Midlanders grasping for ways to help refugees from the Mideast have embraced the handful of families trickling into Nebraska and Iowa, while offering prayers and in some cases raising money for the millions displaced overseas.
Dr. Syed Mohiuddin, president of the American Muslim Institute, said several Syrian families have arrived in Nebraska, and the Muslim community is helping them with housing, legal aid and other immediate needs.
Mohiuddin said the institute, an umbrella organization for one of Omaha’s Islamic congregations, is working with its Jewish and Christian partners in Omaha’s Tri-Faith Initiative on the next steps.
“This is a huge crisis, and we can’t be silent,” he said.
The Rev. Eric Elnes of Countryside Community Church, a part of the initiative, concurred.
“We’re asking ourselves how we can be supportive of refugees,” he said.
Across the region, in synagogues, sanctuaries and mosques, prayers are being raised for refugees, religious leaders said. Some fundraising has begun. The Omaha Islamic Center, another Muslim denomination, took up a collection at Friday’s prayer service, said spokesman Muhamed Rasheed.
At social service agencies such as the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army, an American fundraising campaign targeted at the refugee crisis has not begun. Instead, those agencies are funding relief efforts through their international aid budgets.
Liz Dorland, spokeswoman for the Heartland chapter of the Red Cross, said Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Europe and the Mideast are helping meet the basic needs of displaced people through food, clothing, medical and sanitary assistance.
“We are staying in close contact ... to see how else we can assist in the humanitarian relief efforts,” she said.
While this crisis stems from war, history has demonstrated the generosity of the American people in the wake of natural disasters. According to Dorland, the American Red Cross raised $488 million following the Haiti earthquake in 2010 and $581 million following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
There’s not an easy answer to how to help, because of the overwhelming number of people involved and the cumbersome nature of the refugee process. More people are fleeing than any group of governments or agencies can manage.
Of the more than 13 million estimated refugees in the world, more than 5 million live in camps in the Middle East alone, according to the United Nations. Beyond that are the hundreds of thousands fleeing for Europe.
The United Nations is the primary agency for assisting refugees, and its Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is soliciting donations.
Technically, a refugee is someone who has been processed by the United Nations. So far, no Syrian refugees are known to have come to Nebraska. Instead, the families who have arrived had the means and opportunity to bypass the United Nations and travel on their own. Here legally, they’re taking their next step by seeking asylum.
“They came in on their own, ... taking whatever money they had,” said Fa’iz Rab of Nebraska’s Lutheran Family Services, one of Nebraska’s three refugee resettlement agencies.
Rab and others involved with refugees in Nebraska said the state has a strong track record for employing people, a key element of success. The state ranked fifth nationally for refugee employment last year, he said.
“We’re a welcoming state. We have a long history of taking in refugees,” he said.
For official refugees to come to Nebraska or Iowa, they must make it through a lengthy paperwork process.
The Bhutanese and Burmese refugees who are resettling in Nebraska lived in camps more than 15 years on average, said Ann Marie Kudlacz, executive director of the Southern Sudan Community Association, another refugee resettlement agency in the state. The third is Catholic Charities of Lincoln.
Each year Nebraska and Iowa average 700 to 800 refugees settling in the state, refugee workers say.
Nationally, the debate is getting underway on how widely to open the doors to refugees from the Mideast. The U.S. typically welcomes 70,000 refugees from across the globe each year. On Thursday, according to the New York Times, Secretary of State John Kerry told a closed-door meeting on Capitol Hill that the total could rise to upward of 100,000, with most of the additions being Syrian.