campus, in the middle of the United States, Jacob Manyang calmly tells the story of how he was robbed at gunpoint three months ago on the other side of the world in a refugee camp in Dimma, Ethiopia.
It is a risk the former refugee runs by returning to the place he left over a decade before. Manyang had returned to Ethiopia to help refugees there. But in the dead of night, a local tribe sneaked in and stole food, clothing and whatever they could grab.
“Some refugees are getting killed because they don’t want to give up their food,” he said. “They demand everything, food, clothing and they have guns so no one can stop them. The refugees don’t have any protection.”
Manyang’s goodwill mission is a dramatic example of the lengths former refugees will go to help others. He is one of many former refugees in Lincoln who try to help — in big and small ways. Some take jobs where they help refugees; others volunteer. Some end up helping refugees from different countries, backgrounds and religions than their own. But all of them understand what it is like to flee in fear and be a newcomer in a strange land — and that experience fuels their desire to help.
Before coming to Lincoln, Manyang lived in the Dimma refugee camp from 1997 to 2006, living off the miniscule rations distributed by the United Nations.
“It’s very essential because for me because if it wasn’t because of other people helping me at the time that I was struggling entering the refugee camp or was in South Sudan maybe I wouldn’t have survived,” he said. “For someone like me, you start crying when you look at the situation other people are in and you don’t have enough power or resources to help them. So sometimes I feel like I’m not doing enough.”
In 2013, Manyang founded Save South Sudanese Orphans and Widows. The non-profit organization is aimed at not only providing necessities such as food, water and clothing, but also school supplies and educational resources like pens, paper and notebooks.
“I know the situation of those leaving the refugee camp. When someone is sick or they don’t have food, I know resources they can have,” he said.
Manyang also understands the value education can play in helping refugees create a better life. After leaving the Dimma refugee camp in 2006, Manyang sought an education, earning an associate of science degree in 2012 from Metro Community College in Omaha. A year later he founded Save South Sudanese Orphans and Widows while enrolled at UNL as an agronomy major. He earned his bachelor’s degree in agronomy in 2015.
“Most of them (refugees) are going to try their best to get an education because most of them are behind in education,” he said. “They’re going to try and better their life.”
In the basement of the Good Neighbor Community Center, at the corner of 27th and Y streets in Lincoln, a group of half a dozen strangers from around the world congregate around a table with a common goal: to learn English.
“People who speak English well have a little bell that goes off in their head when they hear English that doesn’t sound good,” Tareq Abdallah said to the group as he wiggles his ear.
Abdallah is their teacher, an Iraqi who has had an affinity for English at a young age. He makes it very clear that he does not teach English for a living. The classes he teaches at Good Neighbor from Monday through Thursday are as a volunteer.
“I help for the same reason anybody helps,” he said. “I saw the people here as nice and I wanted to help.”
In school, he was the best English student in his class. That’s why he speaks fluently enough to teach the language despite only arriving in the United States in 2014. To him, that’s what makes him such an effective teacher. He acts as a bridge between the two languages, slipping between English and Arabic with ease. This gives his students a sense of familiarity and the ability to comfortably ask questions.
“I think that’s why it’s important they have someone who can speak their language. It makes learning much easier,” he said. “Some speak English well; most don’t. I think a lot of them come here because when they’ve taken English classes before, the teacher only speaks in English. The teacher is American. They only know English and only teach in English. So all of them have some concern about learning English because they’ve only been in classes that only speak English.”
Just down the hall from Abdallah’s classroom in the Good Neighbor Center is the office of Zainab Al-Baaj, who coordinates the Middle East North Africa Hope Project, which collaborates with resettlement agencies to help ease refugees’ transition to life in Lincoln. New refugees can shop for new clothes, food and enroll in classes ranging in subjects from English to computers.
Al-Baaj came to the United States from Iraq in 1993 not knowing a word of English.
