Nebraska Groups Help Refugees Settle in to the Good Life

Feb. 15, 2017, 6:45 a.m. ·

Lincoln Literacy volunteer teacher Renee Meyer helps her class practice their English while learning about Valentine's Day. (Photo by Ariana Brocious, NET News)

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Last year Nebraska resettled more refugees per capita than any other state. In the weeks following President Trump’s executive order halting immigration and refugees to the U.S., NET News visited a few of the groups in Lincoln that work to help refugees settle in to life in Nebraska.

In a small church classroom, Lincoln Literacy volunteer Renee Meyer helps her class of new Americans practice their English while learning about Valentine’s Day. Samea Merza is one of the newest students. She’s 24, from Sinjar, in northern Iraq.

“When ISIS come to my village, me and my family go out [of] Sinjar,” she said. Her family fled to a refugee camp in the Kurdistan region in 2014. Merza and four of her siblings were resettled in Lincoln about three months ago.

“It’s so different between here and Iraq,” Merza said. Here she can travel alone without worrying. But her mother and three other siblings remain in the refugee camp.

“I miss my mother and I wish to come to her because she's living in a camps and she's sick.” When asked if she feels safer in Lincoln, Merza said, “Yes, of course. But I’m afraid about my family.”

She doesn’t know if or when the rest of her family will join her here. For now, she’s focused on learning English so she can start working.

Senator Ben Sasse: "...This Order Is Too Broad."

Republican U.S. Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska says he applauds the overall objective of President Donald Trump’s executive order temporarily suspending immigration for citizens from seven countries. In an interview with NET News, Sasse says the president is right to want to talk about, and take action on, border security. He calls the order “too broad,” though, adding we can’t “send a signal to the Middle East that the U.S. sees all Muslims as jihadis.”

See where each member of Nebraska's Congressional Delegation stands on the executive order

Language is fundamental for new Americans, and can take years to master, said Lincoln Literacy Executive Director Clayton Naff.

“It's the gateway skill to everything else in our society. In order to get a job they need basic oral proficiency and basic literacy,” Naff said.

Lincoln Literacy provides free English classes, including transportation and on-site child care.Most of their students are refugees and immigrants, a diverse group that changes over time.

“When I got started with this a little more than a decade ago, refugees from the civil war in Sudan were the largest group coming. And then that gave way to refugees from Burma, for a number of years. And now we're seeing large numbers of refugees from Iraq. So it's a real mix,” Naff said. All told, Lincoln Literacy teaches to students from more than 70 countries, territories and cultures, Naff said.

Naff said their students’ progress stems from the trusting relationships they build with their volunteer teachers and tutors. And that learning goes both ways.

“Our volunteers find a delightful experience in working with the people here. I wish that others could get to know the new Americans among us in our community,” Naff said.

Click here to see larger image of data on refugee resettlement in Nebraska from 2010 to 2015. In 2016, Nebraska resettled 1,440 refugees.

(Graphic by Lisa Craig, NET)

In recent years, many of the refugees resettling in Nebraska have come from countries on the list banned by President Trump’s recent executive order. That order has been blocked by a federal appeals court for now. But Nebraska has been a top refugee resettlement location for years, welcoming more than 7,000 refugees since 2010.

“We're a really great state. We have really good jobs available that pay pretty well and we have low cost housing, low cost education. It's a good place to live,” said Sheila Dorsey Vinton, executive director of the Asian Community and Cultural Center in Lincoln. The center formed in 1992, at a time when many Vietnamese refugees were being resettled here.

“The center, from its very inception, is a place for celebrating cultural heritage, but also to provide human services for those that are newly arriving,” Vinton said.

At the center on a recent snowy morning, about twenty Vietnamese seniors in colorful winter coats and hats chat and sip tea. The women sit at one table, the men at another. Many of them have lived in Lincoln for years. A staff member walks the group through a diabetes health risk assessment.

Vinton says the Asian Center’s services run the gamut from health education, senior and youth programs, citizenship classes, to legal aid and domestic violence advocacy and support.

Htoo Wah is the Karen advocate at the Asian Community and Cultural Center. She moved to the U.S. in 2009 after living in a refugee camp on the Burma/Thailand border for 14 years.

(Photo by Ariana Brocious, NET News)

“Anything that people need to do to live their lives but they have a language barrier to accessing, say even contacting the electric company about a bill,” Vinton said.

The Asian Center works mostly with Vietnamese, Karen, Sudanese Chinese, and Yazidi groups. Collectively, Vinton said her staff speaks 15 different languages, and serve as cultural brokers for new arrivals. “They're peers of our clients. So they know exactly what they're going through and what challenges they might have.”

Htoo Wah is one of those staff members. She lived in a refugee camp on the Burma/Thailand border for 14 years before joining her husband in the U.S. in 2009. In the States, she worked hard at improving her English, taking classes and working as an interpreter. Now she helps other Karen and Burmese refugees access the complex web of social services available to them, including food stamps and Medicaid. Wah said her mother lived in the States with her for two years, but returned home.

“Now I regret sending my mom back home because if I know back then that we have lots of resources like this then I won't send her back,” Wah said.

Many different organizations in Lincoln and greater Nebraska help new Americans. But getting accepted as a refugee into the United States is not fast, or easy.

State and Federal Benefits Available to Refugees:

  • 8 months of Medicaid
  • 3 months of rent
  • 8 months of SNAP/food stamps
  • 8 months of ADC or RCA/cash assistance
  • All of these benefits come with the stipulation that refugees are participating in English classes or are actively seeking employment.

    Source: Jodi-Renee Giron, refugee support program coordinator, Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska.

“It’s a long process,” said Jodi-Renee Giron of Lutheran Family Services. Giron coordinates support for refugees in their first three months, helping them get documentation, health care, and housing, and connecting them with education and employment programs. Through refugees are often fleeing war, persecution, violence and poverty, it can take up to 18 months just to go through required background and medical checks and interviews.

“Once they're cleared, they need to promise to pay or front the $3,000 in order for them to be approved as a refugee. They don't get to choose what city they live in,” Giron said. And refugee status does not grant immediate U.S. citizenship.

Giron said the recent executive order has created lots of uncertainty, especially for those whose family members were next in line for arrival. Though the situation is in flux, Giron said she’s telling people to stay hopeful.

“The United States is a place where we promise people that freedom and opportunity can help them recreate their lives, that it's a place of safety, and that it's a place of hope. They're such pretty words, and I think they should mean something,” Giron said.

Refugee support groups said that work can often begin with simple conversation, getting to know refugees and immigrants in our own communities.