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Resettlement agencies working to find homes, services for Afghan refugees arriving in Lincoln
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REFUGEES

Resettlement agencies working to find homes, services for Afghan refugees arriving in Lincoln

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The first Afghan family that Pimpicha Tubsuwan helped resettle in Lincoln — a husband, wife and their four school-aged children — had joined the chaos at the Kabul airport in August armed only with hope.

They had no passports, just papers showing that the father had worked for the U.S. military —  enough to get his family on a plane that would lift them out of the chaos and place them at a U.S. military base.

On Sept. 27, they arrived in Lincoln, unable to speak English, other family members still in Afghanistan, with little more than the clothes they were wearing.

They are among more than 140 Afghan refugees evacuated from Kabul who have arrived in Lincoln since late September or early October, and more are coming — a significant challenge for the city’s two refugee resettlement agencies forced to downsize considerably after the Trump administration reduced the number of immigrants allowed in the country — and the pandemic hit.

The agencies — Catholic Social Services and Lutheran Family Services — are both in the process of hiring more people to help with resettlement and scrambling to make sure the new arrivals have a place to live, furniture, food and clothes and get connected to the services they need.

One of the challenges is how quickly they’re coming — and with little notice. Typically, agencies get a couple weeks' notice that a family will be coming, said Sharon Brodkey, director of public relations and marketing for Lutheran Family Services.

When the first Afghan refugees started arriving, they’d get two or three days' notice, Tubsuwan said. Now it’s about a week.

“We haven’t had this before,” Tubsuwan said. “All the agencies are trying to figure it out together. It’s a challenge. It’s an effort of the community to get through it, to help them, because we’re all human.”

Finding housing has been particularly challenging and some families are living in Airbnbs and hotels while the agencies look for permanent housing, Brodkey said.

Finding homes for refugees is always challenging — they typically have no credit history, have yet to find jobs and may not speak English. It’s even harder now, with the spike in housing prices during the pandemic.

The hotels and Airbnbs are temporary solutions, said the resettlement officials.

“After people who have been through what they’ve been through, the last thing we want to do is not have a place they can call their own,” Brodkey said.

Tubsuwan said Catholic Social Services tries to find them permanent homes within two or three weeks.

Nebraska will ultimately resettle more than 700 refugees.

In Lincoln, Lutheran Family Services has committed to resettling 230. Eighty have arrived so far, Brodkey said. Catholic Social Services originally agreed to settle 125 Afghan refugees, but increased that to 165 because of the need, Tubsuwan said. A little more than 60 are here so far.

In Omaha, the Refugee Empowerment Center will resettle up to 400, said Executive Director Amanda Kohler. About 100 have already arrived.

The Omaha center has also been hiring. At the lowest point in the past two years, the center had just one full-time resettlement caseworker because the workload was so low, she said. They have six now, two of whom were just hired. They’ve also trained 140 volunteers to work with families in the last month, Kohler said.

“The outpouring of support from everyday Nebraskans has been incredible,” she said.

The influx of Afghan refugees was unexpected, but most agencies had been gearing up because the Biden administration had increased the number of immigrants allowed in the country.

“We were starting to rebuild those levels,” Brodkey said. “We just had to do it at an accelerated pace.”

The Afghan refugees coming to Nebraska are among hundreds of thousands of Afghans evacuated from their country after the withdrawal of U.S. troops after 20 years of war, followed by the rapid rise of the Taliban to power.

Roughly 46,000 Afghan evacuees are currently living at eight military installations across the U.S., according to CBS News. There, they are vetted and waiting to be relocated to cities across the country, where resettlement agencies will find them homes. Federal officials hope to have them relocated by mid-February.

Linda Hix, federal programs director at Lincoln Public Schools, said they’ve gotten a few children from Afghanistan, but not many so far.

“We are watching for that, but it hasn’t happened yet,” she said.

Each person or family has their own needs the resettlement agencies try to address, Tubsuwan said. Some need to be connected to agencies that will help them learn English, they need housing, jobs, access to benefits. Some need to find a place to live that is close to a school or services they need, since most don’t have a car yet.

Tubsuwan hears the stories of people forced to leave their homes, and she wants the community to welcome them to their new home.

“They were fleeing for their lives,” Tubsuwan said. “That’s why I’m so passionate about refugees. They always have a story. And they’re all unique.”

How to help

Catholic Social Services has set up a gift registry for those who would like to buy items online for Afghan refugees being resettled in Lincoln. The most needed items now are pot and pan sets, dish sets, vacuums, twin sheets and comforters.

The online registry is at:

https://www.myregistry.com/organization/catholic-social-services-lincoln-ne/3002531

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist

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Local government reporter

Margaret Reist is a recovering education reporter now writing about local and county government and the people who live in the city where she was born and raised.

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