Tag Archives: refugees

From Famine to the Good Life

August 10, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Aisha Al Ramadan first noticed the subtle shift of the checkpoint guard’s face. She knew whatever happened next would change the lives of her family—possibly forever.

“What? You don’t want to be Syrian?” The guard shouted.

Shaken, scared, and silent, Aisha stared at the broken ID in the guard’s rough hand.

“If that was my intention, why would I drive through a checkpoint?” her husband Hamed asked. “That’d be stupid.”

The guard pulled the family from the car. Hamed explained his ID shattered when he put it in the pocket of his pants. Ignoring him, two of the guards pointed machine guns at them while another inspected and searched the car.

Aisha worried they’d take him, her husband, like so many of her missing loved ones and friends.

The Assad regime never needed a reason, she says. Blindfolded with hands tied behind their backs, people often disappeared at checkpoints, never to be seen again. Just like her brothers and uncles.

“I don’t know if they are alive or dead,” she says, sobbing. “The ones who are gone, are gone.”

Disappearances, usually fighting-age men, became common after the Syrian uprising in 2011. It spreads panic and hopelessness among the opposition. Roughly 85,000 people have been held, tortured, or possibly killed by the regime or ISIS according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights.

In her mind, Aisha was down on her knees, begging and hoping her husband wouldn’t be next.

Although still early in the war, Aisha lived in constant fear. Each explosion crushed the city she loved, stone by stone. The fighting intensified. The flickering and booming at night drew closer to her village where her family lived, outside the city of Homs. Food became scarce. Flour to bake bread became a luxury.

No gas. No electricity. No water.

The family collected wood to cook on a homemade fire pit. When wood wasn’t readily available, old clothes and shoes burned instead to keep them all warm and fed. The family watched the flames eat the city at night as they gathered together around the pit for a meal of bulgur, the only available grain.

“We’d tease ourselves. If we get hit, we will die all together at least,” Aisha says.

Even these constant threats were not enough to drive the family away.

But at the checkpoint—on the road for the festive occasion of her daughter’s marriage—the horror of seeing machine guns pointed at her children was too much. It was “the end of it,” Aisha says.

“Oh, leave the old man alone. Show mercy,” one guard said. Hamed appeared 20 years older than his age of 46, a lucky occurrence on this fateful trip. The guard ordered Hamed to get a new ID and sent them on their way.

“Pack everything and go,” Hamed said when they returned home. Aisha left behind her friends, family, and the life she had known for 33 years. The United Nations reported more than 5 million have fled their Syrian homeland, and the Al Ramadan family was no exception.

“They are homesick for a year or two years. Most move out of necessity,” says translator* Afra Albassam, a student at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

The Al Ramadans moved to Jordan in November 2011, but the hardships continued. Simple freedoms, unfair discrimination, and abuse of workers made life difficult for the migrant family. The decision to move to America was never an easy one, but during June 2016, the family arrived in Omaha.

Nebraska is known as a welcoming state for those fleeing war-torn countries, taking in a reported 1,441 refugees between October 2015 and September 2016 according to Pew Research from the United States Department’s Refugee Processing Center.

Scott Larsen, formerly with Lutheran Family Services and the Refugee Empowerment Center, noticed the Al Ramadan apartment was not up to standards. He, along with girlfriend Paige Reitz, invited the family to stay temporarily in the basement of their house until something more suitable became available.

Since it was during Ramadan, Aisha made amazing family meals and included Larsen and Reitz. They would all sit on pillows, drinking lots and lots of coffee and eating. Communication via Google Translate consisted of iPhones passed back and forth.

Aisha, a mother of seven children, finds pleasure in cooking.

“But what I really enjoy is making meals I really like to eat,” she says, laughing.

Aisha’s hope is to open a restaurant called the Syrian Dish someday, so she could share her culture’s food with others. Reitz started a dinner series called Second Story to turn her dreams into a reality.

Although the family stayed with Larsen and Reitz for only 10 days, all of them feel like family now. The kids leap into Reitz’s lap and hugs are swapped.