She found whatever work she could to support her family until she took the job at the Good Neighbor Community Center, where she helps refugees transition to American life.
Al-Baaj knows firsthand the daily struggles many refugees face. She told the story of once spending 45 minutes in a Super Saver trying to find salt.
“I couldn’t read the labels. I couldn’t tell if I was buying sugar or flour or salt,” she said. “So many people take for granted being able to go into a store and find what you need.”
She now counsels refugees who are struggling to find jobs, acquire drivers’ licenses and find resources to better their education.
“I can serve as an example to people just coming here,” she said. “I can say I’ve been in the same situations as you. I know what it’s like to not know how to go to the grocery store and buy groceries. When I came here I knew just as much as you. If I made it so can you.”
Wanting to help other refugees adapt to life in Lincoln is only natural and a great way to pay back those who first helped her adapt, Al-Baaj said,
“I want to help because there were people who helped me when I came to America,” she said. “If I didn’t have people helping me when I got here, where would I be right now? It’s difficult to know.”
In a small classroom tucked away inside Saint Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Gulie Khalaf reminisces about her only memory of Iraq.
“All I know is the dark night we left Iraq, and we had to dress in dark colors. All I know of life in the Middle East is those camps,” she said.
For Khalaf, Syria and Iraq are only a home in name only. She was born in Syria and moved to Iraq at a young age. Her family was then forced to flee during the onset of the Gulf War. Khalaf spent the next 10 years of her childhood in a refugee camp before coming to the United States at the age of 13 in 1998. She remembers the harsh conditions in the camp and the fights that would break out over water.
“The bakery that we had to go get our bread from, it had bugs in the food,” she said. “We decided to take our portion of the flour from the bakery and bake it at home because even though it had bugs they would still bake it. My family, along with other Yazidis, took their portion of flour and tried to sift out the bugs.”
Khalaf now leads several programs at Saint Matthew’s to help refugees adapt, including a digital literacy class that she’s particularly excited about. The class teaches refugees of all ages how to not only read and write in English, but also how to use computers as a tool to further their education.
“In five to 10 years they’re going to be handicapped unless they have some digital literacy. Our life is going to be all digitized,” she said. “Whatever you want to learn, you have a tool that could really get you there. We’re also hoping to give them a tool that will help them learn English faster.”
Even if they don’t pick up on English well, Khalaf said the class is still helpful for teaching people how to find resources in their language online using specific keywords.
“If they don’t know English, we will teach them how to search for Arabic cooking. It will become a tool where you don’t know how to speak English very well. You just need keywords to find things you’re looking for,” she said.
Khalaf feels as though she never had much of a choice but to help others. Upon arriving in the United States, she immediately became the cultural broker for her family. As a 13-year-old, Khalaf made phone calls to doctors and bill collectors or filled out paperwork and job applications for family members and family friends.
“I was saying this is a way out of this misery, but at the same time you sometimes get upset that you have all those responsibilities like a teenager,” she said. “I would sometimes get out of high school. In front of the door is my brother or his friends or whoever waiting for me to get in the car so they could go to one of their appointments to translate or fill out job applications or whatever it was.”
This duty of giving back has followed her into her adult life, Khalaf said
“I want to give because I have the ability to give. I want to give because I don’t want to just take and take up space. I give because there are people who really desperately need someone to reach out to them.
“I’ll give it back to somebody who needs it and hopefully they will do the same thing. If not, that’s OK, but I’m still glad I was able to help them.”
Nine years after helping Americans in Iraq, Basim Alali is helping Iraqis in America.
In 2008, Alali was using his communication skills to help others. Being a translator for the United States Army in Iraq is reminiscent of the work Alali does today in Lincoln. He’s still a translator, working in an unofficial capacity helping refugees navigate a country predominately inhabited by English speakers.
Tasks that native English speakers might find mundane and boring can often be confusing for those adapting to life outside a warzone. In 2012, Alali helped refugees with tasks such as translating tax documents and helping with job applications. Now, he helps with transportation and legal services.
