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Midlands Voices: We must carry on the American legacy of helping refugees

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Last August, we watched Afghans running alongside planes in a desperate attempt to escape the Taliban. Since February, we’ve seen Ukrainian refugees flee by train, bus and foot to escape the advancing Russian army. Forty-seven years ago, my mother was just like them: She was 18, running frantically through an airfield alongside her parents and siblings, desperate to escape Saigon.

After traveling many days by boat to the Philippines — and nearly starving — the family was eventually flown to Guam and then the U.S. They resettled in Lafayette, Indiana, where White Americans at a Baptist church sponsored them. Volunteers provided furniture, helped them set up their home, taught them how to navigate American life and, eventually, became their closest friends. It was in this fertile soil of love and hospitality that my mother’s Christian faith sprouted and her new life began.

Jennifer Liu headshot.jpeg

Jennifer Liu

This kind of community support can be the difference between whether a refugee family struggles or thrives in America. And the need for it is more urgent than ever. America has a proud tradition of welcoming refugees, but our resettlement infrastructure was largely dismantled under the last administration.

The arrival of 65,000 new Afghan refugees — and likely more from Ukraine — is straining the system. We desperately need funding, programming and volunteers to help families who’ve been forced to restart their lives from scratch. It’s why I’m calling on my fellow citizens and people of faith to step forward and help.

Many of the Afghans moving into our neighborhoods served alongside the U.S. military and protected our men and women in uniform. I wanted to help them, as they’d helped us. So in November 2021, I volunteered with Refugee Empowerment Center to help resettle Afghans here in Omaha. I was paired with two young families — married couples in their early 20s. The men are cousins who worked as security guards for the U.S. military in Afghanistan. Their wives had just finished high school and were hoping to start a family. They told me that they had to leave Kabul, because they feared retaliation from the Taliban.

Since I first met them last November, I’ve visited them every few weeks at the one-bedroom apartment they share in North Omaha. Every time I see them, the simple things have made my heart swell: how they first wrapped themselves in blankets against the cold and, later, how their eyes lit up in Target when they saw the bounty of puffy jackets and winter boots. In these moments, I often think of God’s faithfulness and provision for my own family when they found sanctuary in America.

I still remember the lunch when I introduced my husband and four children to the two young Afghan couples. They were sweet, asking my kids questions and regaling us with stories in their limited English. We laughed our way through the language barrier, which helped my children see how deeply knit humanity really is, despite the customs the cultures that separate us.

These couples are so young and when I look in their eyes, I sometimes see glimpses of my mother. She was a few years younger than them when she landed on U.S. soil, scared and so uncertain about her future. She didn’t know that a few volunteers from the local church would change her life. Or that she’d go on to meet my dad, who fled communist China and would become a doctor for the U.S. Army.

She certainly didn’t know that she would raise five happy, healthy American children who were also guided by their faith.

I hope the same for my Afghan friends and for the tens of thousands of refugees who are making their way here today. Our welcoming support can make these American dreams come true. So please join me in this work. Bring your families, your faith communities and your neighbors. We can make a difference together.

OWH Midlands Voices April 2022

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Jennifer Liu is a family physician at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

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