By Megan Crain
On a cold and snowy Friday afternoon in the middle of February, a conference room in the lower level of the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department is warm and welcoming.
A group of tables in the center of the room have been pushed together to form a large square. There’s a small pot of coffee in the corner. People file into the room and exchange smiles and greetings.
Everyone who gathers here each month at noon has a higher purpose: to work together to help serve Lincoln’s immigrants and refugees.
The New Americans Task Force, a group of representatives from non-profits, government agencies and the community, has been played an important role in Lincoln for 34 years.
“The mission of the task force is to serve immigrants and refugees in Lincoln, with the intention of empowering these community members and eliminating the barriers that prevent them from success,” said Lee Kreimer, one of the task force’s co-chairs and the Family Resources Program manager at the Asian Center.
From the Asian Community and Cultural Center and Lincoln Literacy to the Department of Health and Human Services and Lincoln Public Schools, many interests are represented at the table. Anywhere from 20 to 40 people attend meetings.
And real problems have been solved at task force meetings.
Christa Yoakum, a former co-chair who has been attending task force meetings for seven years, recalled a time when women in hijabs reported being harassed while walking to classes at the Good Neighbor Community Center on 27th Street.
The task force members put their heads together to ensure these women would be safe when walking to their classes.
“One of the solutions was to put welcoming signs in different businesses up and down 27th Street that would be a signal that this is a safe place,” Yoakum said. “If you’re being harassed, come in here.”
Refugee resettlement used to be one of the biggest parts of the group’s agenda. Co-chair Donna Stadig said there was a time when so many refugees were coming into Lincoln that most of the task force’s energy was focused on ensuring jobs and housing were available for those refugees.
However, refugee resettlement has been curbed drastically by the Trump administration. In 2016, almost 85,000 refugees were resettled in the United States, which was the highest since 1999, according to data from the Migration Policy Institute.
In 2018, only 22,491 refugees were admitted into the U.S. Not only is that the lowest number for refugee arrivals in years, it is less than half of the annual cap on refugees entering the United States.
“Given that refugee [resettlement] has been greatly reduced, the focus [of the task force] isn’t really on that anymore,” said Stadig, who is the associate director at Lincoln Literacy.
Instead, the task force has put more emphasis on having speakers attend meetings to educate members on something new or different.
“In addition to providing opportunities for agencies to troubleshoot situations or bring up concerns in the community, we also provide a space for learning more about the communities we serve,” Kreimer said.
She said they’ve brought in a wide range of people to speak during meetings. Recently, representatives from Girl Scouts and the Interfaith Coalition have given presentations at task force meetings.
The New Americans Task Force was originally formed in 1985 at the directive of then-mayor Helen Boosalis, according to the group’s website.
Boosalis asked the Lincoln-Lancaster Human Services Administration to bring together a group of people who could track refugee arrivals and ensure refugees had access to needed resources. At the time, thousands of Vietnamese refugees were being resettled in Lincoln and the surrounding area.
The group met informally for a few years before creating a more official task force in 1991. Thirteen different organizations were invited to participate in what was then called the Immigrant and Refugee Task Force.
The name of the group was changed to the New Americans Task Force in 2002 in an effort to be more inclusive. While the name might have changed, the group’s ultimate goal is still similar to what it was back in 1985.
Since then, the task force has provided a space for service providers to learn about what’s going on with the New Americans in their community, which is extremely valuable for them.
“I think it’s really worthwhile,” Stadig said. “I feel really engaged with the community around me.”
Yoakum, who is program coordinator for Nebraska Is Home at Nebraska Appleseed, a program “for welcoming and inclusion,” said being involved in the task force has been extremely beneficial. She has helped put together similar groups in different communities around Nebraska.
“It’s great for me to just know there are all these people out there doing really good work,” she said. “It is an opportunity for people from different sectors to come together and problem-solve about what they want for their community.”