“These simple things make such a huge difference in people’s lives,” he said. “It’s very important because I know. I was a refugee.”
Alali was granted a visa in 2011 because of his military service. Alali, an ethnic Yazidi, found his way to Lincoln, which has attracted a large Yazidi community. But being surrounded by friendly and familiar faces didn’t lessen the culture shock.
“If you look back at six years ago, it was tough for me. I know what it’s like to be a refugee when you get to a new country,” he said. “Everything is different, totally.”
Alali’s perspective and skill set from past experiences have made him a staple in helping new refugees acclimate to life in America and Nebraska. Alali said the Yazidi community is a positive factor in getting new refugees off to a good start in their new homes.
“We are very supportive and we have good collaboration. So, they do get self-sufficient very quickly because we have good relations and we try to help each other,” he said. “We try to cooperate even though we are very busy. Every one of us we felt we are responsible because we were refugees and it’s our time now to give some of our time.”
On a warm, sunny day, Gulie Khalaf and her family walked up to a picnic table at Holmes Lake at the same time as another family. Khalaf thought they might be able to share until an older American man asked, “Why don’t you go back to Mexico?”
The Khalafs aren’t from Mexico. About 20 years ago, the family fled Iraq, where they were persecuted because of their Yazidi religion and came to the U.S. as refugees. They are now part of the growing Yazidi population in Lincoln.
Khalaf said she and her family have experienced similar situations since moving to America. While Khalaf isn’t concerned for herself, she worries about her parents.
“As the country becomes divided, I am afraid my parents will be mistreated while taking a morning walk,” she said. “It is healthy for them to be outside and walking. I don’t want them to be locked in the house when (their children) are away.”
The political rhetoric of the presidential campaign and the immigration bans proposed by the Trump administration have created unease.
Lincoln has been a good and welcoming community for refugees, according to Mary Pipher, a Nebraska author who has written about the influx of refugees in the capital city. However, since President Trump was elected, attitudes in Lincoln have been changing, she said during her “All About Books” interview with NET Radio on Feb. 21.
“Since last summer, when there was starting to be more talk about terrorists and Muslims and certain countries possibly being banned from this country for danger, one of the things that’s happening now in Lincoln is Muslim families are now starting to get harassed,” Pipher said. “I’ve heard sad stories of, say, a family out to eat dinner at Applebee’s and someone coming up and giving them a hard time. That is very, very sad and hard.”
The confusion over the travel bans on certain countries has caused many refugees to be fearful of visiting their home countries, according to Christa Yoakum, Nebraska Is Home coordinator at Nebraska Appleseed. For some people, a travel ban causes fear of never seeing their family again.
Clayton Naff, executive director of Lincoln Literacy, said his organization is hearing similar fears.
“Among refugees, some who are waiting for additional family members to be granted admission are fearful they will be separated forever,” Naff said. “Some are fearful, with justification, that Americans who are angered about refugees will lash out violently.”
Lincoln Literacy also saw a dip in enrollment numbers at the beginning of the year, shortly after the ban was announced.
“I think some students (are) spooked, because of rumors and well-grounded fears,” Naff said. “But the majority continue to try to get on with their lives and learning.”
Immigrants are also fearful. According to Naff, Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids could happen anytime and anywhere.
“Until recently, ICE had clear priorities, and while in principle it still does, there are also well founded concerns that anyone not able to prove their right to be here may be detained anytime,” he said. “So, rumors of raids have caused some immigrant owned businesses, such as restaurants, to suffer days when hardly any customers show up.”
To help defuse such situations and settle the fears of refugees and immigrants, Lincoln Literacy and Nebraska Appleseed have been working to create a more inviting and inclusive environment for refugees.
Lincoln Literacy started hosting international potlucks.
