Immigrants & Refugees Building a Welcoming Community

Editor’s note: This is the final article in a series of features on immigrants and refugees within Nebraska communities. Our next in-depth series focusing on mental health will kick off in April. 

When the newest member of the Greater Omaha Chamber’s CODE team, Alejandra Jimenez, launched her four-part New American Integration series she thought she’d reach maybe 40 individuals. 

The series ended up with 447 attendees from 113 different businesses and organizations. 

“Forty-one participants received a certificate of completion for their dedication and desire to learn more on how to best support the immigrant and refugee communities,” she said. “That’s when you know there’s a need.” 

Years of Waiting

The “need” includes not only education, but also services for thousands of immigrants and refugees who call Nebraska, notably Omaha, home. 

Take for example the Intercultural Senior Center (ISC), founded in 2009 by Carolina Padilla to serve immigrants and refugees over the age of 50. In 2022 ISC provided services for individuals from 24 countries. 

Last year, Lutheran Family Services (LFS) helped 1,180 refugees, 110 of which fled Ukraine. 

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“They say upwards of 60 million people at any time are displaced from their homes because of political unrest, natural disasters, famines,” said Matt Martin, assistant vice president of immigrants and refugees at LFS. 

He said that individuals and families can end up living in refugee camps for years, sometimes even decades, while they work through the screening process, obtaining necessary documents, and awaiting placement. 

In the U.S. the president’s administration determines how many refugees will be allowed into the country each year. For reference, former President Trump set the admission ceiling at 18,000 in 2020. In comparison, the Biden Administration has set the ceiling at 125,000 refugees for the 2023 Fiscal Year. It’s important to note, however, that the ceiling is rarely met. 

While the influx of potential workers is needed in an economy with a national unemployment rate of 3.6% (2.5% in Nebraska), there are also essential services needed to help immigrants and refugees not only assimilate but thrive. 

Services such as interpretation during job training, helping families enroll children in school, and acquiring essential household items. 

“It can’t just be about employment,” Martin said.

This is why Jimenez, drawing from her personal experience as a first-generation Mexican American, selected retention, community and family support, transportation and affordable housing as topics for the series. 

Opening Dialogue

It isn’t a coincidence that LFS and the Refugee Empowerment Center (REC), also focus on these areas when speaking to employers. 

For example, Tanya DeWolf, director of refugee services at REC, said transportation is one of the first things they discuss with potential employers. 

“Their work either needs to be on a bus route, or [employers] need to think about how they can help with transportation at the beginning before somebody can buy a car,” she said. 

Some companies have “gotten creative” with solutions ranging from sending vans to central pick-up locations, to providing a bi-weekly stipend for transportation during the first six months of employment. 

Airlite Plastics, a locally-owned company, turned to its employees for help when discussing hiring incoming refugees during the Afghan Refugee Crisis in August 2021. 

“We asked our regular employees if anyone would be willing to drive a vehicle and pick people up and take them back at the end of the day,” said Lori Bruckner, vice president of human resources at Airlite. “That was a big deal because it was an extra 30-45 minutes each day and we weren’t allowed to pay them for it.” 

She said employees stepped up, not only with transportation but also interpretation. Airlite Plastics already employed a handful of Afghans who could help new refugees, creating a welcoming workplace. 

Rendering of the La Plaza de la Raza, part of the Adelante II South Omaha initiative to redevelop the 24th Street corridor in South Omaha.
Rendering of the La Plaza de la Raza, part of the Adelante II South Omaha initiative to redevelop the 24th Street corridor in South Omaha.

Airlite has a history of welcoming refugees and has employees and programs for individuals speaking Spanish, French, Burmese, Karen, Vietnamese, Pashto and Dari. 

Upon resettlement, all refugees begin English as a second language (ESL) classes, but employers need to understand that grasping a new language can take time. 

It’s helpful if current staff can help newcomers, but LFS and REC can also offer interpretation services for a limited time. 

Providing a Lifeline

LFS and REC continue, in most cases, to play a critical role in bridging gaps well after the 90-day adjustment period.  

“Our employers have a great advantage in that they kind of have a ‘mom’ to complain to,” DeWolf said. “[Our employers] are able to call us and say ‘it looks like this person is struggling, or there’s some miscommunication’ and we can provide that support throughout the first year.” 

DeWolf gave the example that a refugee might not understand why taxes are being taken out of their paychecks, or they might show up to work late. 

Martin said LFS acts in similar ways and another example has to do with housing. He gave an example of a refugee tenant who perhaps paints a wall in the apartment not understanding the rental agreement. 

“By having that relationship with the landlord they can call us and we can go back and talk to the refugee,” Martin said. “We can advocate for everybody involved in the situation to resolve it.” 


Celebrating Differences

While it’s important to help refugees and immigrants acclimate, it’s just as important to recognize and celebrate their differences so they can feel included. 

That’s one of the reasons ISC has continued to grow. 

“Even seniors that don’t speak the same language, they socialize, or they get to know each other by participating in English classes, citizenship classes, or doing art, music or dancing,” Padilla said. 

“You don’t have to speak the same language, to be friends and to be together.”

DeWolf said she encourages employers to engage with their new employees in a way that might feel uncomfortable. 

“Even something as small as learning how to say hello in their native language, or using cultural handshakes and then doing that each day,” she said. 

“It might be uncomfortable for you, but at the same time, you’re giving them the allowance to be different. You’re saying that it’s okay to be different and it’s cool to be different.” 

Providing religious accommodations, such as a prayer space, or dietary accommodations during luncheons, can also be a good way to include new employees. 

Places for Connection

Creating spaces in the community where culture can be celebrated is equally important. Getting funding and support for such spaces can be difficult, especially for minorities who are historically underrepresented. 

“We all need to be the voice for someone else,” said Itzel Lopez, president and founding member of the Latino Economic Development Corporation (LEDC). 

Lopez is one of seven founding members who felt the Latino community in South Omaha was not being represented fairly.

“We were tired of being left out of the conversations where policies were being made,” she said. “Our mission is to create conditions for economic growth by increasing tourism and paying homage to our culture.” 

LEDC’s first order of business is securing funding for its $94 million Adelante II South Omaha initiative to revitalize the 24th Street corridor. The first phase will see La Plaza de la Raza transformed into a green space with a STEM learning playground, amphitheater, and walking paths. Programming will include different fitness classes and festivals. 

The hope is that individuals come down for the programming, or to experience the green space, and then adventure out and explore the more than 100 small businesses.

Plans for subsequent phases include a workforce development center, incubator space, mixed-income housing, and a parking garage. 

Get Involved

It’s important to remember that when refugees arrive they often only have a backpack filled with their personal effects, so they need help acquiring everything else. This can also be the case for immigrants. 

As such, organizations are in constant need of monetary donations, as well as furniture, household, hygiene and food items. Hosting a drive for food, coats, or hygiene items could be a great way to get involved. Organizations also need help organizing and moving said goods. 

For example, ISC always needs its food pantry, whether it’s delivering goods or helping bag items. 

Padilla said companies could also volunteer to serve during a lunch service, which would help employees interact with a diverse aging population. 

“I think people should be exposed to people from different nationalities because it helps us understand a little bit more about each other as humans,” she said. 

If you want to get involved but you’re not sure where to start, reach out to organizations helping the immigrants and refugee populations.