Migrant crisis

A Syrian father helps his child as they arrive from Turkey to the shores of the Greek island of Lesbos, on an inflatable dinghy, Saturday Sept. 26, 2015. More than 260,000 asylum-seekers have arrived in Greece so far this year, most reaching the country's eastern islands on flimsy rafts or boats from the nearby Turkish coast.

The United States has accepted some 1,600 Syrian refugees since 2011, but so far the federal government hasn't placed any in Nebraska.

"That doesn't mean it won't," said Fa'iz Rab, spokesman for Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska, one of three refugee resettlement organizations in the state.

Those groups could know more as soon as next month.

The State Department is preparing to accept at least 10,000 more Syrian refugees during the next federal fiscal year, which begins Thursday. White House officials have said that number could change and are expected to provide more details next month.

Worldwide, more than 4 million Syrian refugees have fled their country, flooding nearby nations such as Turkey and Lebanon and more recently flowing into Europe by the thousands. An estimated 7.6 million more are considered internally displaced — forced from their homes by the four-year civil war but still living in Syria.

In the meantime, Nebraskans have grown eager to help.

"We've had a lot of people calling, which has been amazing," said Lacey Studnicka, program development officer with Lutheran Family Services, which operates in Lincoln and Omaha. "It's not in our hands."

Nebraska probably won't receive Syrian refugees until other arrivals — particularly those with family ties here — begin to slow, said state refugee coordinator Karen Parde. Those include significant numbers of Iraqi people coming to Lincoln, Bhutanese people coming to Omaha, and Burmese people settling in both cities.

Omaha has a small Syrian population: maybe a dozen people who speak English and are acclimated to the community, said Scott Larsen, outreach coordinator at the Refugee Empowerment Center, another of the refugee resettlement organizations in the state.

The third is Catholic Social Services, which only works with refugees who have family ties in the Lincoln area.

National organizations tend to place refugees near family or, at a minimum, people from similar cultural backgrounds. 

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Larsen has already connected with one Syrian man in Omaha and plans to arrange a gathering with others in the coming weeks.

"Because of that, we might be a resettlement site," Larsen said.

When it comes to resources, such as Arabic speakers, the state's two largest cities are already somewhat prepared to help.

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"We could probably support Syrian refugees immediately," Parde said.

The screening and approval process for those individuals to enter the United States takes 18 to 24 months, and involves background checks — including fingerprinting and photographs — by the departments of State and Homeland Security, as well as an in-person interview with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Once refugees are here, the state Department of Health and Human Services helps connect them with employment programs, English language classes, schools and other programs, Parde said. The state also distributes cash and medical assistance to each refugee for up to eight months, paid for by the federal government.

September is boom time for refugee organizations, with the federal fiscal year winding down. 

Rab said Lutheran Family Services is helping 95 refugees resettle in Nebraska this month, a record for the group. The Refugee Empowerment Center expects about 45 arrivals by month's end, including some who were scheduled to land at Eppley Airfield on Monday night.

"We've had quite a few people that want to help sponsor a family or purchase the items they need," said Ann Marie Kudlacz, executive director at the Refugee Empowerment Center.

"There are other families arriving every week that could use your help, too."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7234 or zpluhacek@journalstar.com. On Twitter @zachamiLJS.


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