By Robby Korth and Preston Thiemann
Ishmael Khro was born in northern Iraq. When asked, however, he will explain that he’s really from Lincoln.
Khro, who felt threatened in Iraq because of his minority status as a Yazidi and because he had worked as an interpreter for the U.S. Army during the Iraq War is one of about 270 refugees who arrived in Lincoln this year, fleeing the persecution and violence of their home countries for the relative safety of the United States.
The number of refugees coming into the United States and Nebraska fluctuates from year to year. Between 2002 and 2012, Nebraska took in 5,697 refugees total, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
In 2010, 818 refugees were let into Nebraska, the highest number allowed during that time. The low was 199 refugees in 2002.
The first step to getting out is by registering as a refugee with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). From there, the commission will determine the fate of the refugee. The UNHCR will either ensure a safe return home for the refugee, integrate them into the population of the country they’ve fled to or, in less than 1 percent of refugee cases, resettle them into a new country.
The United States takes more than half of the refugees who are resettled into new countries, according to the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau for Population, Refugees and Migration.
Each year, the presidential administration determines how many refugees will be let into the country. For 2013, President Barack Obama’s administration determined that 70,000 refugees would be granted visas.
Refugees go through two interviews with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and a medical exam from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
This process can take several months and, though often intimidating to refugees, is ultimately rewarding when the interviews are over.
“They asked many questions,” Feyatal Ili, a middle-aged Yazidi woman from Northern Iraq said through an interpreter, of her interview.
The questions asked of her in Baghdad, three years ago, were drawn out in an effort to make sure Ili wasn’t a threat to national security. Many of them were about where her loyalties lay and if she wanted to hurt Americans.
At the end of the process she swore her loyalty to the U.S.
After the interview process, refugees are then assigned to one of nine volunteer agencies that oversee the resettlement process. If the refugees have family or friends in the states, they will be assigned to the same agency as whomever they’re tied to. If not, they will be assigned at random.
Volunteer agencies will then assign refugees to local branches to help them settle into a community. Lincoln has developed into a popular location with many vibrant and successful communities, said Karen Parde, refugee resettlement program coordinator for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.
“People have lots of family ties, rent and cost of living is lower than average here, and we have a really low unemployment rate,” Parde said.
The Department of Health and Human Services can only do so much when it comes to welcoming refugees into the community. Much of what the department does is determine where money goes to local resettlement and community services for refugees.
Catholic Social Services and Lutheran Social Services step in to help with directly settling refugees.
“(Resettlement) couldn’t happen without them,” Parde said. “We grant out the money and provide oversight and coordination. But the agencies are the ones out there who are actually out there doing all the work.”
The agencies are given $1,850 by the State Department and Health and Human Services to take care of each refugee for three months. Sometimes the money will come primarily from one government department or another, said Seth Odgaard, director of refugee resettlement for Catholic Social Services.
“It’s like Ghostbusters,” Odgaard said. “Sometimes the streams get crossed, and it gets kind of weird.”
Of that $1,850, $725 will go to administrative costs, while about $1,125 goes directly to the refugee to pay rent, furnish an apartment and pay basic living expenses.
If refugees already settled in Lincoln have family or friends coming, they will often help the agency by finding an apartment for the newcomers, Odgaard said. Most refugees currently coming into Lincoln do already have ties to the area. If not, they rely almost solely on resettlement agencies to find apartments.
Finding apartments isn’t easy. Elvis Acic, refugee placement case manager for the Lutheran Refugee Services, said that very few landlords in Lincoln are willing to rent an apartment to tenants they’re not yet able to meet and may not be able to communicate with.
Some landlords have consistently worked with resettlement agencies, but as Acic explained, they’re running out of apartments to rent out.
These apartments are then furnished before the refugee arrives. A majority of the furnishings are gently used donations from the community.
Having a place to live does not make a person resettled, however. Over the course of the next 90 days, the agencies continue working with the refugees to help them further settle in.
Acic said that how often agency employees check on refugees during those 90 days varies between individuals, depending on how much help they need.
“We have refugees in their 20s who have lived their whole lives in refugee camps,” Acic explained. “Some don’t even know how to use the toilet.”
But once refugees arrive, they’re supposed to be living on their own in 90 days. That means employment is necessary.
So, the agencies spend much of their time finding jobs for refugees either by scouring Craigslist or, in the case of about 80 percent of refugees, getting them a job in a meat packing plant, Odgaard said.
Khro has yet to find a job, but he’s in the process of looking, and he’s only been in the country for two months. He hopes that a job as a security guard could be in his future.
And while there are difficulties on his family’s mind and in their pocketbook, the move to Lincoln is still worth it.
Although he’s witnessed crimes and often sees police responding to calls near his apartment a couple blocks south of the Capitol, he never feels threatened when he’s pressed on the matter.
“Oh, it’s not dangerous here,” he said with a laugh.