Shams Al-Badry has no memory of Iraq, or of the refugee camp in Saudi Arabia where she lived as she grew from an infant into a toddler.
But she knows Nebraska.
It is home.
Her home since she turned 2, even though she lives in Kansas City now, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate with a two-year commitment to Teach America.
Shams is always telling her bilingual preschool students about Nebraska. Just the other day, they went on a field trip and a little girl started talking about college.
You have to go to UNL, Shams told her. You can be a Husker!
Shams loves Nebraska.
That’s why she sat down at her computer last Monday evening after a friend shared Gov. Pete Ricketts’ letter asking resettlement agencies not to allow Syrian refugees in Nebraska until federal guidelines for refugees can be examined.
She posted her words on Facebook.
I have tried to stay away from social media because of the lack of humanity and the disrespect I have seen for these past couple weeks ... but something ... has left me speechless and shaken to my core.
“It really hurt me that a governor, our governor, had written that,” Shams told me last week, as the words she wrote that day were shared on social media, gathering praise from friends and former teachers and an invitation to be the face of a pro-refugee campaign by Bold Nebraska.
“A lot of people don’t know I’m a refugee, because I don’t wear it,” Shams said. “It was difficult for me to identify as Middle Eastern because I grew up in the United States.”
She was too young then to realize the sacrifices of her parents.
Now she calls herself Iraqi American, a proud shoutout to her heritage.
What she knows of those years in the early ‘90s -- an escape from the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein -- is pieced together from the stories of her older brothers and parents.
“It was a very difficult time for them. It’s something people don’t want to talk about because it was traumatizing for them.”
And they were lucky, she says. Their family only lived two years in the camp at Rafha -- her baby sister was born there -- while others were stuck in limbo for many more years.
“Our name was picked in a lottery and Nebraska happened to be home for us.”
For decades, Nebraska has been home to thousands fleeing war and political persecution, beginning with Vietnamese families fleeing the fall of the South in the mid-1970s.
Our schools are filled with students from countries all over the globe.
“My parents did not leave Iraq because they wanted to,” Shams wrote. “They left because they were FORCED to ... ”
Shams traveled back to Iraq last year with her sister. They visited her aunt in Nasiriyah, a beautiful city in the south.
Shams' parents grew up in southern Iraq, too. Her father was a mechanic, her mother stayed home.
After they fled to safety during the Gulf War, Catholic Social Services resettled them in Lincoln. They found community here, Shams wrote in her Facebook post. They were safe.
They were grateful.
Shams graduated from Lincoln High and attended the university with the help of a Buffett Foundation scholarship. A political science major and human rights minor.
She traveled abroad to study, she widened her world by joining student groups, she educated others about the Muslim religion, she co-founded a Middle Eastern student group, sharing her culture with fellow students, she was president of the Multicultural Greek Council.
She interned at the attorney general’s office, and at Nebraska Appleseed.
She practiced peace and tolerance.
When she sat down at her computer on Monday, she was heartsick and frustrated. She thought of the Syrian families, desperate and hungry, so much like her own so long ago.
IS is a cancer on society, Shams says. But the people of Syria are simply people, seeking refuge from the horrors in their homeland.
“Governor Ricketts, I am ashamed of you and your knee-jerk reaction,” she wrote. “I hope you read more into what qualifies a refugee to seek refugee status in the United States ... I know for a fact that my home state of Nebraska does not carry the hate that you do.”
Nearly 200 people shared her Facebook post, now seen by thousands.
Shams isn’t afraid to speak up, to ask her governor to educate himself on the refugee process, and the law, she says.
“His words carry no weight because of the Refugee Act of 1980.”
And she’s not afraid she’s wrong when she promotes her home -- “endlessly” -- to strangers.
“I tell them, ‘You have to go. You don’t understand Nebraska Nice until you’re there.’”
Once she wanted to pursue a career in politics, Shams says, but her mother didn’t want her to.
I don’t want to get deported, she told her daughter.
“I told her, ‘Mom, you’re a citizen.’”
A citizen who was once a refugee, who fled a land where bad things happened if you spoke up. A refugee who left behind home, loved ones, country, a mother seeking a safe harbor for her family.
And finding it.
She is content to call this place home. Shams said she and her siblings are always trying to get their mom to travel and she won't go.
“We try to pull and tug, but my mom refuses to leave Nebraska.”
And her outspoken daughter can't wait to come back.