“The lunches were — and are — purely a goodwill gesture,” he said. “We’re not concerned about enrollment at this point, but about trying to be of service to people who are understandably scared and confused. We want to demonstrate that not all Americans are hostile toward immigrants and refugees as a class.”
Nebraska Appleseed is also trying to settle the fears, Yoakum said.
The organization hosted a “Train the Trainer” seminar for agencies and other interested attendees that work with refugees and immigrants. This event taught workers how to help refugees and immigrants know their rights and what to do in case of emergencies. That included how to prepare legal documents, what to do if they get stopped by a police officer and what to do if families get separated.
“People in the community are fearful,” Yoakum said. “A lot of what we do (to combat fears) is understand those policies so we can help people better understand what’s really going on. People who have good, factual information are going to be able to make better decisions for their own futures.”
Appleseed also helped create a “How to be a Good Neighbor” seminar for American citizens. It outlined what refugees and immigrants go through when moving to a new country and how Americans can help them adjust to their new life.
Despite the concerns Trump’s ban has brought to the Lincoln community, Yoakum is optimistic about refugees, immigrants and Americans working together to make everyone feel comfortable.
“If you feel like you belong, you are more likely to be engaged in a community,” she said. “You have a much stronger connection to your community if your community feels that you belong there and if they embrace you, than if you are excluded … (the Lincoln community) needs to do some work so that everyone feels comfortable amongst us.”
Nebraskans, like their fellow Americans, find themselves divided over President Donald Trump’s executive order. The order, currently held up in federal court, would temporarily stop the refugee resettlement process, limit the numbers refugees allowed in the U.S. and ban certain refugees altogether.
The issue takes on another dimension in Nebraska because although it is a red state that voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election, it resettled more refugees per capita last year than any other state.
Many interviewed for this story believe refugee resettlement has a problem with vetting — and a pause will help the country look carefully at national security.
Justine Meyer, a 23-year-old mother from St. Libory, Nebraska, who normally votes Republican, said she supports the ban because she believes it will put a halt to terrorism.
“Although terrorism can happen in-country, temporarily halting potential terror is always better than freely allowing potential terror,” Meyer said. “And those being vetted should not be offended by the process, but rather be understanding that this country is trying to create a safer environment for all those involved.”
Many across the state echoed her sentiments.
“A pro of this is that it will make our country a safer place and help secure our borders,” said Darrin Dietrich, a 51-year-old business owner from Omaha, Nebraska.
Other people believe that although this executive order may be focusing on national security, it could also change the way refugees enter and assimilate into America.
Jake Anderson, a 21-year-old U.S. Army soldier stationed in Omaha, also agreed that the ban was put in place to better reform the vetting system and protect the safety of our country. He said “some plan is better than no plan.”
Anderson also supports the reduced number of refugees allowed in the country once the ban is lifted because letting in too many could result in a potential contrast between cultures.
“I believe that allowing in so many refugees will cause more major economic problems as well as language barriers and extreme cultural differences,” Anderson said.
Some Nebraskans don’t see the executive order as an immigration ban at all, but rather a concerted effort aimed at maintaining national security.
“There is a disagreement, but we can all agree that there is a security problem,” said Kyle Upp, vice chairman of the Nebraska Federation of College Republicans. “It’s the solution that we (Republicans and Democrats) disagree on; having a discussion is what needs to happen.”
Even some refugees support Trump’s executive order.
The executive order is a “genuine effort and precaution meant to keep this country safe and prosperous,” said Gulie Khalaf of Lincoln, who runs a nonprofit in Lincoln to help fellow Yazidi refugees.
“If a 90-day ban on all refugees, including Yazidis, is what it will take to ensure that this country does not become full of residents who do not care for the values of this society nor its constitution, then let us have the 90-day ban,” she said.
However, there should be exceptions for those seeking asylum as genocide survivors, said Khalaf, who was raised in a refugee camp in Syria in the 1980s and moved to several camps before coming to the U.S. as a teenager.
