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Nebraska Afghan Community Center offers hospitality, help to refugees

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Sadia Shamal poses for a portrait inside of the Nebraska Afghan Community Center on Friday.

The Noor family has faced new beginnings and many firsts since their arrival to Omaha in November. In April, the family observed their first Ramadan in the United States.

As an Arctic cold front settled into Nebraska one bright December morning, a small apartment in midtown Omaha bustled with a warmth generated not only by the heater, but also by human kindness.

A sign on the door identified the apartment as the Nebraska Afghan Community Center. One step inside quickly afforded a view of what that meant.

In the living room, a family of five lined up to receive flu shots and COVID booster vaccines from nurses. In the galley kitchen, a volunteer sat at a table between curio shelves stacked with children’s and young adult books and a countertop where tea was brewing.

A narrow hallway passed a closet filled with donated clothing. Toys for Tots boxes brimming with toys lined one wall of the only bedroom, across from a desk and chairs and plastic tubs of baby clothes beside another full closet.

Groups of people conversed, using multiple languages. Volunteers greeted families, offered them tea, talked about their needs and discussed how they could help. The volunteers also talked up an indoor cricket tournament they would launch later that day as a recreation outlet and community-building activity.

The apartment serves as the humble beginning home of the new Nebraska Afghan Community Center. Even though no one lives there, it’s the picture of hospitality. Afghan immigrants who have lived in Omaha for several years created the community center last year after the fall of the Afghanistan government.

“We never had anything quite like this for our community,” said Mohammad Sahil, a refugee resettlement agency worker who is co-founder of the community center. “Our community needed this so much because we have so many more people coming here.”

Afghans have migrated to the United States and Nebraska sporadically over the past half a century. Nebraska has been an attractive destination in part because of the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Center for Afghanistan Studies, which was established in 1972. People have come to Nebraska from Afghanistan in four main waves: as students in the late 1960s and early 1970s; when the Soviets invaded in the early 1980s; when the Taliban took power in the 1990s; and after Kabul collapsed in August 2021, said Sher Jan Ahmadzai, director of the UNO Center for Afghanistan Studies.

Notably, a number of Afghans also came to Omaha in the 2010s through the federal Afghan Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program, created in 2009 to protect Afghans who worked with American forces, often as interpreters.

The most recent wave is the biggest, said Ahmadzai, who’s on the advisory board of the new center. To date, 1,248 Afghans have been resettled to Nebraska through the federal Afghan Placement and Assistance Program, according to the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. Overall, it’s estimated that a total of nearly 2,000 Afghans have come to Nebraska since August 2021, Ahmadzai said.

“That almost doubles the population of Afghans in Nebraska,” he said.

Omaha has vibrant, well-connected Afghan community that has built itself up through a focus on education and pursuing economic opportunity. That includes the Afghan Islamic Community Center of Omaha, which has been around for several years and operates a mosque in Millard.

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Previous generations of Afghan immigrants to Omaha have sought to help people coming more recently. The new Nebraska Afghan Community Center is part of their effort to do that. It’s meant to be complementary to the Afghan Islamic center and to resettlement agencies’ work.

“We had the mosque, but a lot of these things, you can’t do at the mosque,” Sahil said. “We need a place like this, a physical place for Afghans to come to, where we can have volunteers, and we can store things.”

The apartment complex owner, Paladino Development Group, is letting the center rent the apartment for $115 a month.

The center is open for a few hours on Saturdays. Many of the volunteers, including Sahil, are former interpreters for U.S. troops. So they are fluent in the two main languages Afghans speak, Pashto and Dari, as well as in English. Plus they have been through many of the same issues with American government as the more recently arriving people face, Sahil said.

People who don’t speak English come in for help with such basic things as reading their mail, said Shafiq Jahish, a volunteer who works in information technology at First National Bank. Volunteers help people discern what might be an important document from the U.S. State Department that requires a response.

They help people with transportation, and with studying for and obtaining driver’s licenses. They’ve helped people navigate issues with schools and medical institutions. They connect people with community agencies. Recently, they helped a family who was having a hard time getting their landlord to make repairs to their rental home.

The organization’s stated mission is to build a unified, educated and self-sufficient Afghan community in Nebraska. That involves helping Afghans of various ethnicities, cultures and languages integrate with each other, and with the wider community in their new country.

The center has had cultural and social events. The vaccination clinic in December was a joint effort with OneWorld Community Health Centers, for example.

Most recently, the center organized a cricket tournament as the first of what Sahil hopes will be many sporting events, including soccer and volleyball. Cricket is a popular sport in Afghanistan. A local team of Afghans has done well in competitions in Omaha.

The Nebraska Afghan Community Center opened it up with hopes of forming teams blended with people who have been in Omaha for years and those who’ve just come. They put six such teams together with about 50 players total. They began play in December in the gym at The Simple Foundation’s center in South Omaha. They’ll play for a few more weekends.

In the first match, the Pamir Heroes defeated the Eagles. The Heroes team included men who have been in Omaha for nine years and five years, and one who just arrived three months ago. Sher Jan Ahmadzai is on the team. So is Muhid Saidy, a 19-year-old Metro Community College student who learned to love the sport in youth cricket leagues as a kid in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.

The Pamir Heroes huddled after the match to celebrate and to strategize for the next one. They cheered heartily as Sahil and Hanif Sufizada, who was evacuated from Kabul during the 2021 chaos, presented the man of the match medal to Khyber Malakzai, a former interpreter for U.S. troops in Afghanistan who came to Omaha eight years ago.

“It’s going to help them mentally, socially, and becoming involved in things as well,” Sahil said.

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Chris Burbach covers the Douglas County Board, Planning Board and other local government bodies, as well as local neighborhood issues. Follow him on Twitter @chrisburbach. Phone: 402-444-1057.

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