The American Dream — Now (Part 2)
In Part 1, we talked about the incredible obstacles—and truly, the roll of the dice—that refugees face to actually make it all the way to the United States for resettlement. For the 10.5 million refugees created through war, famine, or civil conflict around the world, the U.S. opens approximately 75,000 slots every year for resettlement; that maximum has never been met. Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska (LFS) resettles about 500 of those refugees annually.
For the lucky few who learn they will finally be leaving the tent camps, it’s like winning the lottery. Finally, they have hope again for peace and safety for their family. But the actual process of making the move can be daunting. Imagine—especially for those traveling alone—the trepidation and fear. Or the worry of a parent taking this journey as they care for young children along the way.
Put yourself in their place for just a moment. First, you have never traveled far before, especially by air. That’s scary enough. And as you step onto the plane, you know you are leaving for good. It’s unlikely that you’ll ever return to your home country or see the family you are leaving behind. You’re sad but excited. The flight is very long. Travel distance from Burma to Omaha, for example, is 8,000 miles. You spend hours and hours flying. Most refugees arrive at Eppley Airfield between 10:30pm and midnight. You are exhausted, and in most cases, overwhelmed. Everything is new and different. Until you are actually greeted at the airport, you don’t understand what people are saying.
Fortunately, for the refugees who come to Nebraska, the welcome is warm and heartfelt. And understandable! The welcoming committee from Lutheran Family Services always includes a translator who can find out right away if the family or individual has any immediate needs or concerns to address.
The next step is getting the newly arrived refugees settled and comfortable. Everyone travels to the apartment that has already been fully equipped. Traditional food is waiting, as are supplies for the coming days. This is where church and group sponsors play such an important role in the process of refugee resettlement. With guidance from LFS, sponsor groups set up the apartments, assist in greeting the refugees at the airport, and then help them become acclimated to their new surroundings.
Many refugees find the apartment full of wonders. Some have never slept in a bed; most have never operated a toilet, a stove, or a faucet. For safety and convenience, the new arrivals need to understand these things before they are left alone. Through time, support, and friendship, these families quickly learn their way to self-sufficiency. They find jobs, their children are enrolled in school, and they become taxpayers, homeowners, and neighbors. In fact, most Karen (ethnic Burmese) families resettled by LFS now own a home in Omaha. And just this year, 25 resettled Karen students received academic scholarships for college. Most will attend UNO this fall.
It’s not just the Karen who are excelling. Omaha hosts the largest Sudanese population outside of Sudan. Former refugees are now entrepreneurs and business owners—and Omaha’s Southern Sudan Community Association (SSCA) now, itself, resettles refugees from all over the world. Within Omaha Public Schools, nearly 100 languages and dialects are now spoken. Instead of learning about Somalia or Iraq from textbooks, our children can hear first-hand from classmates who once lived there.
Nebraska was first settled by European immigrants and refugees, and that process continues today—except now they arrive from nearly every continent. Their commitment to our city and state has prevented the erosion of Nebraska’s population base. They are our neighbors, our co-workers, our employees, our customers, and our clients. They bring the world to our doorstep.
Because of the federal funding timetable, the summer is by far the busiest time of the year for refugee resettlement. LFS can use the help of families, churches, and other groups who want to sponsor or provide supplies for arriving refugee families. If you would like to help, please email info@LFSneb.org.
Bev Carlson, APR is the Director of Public Relations at Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska. You can contact Bev with comments or story ideas at email@example.com or (402) 978-5646.