Other Nebraskans, however, disagree with the executive order and think it is a problem unfairly aimed toward specific individuals from predominately Muslim countries.
Tiffany Luethke, a 29-year-old graduate teaching assistant and instructor at UNL, said discriminating against a group of people based on religious preferences is not only a violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, but goes against the country’s founding principle: religious freedom.
“This action disproportionately impacts individuals from majority Muslim countries, which only works to incite more fear among Muslims, particularly for those living in the U.S. who have family members remaining ‘back home,’” she said. “It also creates problems for individuals who are living in the U.S. legally, but want to travel to a predominantly Muslim country and fear they will not be allowed back in the U.S.”
Others, like Peter Barber, a 27-year-old graphic designer from Lincoln, believes the newly proposed travel ban was based on a misconception about the vetting process.
“This idea that refugees are just pouring unchecked into the U.S. is a complete lie,” he said. “No other group is checked as carefully, and refugees cannot even choose whether they come to the U.S. or are settled in another host nation.”
Other Nebraskans have said that although they do not agree with this particular ban, they understand why the executive order was enacted and how it will affect the country.
“Trump’s executive order, at the least, represents a concerted effort from American policy to draw a line between jihadism and Islamic terrorism,” said Hunter Traynor, a UNL student from Omaha.
Although Traynor does not agree with the ban’s original implementation, he does believe it has some benefits.
“The war on terrorism must contain even more attacks on ideas than it does on drone strikes,” he said. “To ignore the pernicious ideals of Islam that undoubtedly lead to jihadi terrorism is lunacy.”
The debate rages not just among Nebraska residents, but its public officials as well.
Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse was one of at least 20 Republicans who has spoken out against President Trump’s executive order. Although Sasse agrees with Trump’s decision to protect the country’s borders, he said in a statement that the ban is “too broad.”
“If we send a signal to the Middle East that the U.S. sees all Muslims as jihadis, the terrorist recruiters win by telling kids that America is banning Muslims and that this is America versus one religion,” Sasse said. “Our generational fight against jihadism requires wisdom.”
I oppose this executive order. It is illegal to discriminate for immigration purposes on the basis of one’s religion or country of origin, both of which are the stated objectives of this ban. This ban goes against everything I believe in as an American. It gives preferential treatment based on religion and seeks to deny the U.S. of its lifeblood: immigration. Our country was founded by immigrants and is only made richer by our foreign-born population, who overwhelmingly contribute far more than they take. This illegal and unjust ban hurts our country while denying desperately needed shelter to people driven from their countries of origin by violence. Turning away the vulnerable is not an American value. Turning away people who are peaceful and give back to their communities is not an American value.
Nancy Shrank, Omaha
Misconception #1: Refugees are not properly vetted and pose a threat to U.S. national security.
A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence, according to the United Nations. About 65 million people in the world today have been displaced by conflict. Still, less than 1 percent of refugees around the world are resettled after fleeing their home country.
The current screening process for refugees to resettle in the United States requires registration of refugee status with the UN, an interview with them and the wait for approval of refugee status. Then, they must receive a referral for resettlement in the United States if the UN decides they are vulnerable enough.
After the referral, they face an interview with State Department contractors, two background checks (a third for refugees ages 14 to 65), three fingerprint screenings against the FBI and Homeland Security databases and a case review at the U.S. immigration headquarters.
Then, they are interviewed in person with a Homeland Security officer and wait for their approval before moving on to a screening for contagious diseases. After this, they take a cultural orientation class, are matched with an American resettlement agency and go through a final security check before leaving for the U.S.
“Many refugees will spend most of their lives waiting for resettlement in a refugee camp,” said Vanja Pejanovic, refugee resettlement coordinator at Lutheran Family Services in Lincoln. “Those that do get here go through a hard process that takes months and sometimes years.”
However, a concern for many Nebraskans remains — will these refugees that are let in carry out the same acts of terror in the U.S. that have been committed in Europe?
