History of New Americans Task Force
Worldwide there are ten traditional countries that accept most refugees for resettlement. Of the ten, the United States resettles more than any other. For example, in U.S. government fiscal year 2004, the United States admitted 73,851 refugees. In fiscal year 2011, the U.S. admitted 56, 419 refugees of which 738 were resettled in Nebraska. In the l980's Lincoln resettled over 5,500 refugees, mostly Vietnamese. Waves of refugees continued to come to Lincoln each year, often reflecting the part of the world most under fire. Following the Vietnamese, Lincoln accepted refugees from the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan, and Karen from Myanmar (Burma). During this timeframe, Lincoln also experienced large numbers of immigrants, mostly Hispanic, coming to Lincoln seeking employment. Today, Lincoln Public Schools teaches over 3,000 children in English Language Learners classes. They represent 56 different countries and 48 different languages. How our City responded, is a credit to the residents who saw a strong vital vision in a new group of culturally diverse people; and to the institutions that came together to ensure their quality of life. The coordination for these efforts came via the Immigration and Refugee Task Force (later referred to as NATF - The New Americans Task Force). NATF recognized the value of having the Hispanic - Latino population at the table as well, as immigration reform seemed eminent. Below is an attempt at a chronology of efforts to assist new American resettlement in Lincoln, NE.
In 1985, Mayor Helen Boosalis asked the Lincoln Lancaster Human Services Administration to convene a group of people "responsible for bringing in refugees to Lincoln". Do we know how many are coming in before they get here and can we adequately accommodate them once they are here?" Based on that directive, Kit Boesch, Administrator, called together the three VOLAGS (Volunteer - VOL, Agencies - AGS) that were currently resettling refugees in Lincoln and Lancaster County. These were Catholic Social Services, Interchurch Ministries of NE, and the Khmer Association.
Also invited to the table were the Lincoln Police Department, Lincoln Housing Authority, and Lincoln Public Schools. LPS had 168 new children enrolled in ESL. The group met informally for several years. According to the Lincoln Lancaster County Health Department who did home health care visits, 70% or more of the refugees resettled in Lincoln ended up moving elsewhere. Today refugees stay and in fact, often bring other family members to join them. January 17, 1991 a more formal task force was discussed. 13 entities attended including public schools, city/county departments; and resettlement agencies. The first item on the table was a possible language bank to be used for emergencies. The group became known as the Immigrant and Refugee Task Force (I&R Task Force).
Lincoln continued to receive a growing number of refugee resettlements, (1990 = 555; 1992 = 958). By 1993, Lincoln was receiving approximately 1200 refugees a year. In l992 the Human Services Federation worked with the I&R Task Force to create a set of six VCR tapes called, "Understanding our Diversity". In the 1990's, Lincoln was designated as a "Refugee Friendly" city by the U.S. Department of State. Lincoln became a targeted refugee resettlement site by FY 2000 and received over $380,000 in a Targeted Assistance Grant, (TAG), from the Federal Office of Refugee Resettlement to assist the city with the cost of resettling refugee populations. We were sited as the 12th largest resettlement site per capita in the country. The University of Nebraska - Lincoln produced research papers; authors like Dr. Mary Pipher published her book "The Middle of Everywhere" in 2003, and in l996, the I&R Task Force developed a Speakers Bureau. The topics included "Family Dynamics"; Mental Health and how it differs in America; Barriers and Bias; and the difference between a Refugee and an Immigrant. In May of l995, the HS Planning Council began to measure discrimination in Lincoln.
In l997 Healthy Homes was created in the Lincoln Lancaster County Health Department. This program became widely known for its ability to walk into homes without caution and talk to families because the case workers were from different cultural backgrounds. A year later CHIRP was born. CHIRP (Communities Helping Immigrants and Refugees Progress) was a language line. It was created by members of the I&R Task Force to provide for immediate assistance to non-English speaking people and First Responders. This could be fire or police, or an emergency room intake officer. With the push of a button, one could access a live person, bi-lingual in their language and English; and instantly find out what was the concern. Eventually this spread to be used by all health care providers, including both hospitals and all local government offices. It provided interpretation in our 5 largest requested areas: Vietnamese, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, and, at that time, Bosnian. At the same time, Southeast Community College stepped forward to offer ESL classes. Classes focused on particular careers (ESL for nursing; ESL for truck driving, etc). SECC provided an introductory interpreter course, an ethics of interpreting course, and more specific courses over the years as requested.
In l997 The Asian Community and Cultural Center broke off from the Interfaith Council and formed its own 501(c)3. This is significant as it would later be the recipient of a far larger federal grant. TAG funding continued to help this community publish education materials such as Facts & Myths of Refugees. From l990-2000 the I&R Task Force joined the Lancaster County Medical Society in promoting mental health services; Lincoln Literacy provided classes in computer training; SECC began advertising for ESL classes using computers; and Catholic Social Services provided community orientation classes and job specialists. Our Stories was published in l998. This was a phenomenal piece of work telling stories by women participating in Lincoln Literacy classes. In FY 2000 Drs. Sharon and John Gaber published a most comprehensive study of the effects of refugee resettlement on Lincoln and Nebraska funded by the Woods Charitable Fund.
The Lincoln Interfaith Council received grant funding from the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement in 1999 which was used to establish Faces of the Middle East to serve Lincoln's Arabic speaking refugees and the African Multicultural Center to assist Lincoln's African refugees, mainly Sudanese. These agencies served their clients until 2005 when Federal funding expired. Zainab Al-Baaj established the Middle East North African (MENA) Hope project within the Good Neighbor Community Center in 2005 to continue to provide services to these populations. The Lincoln-Omaha area has the third largest Sudanese population in the U.S. ranking only behind Houston, TX and the Nashville-Memphis, TN area.
