By Sophia Tatum
It was a sunny, brisk Friday afternoon in October—about 3 o’clock, that time in the afternoon when most people working or going to school are starting to think about their weekend plans.
A local group of volunteers standing outside the food court at the Lincoln, Nebraska, Airport were doing the same. However, they weren’t focused on the next day’s Husker football game. Their weekend was focused on making sure two families, who were expected to arrive on a flight from Chicago any minute, felt welcome to their new homes.
Eleven volunteers of all ages came from two Lincoln churches accompanied by two caseworkers from Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska to welcome a family of three and a family of eight to the United States from Iraq.
Nebraska has been considered one of the favored places for refugee resettlements, but the process for the refugees would be even more difficult if it weren’t for the abundant contributions from local volunteers through agencies, organizations and churches.
Wearing a “Love Lincoln” shirt, Mae Ann Balschweid, a volunteer through Christ’s Place Church and master multi-tasker, sipped her Starbucks drink while talking on the phone, working to solve the latest snag in the preparations for the refugee family scheduled to arrive in Lincoln at the end of the week.
Two churches had signed up to sponsor one family, meaning double the donations. However, just by chance, another refugee family was also scheduled to arrive Friday—another last-minute case.
Balschweid said bumps in the road were just part of the process, and she was no stranger to the process.
This was now the third family Balschweid had worked to sponsor in the past few years, a project that began when she decided to give up fear for Lent.
“My heart has been kind of tender toward people who are broken and lost,” Balschweid said.
Balschweid’s husband encouraged her to get more involved in her church and go back to school. So, after volunteering at Lincoln Literacy and recognizing the community’s need for assistance in the refugee community, Balschweid began taking Arabic at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
The first two years of sponsoring families was through what her church called “connect groups,” where a group of about 25 people would gather weekly to pray, read scripture and prepare for the family they were going to sponsor.
When a group or individual sponsors a family, they become responsible for gathering all the necessities the family may need when arriving, including kitchen supplies, toiletries, furniture and anything else that will help start their new life.
The sponsor also helps set up the house that the family will move into once they arrive, greet the family at the
airport and visit them at their home regularly for their first few weeks in the United States to help them get acquainted.
Balschweid worked with Lutheran Family Services and a group of volunteers to ensure that all of this was taken care of.
“Our goal is to help them become self-sustaining, learning the community for themselves, helping to welcome them,” said Thomas Bowman a case manager with Lutheran Family Services.
Bowman said each case is different—some allowing months of preparation, others allowing only a few weeks. Once they are notified of a family, the case managers are responsible for setting up the sponsors before the families come and reaching out to any family or friends of the refugees that may already be in Lincoln.
Ayat Aribi has personally experienced the preparation and work that case managers put into resettling refugee families.
“I am forever grateful for the people who brought us here,” Aribi said.
Aribi and her family arrived in the United States in 2000 when she was 4 years old, after fleeing Iraq and living in hiding in Jordan for three years. Once they arrived, Catholic Social Services settled them.
Aribi said her family came to Lincoln because her uncle was already settled here. Although she was young, she remembers a lot of her early childhood—including being on the plane arriving in the U.S.
“It was the dream—in America you get to build yourself from yourself,” Aribi said.
Approximately 15 volunteers met for Valentino’s pizza and unpacking the Tuesday evening before the families’ arrival, including Janet Smith, a member of Christ’s Place.
“I kind of just decided I wanted to help,” Smith said.
Smith and her husband spent time in Africa and South America on mission trips, which she said showed her how the rest of the world lives and made her want to volunteer in her own community.
Helping Smith unpack the kitchen supplies was Maime Boerner, a UNL student and volunteer.
Boerner began her volunteer work tutoring refugees in English and composition but started going to church with Balschweid at Christ’s Place, which was how she got involved in the resettlement process.
“I think people need to have a better understanding of what’s going on,” Boerner said.
Anticipation built as the volunteers waited—some holding flowers. Balschweid and her husband chatted with Boerner, while Bowman looked through paperwork for the families.
“These are people who are running away from these violent situations, these crazy things going on. It just helps to be accepting, I mean people aren’t here looking to make trouble. They’re wanting to find opportunities, too,” Bowman said.
The anticipation quickly turned into reality as the families—identified by lanyards they had draped around their necks—approached the volunteers and other family members and friends who had already been in the United States and came to greet them.
After gathering their luggage, Balschweid held up the key to their new home.
“Shall we?” Balschweid said.
After weeks of preparation, this was just the beginning.