Second Story welcomes guests to sample Aisha’s specialties for $25. All proceeds not only help Aisha, but also her sisters who still live in Syria. The men in the family have been captured or killed, so the women struggle with no support.

Aisha, dressed in a blue flowery hijab, is thoughtful about the upcoming meal. She is making maqluba, a moist and sweet chicken. Eggplant, tomato, rice, spices, chicken stock, and chicken are placed on the bottom of a huge pot. After cooking, it is flipped using a plate on top. Maqluba means “upside down” and appears as one large mold, almost looking like a cake, with the rice on bottom and chicken on top. She plans to pair that with a Middle Eastern potato pie. The real star is her baklava.

“It’s the best ever. It is so good,” Albassam says.

She explains it is sweet, but not too sweet. Aisha’s secret is lots of butter, pistachios, cinnamon, and rose water.

While guests enjoy one of Aisha’s dinners for Second Story in late April, each learns about culture and connections. Reitz says initiatives like these and others around Omaha are how barriers get broken.

It wasn’t always easy when the Al Ramadans first came to Omaha. Roukaya, 11, felt isolated at school. The other students feared she was a terrorist. The teacher noticed and brought in the ESL teacher who explained the culture, even playing the song “Rock my Hijab.” Roukaya cried when she talked about her experience, so the other students wrote her letters.

“I’m sorry I was scared of you. I’m sorry about your country,” one wrote.

“I now hang out with everyone,” Roukaya explains. Unlike the adults, the children all speak fluent English now.

Roukaya has aspirations to be a doctor someday to help others, something that would have been unattainable back home since it is hard for the poor to send their kids to school.

Aisha still hears horrifying stories from neighbors and family back home, as conditions rapidly deteriorate in Syria. Cooking here is something Aisha can do to make life better.

“A lot of people don’t realize the simple things matter the most,” Reitz says.

A cup of spicy Turkish coffee and a delicious meal may not seem like much, but the pot stirs together a community.

*Interview translated by Afra Albassam.

Visit secondstoryomaha.com for more information.

This article appears in the July/August edition of Omaha Magazine.

Lutheran Family Services

October 30, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Lutheran Family Services President and CEO Ruth Henrichs remembers meeting a young man a year ago who had a tattoo on his lower arm that read “Born to Lose.” When she asked him about it, he told her that life had always been against him—that he had been “born to lose.” That was, of course, until he came to LFS, he said.

“There are lots of people who come to LFS on a daily basis who have this sort of invisible tattoo on their hearts that says ‘Born to Lose,’” Henrichs says. “I want them to leave here after receiving help with a different invisible tattoo.”

Strengthening the individual, the family, and the community is how LFS intends to change those heart tattoos. And that’s exactly the mission the organization has followed since its humble beginnings in 1892.

“When you work somewhere like LFS, no matter how difficult the day is, you always go home knowing that someone’s life was changed because you came to work.” —Ruth Henrichs

Over its many years within the Omaha community, LFS has grown into a faith-based nonprofit providing multiple services in over 30 locations across Nebraska, Iowa, and Kansas to over 35,000 individuals annually regardless of age, race, religion, or income. In other words, just because it’s called Lutheran Family Services doesn’t mean you have to be Lutheran to receive aid.

Mental health counseling, sexual abuse treatment, substance abuse treatment, foster care, adoption, pregnancy counseling, family support services, immigrant and refugee services—they do it all and more for people 
in need.

“When you work somewhere like LFS, no matter how difficult the day is, you always go home knowing that someone’s life was changed because you came to work,” says Henrichs, who worked as a pregnancy and adoption counselor, a marriage and family therapist, and Interim CEO with LFS before she became its leader in 1985.

She believes LFS’ work is part of the fabric of the community. For many years, nonprofits used to work alone, focusing only on their own work. Now, however, many organizations, including LFS, embrace the idea of uniting their limited resources with other organizations’ limited resources to provide a bigger impact.

