Identity is a word often associated with the embodiments of beliefs within a person. But it can also refer to one’s feeling of loyalty and attachment to their home.
Most people don’t realize how connected their identity is to their home until they leave or are forced to leave.
Nebraska is one of the most diverse states when it comes to the resettlement of refugees or those who have been forced to leave their homes. The Midwest state had the nation’s highest per capita refugee resettlement rate in 2016 with 76 refugees per 100,000 residents, nearly triple the national average of 26, according to the Pew Research Center.
For refugees, resettlement means a hopeful chance for a new opportunity. But the integration into a new society can comes with its difficulties and barriers. One of the most prominent barriers is language.
Patricia Simpson, Ph.D., German professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who studies language and immigration, said entering a whole new environment can be intimidating.
“For refugees, the idea of having to restructure their entire identity to abide by the societal norms is not at all irregular,” said Simpson. “That often begins with language.”
“Add in the fact they don’t speak the language, they don’t know anyone or know how to access anything – it creates a difficult situation for anyone.”
For the state known for the “Nebraska Nice” motto, it’s no wonder refugees resettle in Lincoln searching for a new home. On Husker game day, the sea of red and crowds of Nebraska gear can be an intimidating sight for anyone, let alone someone unfamiliar with the sometimes-manic college football culture.
At least 114 countries are represented on UNL’s campus with more than 3,000 international students, according to 2018 data.
Here are some of their stories:
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A blanket of white snow covered the never-ending landscape of cornfields, mirroring the orange, red and yellow hints of the distant sunset. The fields stretched as far as the eye could see, like an ocean dipping to the edge of the horizon.
“‘Look, Mom! There’s an ocean up there! Let’s go!” said a young Khoi Tran.
Laughing, his mother responded to him, “An ocean of corn.”
Born in Indonesia, he spent the majority of his childhood growing up on the tropical beaches of Vietnam. The small town of Hastings, Nebraska looked like an ocean to Tran at first glance, just a different type of ocean. His family moved to America in 1999 at the tail end of a decade rich in Nebraska football success.
“When we came to America, to Nebraska, we were always wondering why everyone was wearing an “N” on their T-shirts,” he said. “I thought at first it was some type of brand name, which I learned that it is.”
Growing up, Tran and his family experienced plenty of barriers as a refugee family in the states.
“We didn’t have a house at first. We started out living in a host family’s basement. We had no credit, no car – my father used to wake up at 6 a.m. every morning and bike me to grade school. My sister and I learned English to help them with insurance, getting a driver’s license and applying for citizenship.”
Tran has been about trying to help others his entire life and decided as a first-generation college student, he wanted to go to school and use his degree to help people even more.
In 2016, he earned his master’s degree in higher educational administration from UNL. Now, he works with the university through the Nebraska College Preparatory Academy (NCPA) for college access.
“We work a lot with first-generation, low-income, underrepresented students,” said Tran. “Our goal is to bring them to the university and provide them with financial scholarships so they don’t have to worry about paying for school.”
Tran has additional plans for how he can contribute even more to these populations, and that plan is to go back to school and earn his master degree in psychology in order to open a therapy practice in Lincoln. Down the line, he looks to earn his Ph.D.
“Every conversation that I’m having with students ends up going towards the topic of trauma, anxiety, depression – and since I’m not a therapist, I thought why don’t I just get a degree in it?”
Coming from a Vietnamese family, Tran is looking to serve this community specifically.
“My main goal is to break the stigma between Asian Americans and therapy. It’s a very big problem,” he said.
“Because with Asian Americans and Asians in general, we don’t talk about mental health.”
He has noticed there’s a large trend in mental health issues in refugee communities but knows it’s not necessarily a new trend.
“I didn’t recognize it when I was little, but now I can definitely tell that my parents were stressed,” said Tran. “The trauma that comes with moving to a new country brings about a bunch of stressors, and refugees don’t come with the proper coping skills.”
In a small room of a small home, mostly made of clay, sat a 12-year-old Falah Rashoka.
His brother stood next to him with an English dictionary in hand. He asked the meaning of the word “passion.” Rashoka sat and let the word resonate with him before answering. To have a passion for something is to have a strong and uncontrollable emotion for it. Regardless of the language, Rashoka had a passion to try and learn as much as he could.
“Six months later, no matter the page of the dictionary, or the word my brother picked, I knew it,” he said.
Rashoka, a Yazidi refugee originally from Iraq, resettled in Lincoln, Nebraska in 2016.