In 2002, it became apparent that a very important population not at our table was the immigrant Hispanic/Latino population. To be more inclusive the name was changed to the New Americans Task Force or NATF. TAG funding gradually declined over the years. Reduced dollars were available from the Nebraska Office of Refugee Resettlement because of the decline in refugee resettlements in the United States after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The NATF published clear principles, a vision statement, and goals (3 years). In 2004, NETV created a 36 minute videotape for television and encouraged "community conversations" to occur. NETV provided the outline for those wishing to use it. They also produced a second tape featuring interviews with several new residents to Lincoln. On September 1, 2005, Language Linc, a training Interpreters Project, was created. It provided 24/7 on site and telephone assistance. This now gave our community two such services, Language Linc and ICI (International Communications Inc.) as well as CHIRP. 2007 saw the creation of Common Ground, a website designed for refugee sharing and mainstream education.
"It's very difficult to be sick in another language". That was the challenge addressing the NATF in 2007 and 2008. The Medical Translation and Interpretation Project (MTI) funded by Lincoln's Community Health Endowment diligently went to work trying to make progress in the murky world of legislative fodder and everyday swimming upstream; while the nation as a whole struggled with the same medical best practice policies. Over the two years, milestones included the creation of Lets Speak cards identifying one's native language; and disseminating these cards to all places of emergency response; development of a professional skit with three vignettes explaining both the importance and the difficulty of learning and understanding the English language; and actual legislation to prohibit youth under 16 from interpreting in health care settings; urging the use of only certified interpreters; and adopting the National Standards for Medical Interpretation.
In 2008, the NATF with the assistance of the University and First Tier Bank, worked with the United Nations to bring the traveling exhibit "Surviving Darfur" to Lincoln. This moving display was located at the University of Nebraska East Campus Union and was seen by many over the week.
In 2007, the U.S. Congress passed legislation authorizing the U.S. to admit up to 5,000 Special Immigration Visa individuals annually. Special Immigrant Visas were provided to persons who assisted our government with language support in Iraq and Afghanistan. These are visas which help recipients bypass normal red tape getting into the country. SIV entrants have the same rights and benefits as refugees. These refugees are often very prominent citizens such as professors, journalists, politicians, teachers, dentists, and physicians to name a few. But when they arrived they found no promised jobs. An effort was made to re-train them or re-certify them and provide them a mentor in the process. It was called the Professional Mentoring Program. It was not as easy as it sounded; often took years to accomplish; and many went back to interpret again in their home countries because the pay was so good.
In an effort to share more information about different cultures now actively engaged in Lincoln, in 2008-09, the NATF provided a Lunch and Learn series. The series was very well attended and was filmed by City TV. Each film ran for approximately a month. There were a total of 12 topics covered.
NATF participated for several years with a booth at Lincoln's "Celebrate Lincoln" festivals in June. These events coincided with the United Nation's World Refugee Day also observed in June. Various NATF member agencies helped provide entertainment and educational activities to familiarize people with Lincoln's refugee communities. Today various refugee communities, led by Mohamed Jallohs' African Resource Center have taken up this project.
In 2010 NATF collaborated with the College of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNL in establishing a website for refugees called Nebraska MOSAIC that provides news and information for Lincoln's new Americans. This constantly updated site administered by UNL faculty and students has proven very popular and informative.
NATF started an annual Employer Recognition Event in 2011 to recognize employers that have been helpful in providing employment for refugees and to encourage other employers to consider employing refugees. Attendance has been outstanding and to date we have recognized 16 different employers for their contributions and support.
Both of Lincoln's current refugee resettlement agencies, Catholic Social Services and Lutheran Family Services anticipate continuing to bring in around 200 new refugees a year. While this seems small compared to the l990's, we quickly remember that other secondary migrants have come also and many are now staying and creating a life here. They will continue to have needs that need to be met.
We know that technology is changing faster than we can spell it. MARTI - My Accessible Real Time Interpreter (Skype on wheels) is now taking over in hospital settings changing the landscape considerably for Language Linc, ICI, Southeast Community College interpreter classes, and even CHIRP. We recognize that the future of immigration reform may not be far away. People are lining up for the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) process; a new opportunity be assisted with employment identification; Regulatory directives to consolidate immigration issues for greater efficiencies; and other reform measures will play a role in what the NATF prioritizes next.
What we do know is this: The New Americans Task Force is a collaborative table where agencies, departments and advocates can come together to address change; confront discrimination; and assist our newest community members with reaching their fullest potential for themselves and their families. We can provide the tools for employment, for providing healthy families, and for obtaining an education. And most importantly - we do it together.
Building Welcoming CommunitiesLincoln participates in two national initiatives committed to welcoming New Americans to our community. Lincoln was among the first cities in the country to sign on to the Welcoming Cities and Counties in 2013 when that initiative started. More recently, in 2015 Lincoln committed to the White House Building Welcoming Communities initiative.
Lincoln has been identified as one of the 63 cities where local authorities are promoting immigrant integration, was improved economic mobility for immigrants and refugees, enhanced civic participation by immigrants and refugees, and receiving society openness to newcomers. Authors of the report spent months of conversations with the directos of local offices promoting reception and support for immigrant populations to paint a picture of a country where authorities and stakeholders in the community are devoting time and effort to strengthen social cohesion by welcoming rather than rejecting the newcomers.