polo button downs For family of African refugees in Omaha
The rules to survive are many and complex, and it can be so hard to keep up when you’re working full time at night, cramming English language classes during the day and juggling 21st century American life.
Balancing work and home can be hard enough to do when you’re born here, but try doing it like Sadiki, with five children ages 10 to 2 and without enough dressers or beds or, some days, food.
Sadiki, who left the refugee camp where all his children were born because there was no opportunity and not enough to eat, still finds in this land of plenty that he is perpetually worried about being able to feed his family.
In occasional interviews over the past 10 months, Sadiki has sounded alternately hopeful and despondent.
In March, he said through a translator, “Omaha life is good because, first, we have security. We believe things will be better.”
But earlier this month, Sadiki was less convinced, feeling he wasn’t getting ahead. In Swahili translated by local therapist and Kenya native Betty Kola, he said: “We don’t know whether we are coming or going. We don’t know where the future is going.”
Sadiki’s struggles come at the end of a two year whiplash in refugee resettlement that has placed the focus on America’s front door: how many refugees can come in, and from where.
In 2016, nearly 85,000 refugees came to the United States, the most since 2000, and Sadiki’s family was part of that wave.
President Barack Obama called for bringing in even more 110,000 in 2017. Then President Donald Trump cut the number of refugees: 53,716 came in 2017 and he set a ceiling of 45,000 for 2018.
As Sadiki’s story shows, refugees who could use more help are already here, in America’s living room.
Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a war torn central African nation, Sadiki once ran for his life. His father had changed religions. One group didn’t like that, and Sadiki wound up in the Nyarugusu refugee camp in neighboring Tanzania. It has had about three times as many people as Bellevue.
Sadiki met his wife, Salima, a Congolese born woman, there. Their five children were born there.
The camp offered nowhere he could ply his trade as a tailor. The Ngomas lived in an open air mud brick home. They made do on rations of beans, maize and cooking oil.
Sadiki saw no future there and applied to get out. After living there for almost 20 years, he was among the lucky few selected to leave, with his wife and children. About 22.5 million who have fled their home countries are officially designated as refugees. The United Nations formally resettled a tiny fraction 189,300 in 2016, the year Sadiki came to Omaha.
The Ngomas came in July, just as refugees were coming in much bigger numbers than the year before and as the local agency resettling them, Refugee Empowerment Center, was itself having problems. There was staff turnover. The executive director left. Sadiki’s caseworker was reassigned.
Nebraska, because of available jobs in the meatpacking and hospitality industries and family members already here, was attracting many during the crush of refugee arrivals. The state took in more refugees per capita in the 2016 fiscal year than any other state. An Omaha health clinic handling most refugee vaccinations and checkups was so backlogged that children were delayed starting school on time.
On the July day when Sadiki and his family from halfway around the world showed up at Eppley Airfield, there were just two people to greet them: a caseworker who herself had been a refugee, but from a different continent, and another agency worker. Neither could speak Swahili, the family’s language. The translator who could have smoothed this initial welcome had not been called.
The federal government specifies how local resettlement agencies are supposed to handle refugees when they get here. In a 41 page document, the State Department says resettlement agencies are to provide a range of help, starting with the airport greeting and transportation to a home.
That home is to be fully stocked with enough flatware and plates for each person in the household, enough beds and a “culturally appropriate” meal that day. Agencies don’t have to provide toys, but the beds should have sheets. Items don’t need to be new, but they should include a table and chairs, dressers, cooking items and everything practical anyone would need to get started, including toiletries, cleaning supplies and an alarm clock.
After that, the resettlement agency and new refugees have a short timetable to finish a long checklist: health exams and vaccinations; school enrollment; job applications; a whirlwind America 101, or quick lessons on everything from banking and bus riding to thermostat setting.
The system provides about $2,000 per family member in the household. But resettlement agencies get about half that to use for case management and other general expenses. A refugee’s share must go toward costs starting on day one, such as rent, food, clothes and any necessities that were not donated. The agencies also provide a case manager for 90 days. government their travel expenses.
Refugees are eligible for a range of social services, such as Medicaid, food stamps and cash welfare, and eligibility depends on income and family size, as with any other recipient.
Refugees who get a proper welcome from committed volunteers, have family already in town and have the time and skills to learn English are much better off than those who don’t.
Volunteers play an especially important role.
The gold standard of this was a Syrian family’s welcome before Christmas in 2016. Members of a west Omaha church prepared a rental home with everything a family of five, including an expectant mother, might need. Plus, they filled the pantry with food and collected hundreds of dollars in gift cards.
These volunteer helpers greeted the Syrians at the airport warmly, accompanied them to the house and continued to show up in the days and weeks and months that followed.
They arranged a schedule of help and divided up the duties, from running dad to English class to getting mom to the grocery store. Dad has a job. Mom has a driver’s permit. The older boys are in school.