No person accepted to the U.S. as a refugee has been implicated in a major fatal terrorist attack since the Refugee Act of 1980 set up the vetting process used today. According to an analysis of terrorism immigration risks by the Cato Institute, primary perpetrators of major terror attacks have mostly been U.S.-born citizens or permanent legal residents originally from countries not included in the ban.
“People just have this fear of (refugees) and lately a lot of that has come from the new president’s words,” Pejanovic said. “But they are either uninformed or informed from the wrong places. So much is just rumor and a view that all Muslims are the same.”
Misconception #2: Refugees are taking jobs away from native-born Americans.
There is little connection between immigrant labor and unemployment rates of native-born workers, according to research done by the American Immigration Council, a nonpartisan group. Two trends — better education and an aging population — have resulted in a decrease in the number of workers born in the United States who are willing or available to take low-paying jobs.
Many economists say immigration is a healthy way for the United States economy to create and maintain new jobs.
Immigration is integral to the nation’s economic growth because immigrants bring new ideas and add to a shrinking American labor force, helping ensure continued growth into the future, according to a 2016 report published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, assembled research from 14 leading economists, demographers and other scholars.
“Immigrants expand the U.S. economy’s productive capacity, stimulate investment, and promote specialization that in the long run boosts productivity,” said Giovanni Peri, an economist at the University of California. “There is no evidence that these effects take place at the expense of jobs for workers born in the United States.”
Additional statistics about immigrants and labor:
- For every new immigrant, an additional 1.2 new jobs for local workers is created, according to a 2015 National Bureau of Economic Research study. And the majority of those new jobs go to native-born workers.
- In 2012, immigrants were almost twice more likely to start businesses than native-born Americans, according to the Kaufmann Foundation.
While refugees often receive job counseling and advice on how to apply for jobs, they do not get special treatment when trying to obtain employment opportunities. They must apply and compete for jobs in the same way citizens do.
Misconception #3: Refugees do not want to be a part of the American culture and are reluctant to assimilate.
For the first 90 days after refugees arrive in America, a resettlement agency is responsible for providing them with food, shelter, medical care and job assistance. After the three months, the refugees are expected to be well on the road to self-sufficiency.
Their children must attend schools and adults are strongly suggested to attend English Language Learning classes, GED and computer classes. After five years of living in America, refugees can become a U.S. citizen, according to the U.S. Department of State.
Most refugees are trying to rebuild lives in America from tragic and traumatic circumstances. Many have fled to America without any possessions or resources. Many also don’t know anyone in the place they have been resettled.
Despite all these odds, refugees show great progress in assimilating to the American way of life.
Consider the fact that they quickly catch up to American citizens in occupational earnings and growth. Refugees studied for a 2016 report often were doing as well as their U.S.-born citizen counterparts within their first 10 years of living in the U.S. The report, by the Center for American Progress, looked at Somali, Burmese, Hmong and Bosnia refugees.
Adapting to American culture can be daunting for refugees, said Zainab Al-Baaj, who helps refugees as the MENA Hope coordinator at the Good Neighbor Community Center.
“It takes time, first of all, especially because of the language, new laws, and regulations,” she said. “Everyone will assimilate differently and you will have good days and bad days.”
Al-Baaj, who came to Lincoln as a refugee years ago, remembers arriving in the airport with another Iraqi refugee who had brought the phone number of a friend who lived in Lincoln. Neither knew how to use a phone or dial the number.
“Nobody will ever not assimilate,” she said. “It takes good people in the community for the refugees to come around.”
June 23, 2017
I am so impressed by the work of these UNL students. This project is a must-read for anyone, but especially those who have limited knowledge of refugees and their experiences. I am sharing this project with many people I know! Thank you for shining a light on the people we are fortunate to have in our community. We can learn so much from them. I have gotten to know a number of refugees in Lincoln and my life is better for it.