“There’s a rich diversity of nonprofits in the Omaha community, and we all offer difference services. Together, we have a collective impact. It’s important that we all work cooperatively so that our community can be strong. Communities are only as strong as their weakest link. Everyone has problems in life. Sometimes, those problems are so great that people need the help of the community. When the community helps those people, it strengthens the community as a whole.”

Nancy K. Johnson, volunteer and president of LFS’ Forever Families Guild, agrees. “Children are the future, as cliché as it sounds,” she says. “If, for example, we can get in there and help a single parent learn to be a better parent, that trickles down into our community to make it stronger.”

“We work with families and children to increase academic performance and help with obstacles, like attendance, to make sure the students are doing well with their education.” —Nellie Beyan

Johnson, who also works in real estate as the senior vice president of CBRE-MEGA, was introduced to LFS about 15 years ago through Adoption Links Worldwide, which later aligned with LFS. She began attending fundraising events for the organization and met Cheryl Murray, who was the executive director of Adoption Links at that time. “I really admire Cheryl a lot. She’s passionate and dedicated to the cause of helping young women and children. She’s one of those kinds of gals that you can’t say no to,” she laughs.

Clearly, Johnson couldn’t say no to Murray, now a development officer and guild liaison for LFS, because she was drawn into more volunteer work with LFS. “I started volunteering more for them, and I became the president for LFS’ Forever Families [Guild].”

As the guild president, Johnson works to increase fundraising and gain more exposure through other organizations. “There’s an organization called CREW (Commercial Real Estate Women) that I’ve been involved with before through my real estate work. So I mentioned the Forever Families Guild to them, and they’ve picked the guild up as their philanthropy of choice for the next year.

“People are always afraid to volunteer because they think it takes too much time or money, but it really is simple…LFS can do a lot on limited funds and time because the group is so passionate.”

One such passionate supporter is Nellie Beyan, who works as a Family Support Liaison with LFS in the Omaha community and the Omaha Public Schools district.

“We work with families and children to increase academic performance and help with obstacles, like attendance, to make sure the students are doing well with their education,” Beyan says. “OPS has a large population of Burmese refugees [the Karen] that we work with, too.”

Working with refugees and immigrants comes easily for Beyan because she, herself, is an Omaha transplant. She moved in April 2000 from her home country of Liberia to work as an international volunteer with LFS. Later, she enrolled at University of Nebraska-Omaha to get her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work with the help of sponsors Mr. and Mrs. Howard Hawks and Mr. and Mrs. Jeff Alseth.

“I underwent a similar experience and hardships that most non-Americans undergo when they first come to America…I can put myself in their shoes because I know exactly what it’s like to come into a country with a new culture and new way of life, leaving family behind. It’s a difficult thing, the assimilation process. It’s very gradual, but it’s made easier by the available resources.”

“People are always afraid to volunteer because they think it takes too much time or money, but it really is simple.” —Nancy K. Johnson

Beyan likes working with LFS because she feels that the organization is everywhere in the community. “Imagine what Omaha would be like without LFS,” she muses. “I can’t even picture that. Without all that they have to offer, especially for all of the immigrants and refugees, people would be totally lost.”

Understanding just how many people in the community rely on LFS, Henrichs and the Board of Directors are taking major steps to improve LFS’ outreach and work in Omaha.

“Whether we’re talking children’s needs or refugee and immigrant needs, we’ve recently decided our focus in the program development should be primarily on prevention and early intervention,” she explains. “Many services are ‘fire truck’ in that they respond when a crisis happens. We need to become ‘smoke detectors’ and catch issues before they become bigger problems.”

Another improvement? They’ve been at their 24th & Dodge location for more than a decade, and they’ve slowly been acquiring the city block between Dodge and Douglas streets in order to renovate and build more space. “Many that we serve are in the heart of the city,” Henrichs says. “We’re going to stay right here.”

And here is exactly where the community wants them to stay.

Lutheran Family Services will host their annual Wicker & Wine® Basket Auction fundraiser on Nov. 7 at Mid-America Center (One Arena Way) in Council Bluffs, Iowa, from 5-7:30 p.m. Tickets are $40. For more information, visit lfsneb.org or call 402-342-7038.