Preparing the way for refugees

This winter, my faith-sharing group in Omaha took on the project of preparing an apartment for a refugee family who would be arriving in the spring. We worked with Nebraska’s largest resettlement agency, Lutheran Family Services, who gave us a detailed list of household items needed, and later, a list of food to stock the family’s home for the first few days.

My husband and I have a largely empty basement, so we volunteered to be the storage site for household goods. During Advent, and with increasing momentum in Lent, we saw futons, mattresses, dining table and chairs, and even an old television set that would later be deemed useless make their way through the garage and down the basement stairway.

People I’d never met — someone who knew someone in the group — showed up with furniture.

Everything from new sheets and towels to gently used crockpots and can openers appeared. Shampoo, toothpaste, cookie sheets and frying pans. An online checklist circulated so that we’d knew when we had what we needed and no more, as refugees’ apartments are very small.

Expecting a refugee family’s arrival is a bit like expecting a baby. You know it’s coming, but you have little idea who they are or exactly when they will arrive.

Our “due date” came and went, as we found out that this whole refugee pipeline — from the U.N. camp through the U.S. State Department to the state agency — can be very unpredictable. Instead of early March, our family came right after Easter, meaning our group spent Good Friday cleaning out an apartment in an immigrant-heavy part of town.

Falling-away bathroom tiles, window locks that didn’t work, loose sheeting behind the bath that meant debris ran into the tub with every use, two bedrooms for five people, a galley kitchen barely big enough to turn around in — that’s what our family was getting.

And yet, we hoped that clean sheets and a flushing toilet made up for the deficiencies our Western eyes saw.

The brick building held four apartments, two upstairs, two down. Our family turned out to be Bhutanese, or actually ethic Nepalese persecuted in Bhutan. The other three apartments held one Nepali family, and two Karen — members of a persecuted minority from Myanmar.

The night we went to check the apartment out and make sure the key worked, it became clear that the area was a mini-United Nations. Little girls with Muslim headdress and women balancing baskets on their heads walked through parking lots filled with kids kicking balls and hollering in the universal language of children.

My one attempt at asking directions was met by a huge smile, upturned hands, and “No English.”

The Omaha Public School District covers the inner city of Omaha, while smaller districts cover many of the suburbs. Refugees comprise almost four percent of the OPS’ student body, and the district reports that one of every three students speaks a language other than English at home. Spanish is the most common, but Karen and Nuer, a language spoken in South Sudan and parts of Ethiopia, come in second and third.

If this sounds familiar to people in Anchorage, well, that’s because it is. Anchorage has many Sudanese, Bhutanese, Karen. Every state resettles its share of refugees, and in Alaska the only federally funded resettlement program is run by Catholic Social Services.

Every agency approaches its refugee work in a slightly different way, I suspect, but one thing is shared by all: the need for volunteers. The Refugee Assistance and Immigration Services program at Catholic Social Services in Anchorage would no doubt welcome help.

The writer, formerly from Anchorage, now lives in Omaha, Neb.

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