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About 500 Afghan refugees have arrived in Nebraska; resettlement agencies swamped

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See how many evacuees have arrived in Nebraska since Afghanistan fell — and how many are still on their way.

The number of Afghan evacuees coming to Nebraska has grown to over 1,000, and about 500 of them have already reached the state.

So far, 469 people evacuated from Afghanistan since the nation’s Aug. 15 collapse have arrived in Nebraska, or are on their way, from U.S. military bases around the nation. Another 635 Afghan evacuees destined for Nebraska were still at bases, Nebraska State Refugee Coordinator Sara Bockelman said Wednesday.

That’s in addition to a smaller, undetermined number of people who came directly to Omaha from Afghanistan or otherwise have ended up in Nebraska.

Bockelman, speaking to a meeting of the Omaha Refugee Task Force, said a total of 1,104 Afghan evacuees are currently expected in Nebraska. Initially, it was projected that about 655 Afghan evacuees would be placed in Nebraska. But officials said all along that they expected that number to grow.

About 300 of the Afghan evacuees so far have been placed in metropolitan Omaha by Lutheran Family Services and the Refugee Empowerment Center, the two resettlement agencies that place people in Omaha. Others have been placed in Lincoln and Council Bluffs.

To give you some idea of the rapid pace at which people are coming to Nebraska, Lutheran Family Services received 92 Afghan evacuees, including 39 school-age children, in November alone, an official of the agency said at Wednesday’s meeting. And the Refugee Empowerment Center was expecting 20 people to arrive in Omaha on Wednesday.

That is stretching the capacity of the resettlement agencies and requiring extra stepping-up from the nonprofit organizations and volunteers that help refugees.

“The resettlement agencies are at capacity,” Bockelman said. “They are packed to the gills. They’re hiring people as fast as they can to help with the resettlement. ... Everybody is working as hard as they can.”

Housing, as expected, is proving to be a challenge. While many people have been placed in apartments or rental houses, some are staying in such temporary lodging as Airbnbs and extended-stay hotels while agencies seek homes for them. The general shortage of affordable housing in Omaha is further complicated because many people coming from Afghanistan have large families.

“It’s pretty crazy at the moment,” said Matthew Martin, assistant vice president of community services in Lutheran Family Services’ refugee and immigrant programs.

He said the two main challenges for resettlement agencies right now are housing and staffing.

“We are trying mightily to staff up,” Martin said. “Across the state, we have 13 open positions that we’re trying to fill.”

Those include such front-line workers as case managers, case aides and employment specialists. It’s hard to find experienced, trained, knowledgeable people for those jobs, let alone native speakers of Pashto and Dari, the main languages spoken by the Afghans who are coming.

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He said Lutheran Family Services has hired a housing coordinator focused on working with landlords and looking for other housing opportunities. National resettlement agencies, such as the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and Church World Services, are also helping with the housing effort. The state also has received money for a statewide housing coordinator. That’s in addition to community organization efforts to recruit and educate landlords and help refugees be successful renters.

Individuals, churches and other groups are also stepping up.

“The community support has been phenomenal,” Martin said. “We have tons of co-sponsors that have signed on.”

The co-sponsors help families with such things as rides to appointments and grocery stores, navigating daily life in a new place with a foreign language, and by supplying household items.

Martin said the agency has received so many donated items that its storage space is full. Asked how people can help, he suggested monetary donations to resettlement agencies or nonprofits that assist them.

Because of the rush of evacuations, a lot of the Afghans of working age are coming without the employment documents that most refugees have when they arrive. So they will need financial help for longer than the usually expected three months until they can start working.

The situation of an Afghan family of eight in midtown Omaha shows the challenges that families and resettlement agencies are facing. They were placed by the Refugee Empowerment Center in mid-October in a rental house. The agency is supposed to pay the family’s rent out of their federal resettlement allotment. But the agency apparently was not paying the full rent on time — the family received a seven-day eviction notice this week from the landlord, Paladino Development Group.

A woman who answered the phone at the company Wednesday said that she couldn’t discuss an individual customer’s situation but that it appeared that the matter had been cleared up the day before.

The Refugee Empowerment Center, a small organization, recently lost its executive director and housing coordinator and is being managed temporarily by another nonprofit, the Immigrant Legal Center.

In a statement issued through a spokesperson, the agency said, “It takes many people and organizations in a community to resettle refugees, and this is an example of two partners working together to find affordable and available housing. We work with this particular landlord often and maintain open lines of communication to ensure issues like this are resolved quickly, and this situation has already been resolved.”

Meanwhile, it appears that the pace of Afghan evacuees’ arrival to Nebraska will only pick up. The federal government has set a deadline of Feb. 15 for all people at U.S. military bases to be sent to cities around the nation. Officials at two of those bases have set an earlier deadline, the end of this year.

“Between now and Feb. 15, we don’t really get a breather,” Martin 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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