Lincoln has the largest Yazidi population in North America, with somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 refugees.
Before coming to America, he worked with the US Army in Iraq as a communications interpreter before getting into healthcare because of the disparities he witnessed in Iraq.
“Many families are prevented from getting things like baby formula,” said Rashoka. “It was near impossible for the poor families to get. Seeing the women and mothers in my neighborhood communities struggle to feed their children motivated me to get into healthcare.”
After arriving in the US, Rashoka, who speaks both Kurdish and Arabic, began studying locally before ending up at UNL where he earned his master of science in nutrition and health science and is now working on his Ph.D.
During the pandemic, he volunteered with the student response team at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, where he helped spread knowledge about the COVID-19 virus to non-English speaking communities.
“We worked with contact tracing, separating any disinformation and communicating as fluently as possible. This helped me understand how the virus is affecting people who are in the poorer communities.”
This changed the motivation of his studies, and he looked to research more about infectious diseases in low-income and less-English speaking families. Rashoka has written multiple published articles about refugee health and access to healthcare.
“The biggest factor was language,” he said. “When it comes to health, due to many dialects, refugees don’t always get the correct information. For example, in the Kurdish language, a term like ‘appendicitis’ is completely different among dialects.”
Rashoka made it clear that while language is rooted in most of the refugees’ problems, it’s not the only thing affecting their overall health conditions. Access is often dependent on money, something that isn’t easy to come by.
“When refugees move, they usually just get their bags, nothing else,” he said. “Say they wanted to try and join a gym, they usually have to work a year or two before they can afford to become gym members, which ends up straying a lot of refugees away from gyms.”
While Rashoka and his family have been able to catch a Nebraska game at Memorial Stadium, the pricing of tickets makes it hard to attend.
“Everybody was always talking about the Huskers, and who they were going to play that weekend,” said Rashoka. “So, I decided to try and go to a game and found out the tickets were $150 each. It was so expensive.”
He admits that it took him a few Google searches to start getting the hang of American football. The different rules can affect the game and be less transparent for people who are not from the US.
“If kids cannot afford to go to games or watch, nothing is motivating them to play that sport, which keeps people, like refugees, away from that specific sport, which is unfortunate.”
It was a rainy, foggy day in Lincoln, Nebraska, hovering just under 50 degrees Fahrenheit, the skies grey as any piece of sunlight struggled to make it through the clouds.
Samvruth Raj checked the weather app on his phone. It’s 3 a.m. in Bangalore, India, and currently 73 degrees Fahrenheit.
Raj let out a sigh. Regardless of the weather, he still sports his red sweatshirt with a big “N” stitched on the front.
As an international UNL student, Raj chose to come to Nebraska, over other destinations like Canada, England or Australia.
Originally from Bangalore, a southeast city in India, Raj decided on Lincoln as his college destination in 2019.
“I didn’t have the United States as an option at first,” he said. “I always wanted to go to England. But I felt there was more opportunity at a four-year university rather than anything less.”
During his journey from India to Nebraska, which was over 30 hours, Raj started learning about his new college hometown.
“I remember being on a flight from Paris to Atlanta and I sat next to a woman going to Florida for vacation. She asked me where I was going for school, and I replied Nebraska, she was surprised and laughed. But then she told me that the people were really nice, which I experienced firsthand. My first days were very special to me.”
After finally touching down in Lincoln, Raj had one thing on his mind.
“I was so excited to be here and see the town,” he said. “But I could not wait to lay down in my dorm bed.”
Raj, a sophomore studying sports media and communication, said sports have always been “super close” to him.
“It’s kind of a big risk because I don’t know anyone involved in sports,” he said. “None of my friends from home are. But that just makes me want to try and get people interested in it and involved more.”
In an industry filled with the voices of many, he is a strong advocate for getting even more diverse voices involved.
“When it comes to diversity, I’ve been in classes, I am in classes where I am the only international student,” he said. ‘It made it all the harder for me going into a class that’s already filled with only American students, being the only one who looks or speaks a little different. I do think there needs to be more diversity.”
Having not been a follower of American football before, the aura of Husker football was immediately captivating to him. As an international student, information and tickets were foreign to him but his passion remains.
“The way I look at Husker culture is that everyone is very loyal,” said Raj. “It’s rubbed off on me because I know that wherever I end up, I’ll always root for the Huskers. It was intimidating at first, but it was just that I had to get used to it.”