From military veterans to former Afghan refugees, to churches, mosques, businesses and individuals, Nebraskans are stepping forward to offer help for the people evacuated from Afghanistan who are expected to settle in Omaha and Lincoln.
That help will be much needed as soon as hundreds of Afghans begin arriving this fall, and then for many more months as they strive to make new homes and lives in Nebraska.
And the new Afghan arrivals may need more community assistance than most refugees because, at least as the situation now stands, they will qualify for fewer of the government benefits designed to help refugees get on their feet.
The three refugee resettlement agencies in Nebraska have initially committed to resettling 655 Afghan evacuees in Omaha and Lincoln. They stress that the number is fluid and likely to grow. And many local people who work with refugees expect that more will come through secondary migration from other U.S. cities.
Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska has committed to resettling 280 Afghans in Omaha and Lincoln. The Refugee Empowerment Center in Omaha has committed to resettling 250. Catholic Social Services of Southern Nebraska has committed to 125.
That’s on top of the hundreds of refugees from other nations that the agencies had already committed to resettling in the coming year. And it comes after local refugee resettlement operations had been greatly pared down in the past two years.
The outreach and connections with the community have been “a whirlwind” in recent weeks, said Mark Versen, chief development officer at Lutheran Family Services.
For example, an Afghan community organization has been collecting donations of items and money through a Millard mosque and business and social networks. The organizers and many donors are themselves former refugees.
An Air Force veteran put together a network involving a chaplain and local bars to collect donations for Afghans housed at overseas U.S. air bases, with plans to shift to helping Lutheran Family Services assist refugees in Nebraska.
The agency had a virtual meeting scheduled Friday with officials from several Omaha and Lincoln companies who are seeking ways to help, Versen said. Employers have been calling with potential jobs. And more than 100 people have applied in the past month to volunteer at Lutheran Family Services, as Afghanistan fell to the Taliban and people desperately tried to flee.
The agency offers ways to help on its website, lfsneb.org.
A similar effect is being seen at the two other resettlement agencies, as well as nonprofit groups, such as Refugee Women Rising, that provide ongoing help to refugees and their families.
“We’ve seen a really big outpouring of support from the community, which really helps,” said Amanda Kohler, executive director of the Refugee Empowerment Center. “The main thing we’re hearing is that people are just ready and willing to help with whatever they can help with, and whatever we need.”
She has seen an increase in donations and offers of volunteer support.
Katie Patrick, executive director of Catholic Social Services, said the idea of Afghans coming is getting a very positive response from the community.
“Just people calling or emailing or sending messages through our social media channels, wanting to learn more about what they can do and what our needs are,” she said.
The agency’s staff is grateful for that. But they won’t be sure of the extent or details of needs until they find out more about how many people are coming to Lincoln and what their situations are. Patrick is advising people to watch the agency’s website and social media channels for specific needs.
Kubra Haidari, a former Afghan refugee herself, is now associate coordinator of Refugee Women Rising, formerly known as the Benson Area Refugee Task Force. She and her husband have three children, and she is also attending college.
She said one of the things that helped her family was having an Omaha family sponsor and mentor them as they learned how to navigate American life and find transportation to work and shopping.
The people coming soon will need “the same thing,” Haidari said. “Someone to teach them how to be independent.”
One of the keys to being independent in Omaha is learning how to drive and getting one’s own car.
Refugee Women Rising will offer solidarity space to women and long-term support for education and opportunity for women and girls who have been persecuted and not allowed opportunities. The group is also planning cultural orientation workshops for the newly arriving Afghans and the public in Omaha, to “provide a mutually beneficial welcome,” said Pam Font-Gabel, the group’s executive director.
Mohammad Sahil, who works at Lutheran Family Services, is a former interpreter for the U.S. in his home country and a leader in an Afghan community group in Omaha. He helped organize a solidarity night in August when the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge was lit in the colors of the Afghanistan flag.
Sahil said the community group is filling up a Google doc matching volunteers and donors with anticipated needs.
“We are asking people to tell us how they can help, what can they do and when can they do it,” Sahil said. “We also created a GoFundMe page. We’re getting good responses from people.”
Many of the offers are coming from Nebraskans who are from Afghanistan, a population Sahil estimated at more than 2,000.
“When I arrived here, I got a lot of help from the community,” he said. “We have the same sense of community. Now it is time for us to give it back.”
Meanwhile, retired U.S. Air Force linguist Jen Short and fellow veteran Matthew Smith have been working with an Air Force chaplain, Lt. Col. Kevin Humphrey, and Short’s contacts in the Omaha bar and restaurant industry to collect supplies for Afghan evacuees.
They have been focusing on a donation drive for the thousands of Afghans housed on overseas U.S. bases while waiting to be processed. The bases are not set up to host so many families, and certainly not children, Short said. She has used open mic nights at local bars and other events to collect many boxes of toiletries, toys, sippy cups and other items. Humphrey procured space for the donations at Offutt Air Force Base, and they will soon be shipped to the bases.
The donation drive will shift its focus to Afghans coming to Omaha.
“The Omaha community has already shown an overwhelming amount of support and wants to help,” Short said.