Safiulla Arsala, in a black hoodie, and Poe Dee, in a grey suit, smile in front of a logo for the Catholic Social Services of Southern Nebraska.
Catholic Social Services of Southern Nebraska employees Safiulla Arsala (left) and Poe Dee stand at the temporary headquarters of Catholic Social Services of Southern Nebraska. Both are refugees who fled violent conflicts in their home countries of Afghanistan and Burma to make a better life in America, not just for themselves but for others as well.

Lincoln resident Tut Kailech spent the first two years of his life as a malnourished infant in a Kenyan refugee camp. He was the fourth and only surviving child to South Sudanese parents who, in 1992, fled a decades-long civil war that claimed the lives of their previous three children. 

There were plenty of times when his parents feared he was destined for the same fate.

“I had a small chance of living at the time,” Kailech said, noting there was very little for him to eat besides peaches and cream. “Sweets kept me alive.”

Three decades later, Kailech is an emerging leader in the Lincoln community, working as an organizer for the NeighborWorks nonprofit, hosting his own self-help podcast and promoting a clothing brand that promotes self-empowerment.

tutkailech 300x300 - Refugees share journeys from overseas conflict to community empowerment
NeighborWorks of Lincoln community organizer Tut Kailech. Photo by Kathy Plunkett/Kathy Plunkett Photos

His story, from being the victim of a bloody conflict to guiding others through their own personal strife, seems improbable. And yet, others like him continue to emerge in Lincoln, driven from their home countries by bloody conflict yet setting out to make a positive change in others’ lives.

Safiulla Arsala, 64, worked as a civil engineer for the United States Embassy in his home country of Afghanistan for over 14 years before fleeing in August 2021 during the Taliban’s seizure of the capital city of Kabul, eventually landing in Lincoln.

After being forced to leave his belongings and much of his family behind, Arsala embarked on a tumultuous months-long journey with those who remained. At one point, they spent months languishing at an overburdened camp in Germany with 10,000 other displaced peoples, where Arsala would spend nine hours a day waiting in line for meals.

“There was a lot of people, but the food was not that much,” Arsala said. “My youngest son, he cried ‘I am hungry.’”

After six weeks, Arsala and his family finally made their way to America, bouncing around from New Jersey to New Mexico and, finally, to Lincoln in December 2021.

It’s where he’s stayed for the past 15 months, working as an interpreter and driver for Catholic Social Services of Southern Nebraska, one of the state’s refugee assistance organizations. 

The opportunity to work for CSSSN, and support his family at home and abroad, came about from an unlikely friendship formed with Poe Dee, the refugee resettlement director of the CSSSN and a former Burmese refugee who was a case manager when Arsala arrived in Nebraska.

Dee picked Arsala up at the airport when he arrived in December 2021. He quickly realized the value the elder Afghan could provide in working with incoming Afghan refugees, both from his fluency in English and the respect he could command due to his age and demeanor.

“It’s good to have someone that has the same background in the same language in the agency. I just let him do the talking; I’m just listening,” Dee said. “And he’s a very humble guy.”

Through the CSSSN, Dee helped Arsala acquire a car to use for buying groceries, taking his children to school and going to doctor’s appointments. The Afghan man found himself with a second job as well, shuttling around clients for the refugee agency while finally gaining some breathing room from an incredibly stressful predicament.

“This car solved all my problems,” Arsala said. “And now also I’m working with (Dee) and I’m happy to work with him.”

Now approaching what would be considered retirement age for most Americans, Arsala continues to work two jobs to reunite his family, bringing back those over the age of 21 that he was forced to leave behind in Afghanistan. Although they have since made it to Pakistan, Arsala had to save thousands of dollars just to buy that side of his family passage into the neighboring country, and still must help them to pay for food and housing.

“Their load is on my shoulder,” he said.

Bringing all 17 grandchildren, six sons and two daughters, as well as their wives and husbands, back together again in the U.S. will be worth it, he said, even if they can’t all live together as they once did in Arsala’s six-story house in Afghanistan.

Dee said he’s been motivated to help other refugees by his own difficult situation upon arriving in 2009 with minimal English fluency or sense of community to speak of after fleeing ethnic genocide in Burma as a member of the Karen people. 

“I don’t want (incoming refugees) to experience the same thing,” Dee said. “I think it’s kind of my goal to help them have a good experience here in the future. They want to be here because they don’t have a choice.”

While Kailech, who’s spent most of his life in America, has a vastly different experience than either man, he said he’s just as grateful for everything he’s gained through the services of organizations like the CSSSN.

“I want to give back,” Kailech said. “Because if we didn’t have the services like we did here in Lincoln, I wouldn’t be where I am now.”