Far from what used to be home, refugees from all over the world have found their way to Nebraska, a stark difference from what used to be known.
The most recent people seeking refuge in the United States: Afghans.
On Aug. 30, 2021, every U.S. military troop in Afghanistan withdrew from the country, marking an end to over two decades of conflict and occupation. Only days later, the Taliban took Kabul and have been the governing body since.
The world watched while thousands of Afghans clambered around aircrafts on the jetway at Kabul International Airport, desperately trying to leave the country that was rapidly shifting beneath their feet.
In September 2021, Lincoln Mayor Leirion Gaylor-Baird announced intentions to accept an overall 775 Afghani refugees into Nebraska, with most going to Omaha and Lincoln because of their status as sanctuary cities, meaning cities that are in the lottery for accepting refugees from around the world.
A number of public social services have pitched in to help the influx of Afghani refugees being placed in Nebraska. As of December 2021, the Catholic Social Services of Southern Nebraska resettled 75 Afghan refugees.
Shafiq Seddiqi, a caseworker supervisor for Lutheran Family Services, said the group saw refugees coming to Nebraska as soon as late August, but most started filtering through in late September to mid-October.
“But usually we have a few weeks or maybe a couple months before clients come to Nebraska. Usually, we can set up living spaces for them before they come,” Seddiqi said. “It is a completely different process.”
The emergency evacuation of military bases in Afghanistan left resettlement agencies all over the country in a tailspin, trying desperately to catch up with the demand for their services.
Sharon Brodkey, in the public relations department at LFS, said it has been a few years since resettlement agencies have had to deal with resettlement issues with this caliber and urgency.
“I haven’t seen anything like this since the Syrian refugee crisis in 2016,” she said.
Both Brodkey and Seddiqi said they have run into staffing issues, but volunteers have been helping out in full force since the start of the crisis. Seddiqi, who works at the Omaha office, said they have four case managers and three case aids.
“But it is a team effort. There is never just one person working with one family,” Seddiqi said.
Brodkey said it’s a long process with very little time, and Seddiqi and his department have been essential.
While finding places for the refugees to live is core to what LFS does, job training is also a big part of the effort. But, while many Afghans also don’t have documentation to hold jobs yet, many do not speak English well or at all.
Lincoln Literacy, which has historically been a part of the transition efforts for people from all over the world seeking refuge, has opened up more English-literacy classes in recent months as the demand increases.
Clayton Naff, executive director of the Lincoln Literacy Council, said the experience has been overwhelming.
“The process has been unpredictable,” he said. “Some weeks are like a flood, others are like a drought.”
Having met capacity problems as more Afghans came to use their services, Lincoln Literacy added classes, something important for students if they are also trying to hold jobs. Normally, Lincoln literacy classes go from 9:15 a.m. to 11:15 a.m. Monday through Thursday. For non-native speakers trying to break through the workforce and volunteers hoping to lead English-language classes, those times are next to impossible.
The two agency vans belonging to Lincoln Literacy have been in heavy use, shuttling the Afghans to and from class since most of them cannot drive.
Naff said despite the heavy load, volunteers have come in full force to help out. Brodkey and Seddiqi concurred that this was true for LFS as well.
A 2017 study from George Mason University estimated 500 Afghani refugees ranging in age residing in both Lancaster and Douglas counties. Many of these people had arrived in Nebraska after fighting broke out between the US and the Taliban in Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks in 2001. As the conflict grew, many Afghans scrambled to seek shelter, leading some to land in Lincoln and Omaha.
“A previous student of ours that came from Afghanistan years ago has been acting as basically a volunteer caseworker and helping us with language barriers,” Naff said.
Seddiqi said LFS has seen the same thing, that previous generations of Afghans in Nebraska were searching for ways to help the incoming families.
Gerald Meyer, a retired colonel in the National Guard, went on three separate deployments to Afghanistan in his military career. He said it felt compulsory to him to go and help the arriving refugees.
“It’s the right thing to do,” he said. “This issue is very real to Afghan veterans.”
Meyer joined the Save Our Allies group, a non-profit group tasked with retrieving and aiding Afghan allies to the U.S. government and bringing them to safety. Meyer went to Ft. McCoy in Wisconsin for a week using vacation time and saw thousands of refugees waiting for assistance.
He reflected back on the issue from his office at the National Guard museum in Seward, where he is executive director and historian of the museum.
“I mentored the Afghan national army for two years. I basically served with the Afghans,” he said. “That bond is strong, and there isn’t the option of not honoring that.”
Despite the outside help they are receiving, LFS and Lincoln Literacy both have said that housing has been one of the challenges that make the situation more complicated. Nationally, there is a housing shortage, which has not left Nebraska unscathed.
According to Seddiqi, LFS runs into many landlords that either do not work with refugees or refuse to work with non-English speakers. Often, possible tenants need a minimum amount of paperwork and identifying forms, something most Afghan refugees just don’t have.
For now, until more permanent living situations are set up, Seddiqi said they set up Airbnb homes and hotel rooms for the Afghan refugees to stay in for their first few nights stateside.
Sen. Myron Dorn of Adams County introduced a bill on Jan. 11 that would allot $10 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds to Nebraska for low-income housing and housing for refugees and asylum-seekers. $2 million of those funds would be appropriated for job building programs. The bill was presented in front of the unicameral, which LFS testified at.
This, Brodkey said, would be huge for the resettlement agencies in Nebraska.
“It’s hard to not have an answer for these people who have risked everything and come from really bad situations,” she said. “If we can’t get them housing, we kind of reach a deadlock with the things we can continue to do for them.”
Naff said he expects to continue busy at Lincoln Literacy at least through March. Seddiqi said Nebraska will most likely see refugees filtering in through to the end of the year. While Afghan refugees are the most recent group looking for refuge, LFS and other resettlement agencies are still accepting refugees from all over the world.
As the conflict escalates in Europe, both Naff and Seddiqi think Ukrainian refugees will start seeking services in Nebraska as well. Naff said they have already accepted a few Ukrainian students in the past few weeks. Seddiqi said they will take people as they come.
“We are very shorthanded, but we are still moving forward,” said Brodkey. “This is a statewide and community effort.”