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Nebraska Examiner: Refugees seen as partial solution to workforce shortage if housing available

Postcards From Trumps America Nebraska
Posted at 6:23 PM, Feb 15, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-15 19:26:15-05

LINCOLN, Neb. (Nebraska Examiner) — An Afghan refugee who is living a version of the American dream urged Nebraska state lawmakers Tuesday to help others fleeing violence and wars to find a “landing place” in the United States.

Shafiq Jahish, a former interpreter for the U.S. military, said that when refugees arrive, they often can’t find immediate housing, in part because they don’t have any money, a job or a rental history needed to lease an apartment.

Without a permanent address, Jahish said, they cannot obtain a driver’s license or enroll their children in school.

Jahish, who now works as an IT professional for an Omaha bank, was among those testifying in favor of a proposal that would earmark $10 million of the state’s American Rescue Plan Act funds for discounted housing for low-income individuals, including refugees.

Despite the barriers, Jahish said he was able to work his way up from working as a truck driver and then as a supervisor, to earning a college degree. The 34-year-old now owns a home for his growing family of seven.

“I hope that we can all come together and give these people a hand so that they, too, can become homeowners,” Jahish told the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee.

That eight-member committee is considering dozens of ideas on how to spend the state’s $1 billion in ARPA funds. Tuesday, it took testimony about a handful of proposals to use some of those funds to address a shortage of low-income and “workforce” housing in the state. 

The lack of decent housing has been identified as a major impediment in filling the state’s estimated 60,000 unfilled jobs, the committee was told.

Immigrants have buying power

Chris Tonniges of Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska, which has resettled 700 Afghan refugees, said immigrants can help solve Nebraska’s current labor shortage.

In the Omaha-Council Bluffs area, immigrants, including those with refugee status, allowed local companies to “preserve or create” 3,400 manufacturing jobs, according to a report just released by New American Economy, a bipartisan immigration advocacy group. Those workers paid an estimated $483 million in taxes and held $1.4 billion in spending power in 2019, the organization said.

“Mayors and business leaders from Hastings, Grand Island, Kearney and other communities where unemployment is dangerously low recognize the workforce solution that people with refugee status can provide,” Tonniges said.

He was among advocates for refugees supporting Legislative Bill 968, introduced by State Sen. Myron Dorn of Adams.

‘There’s no place like home’

The bill would allocate $8 million in ARPA funds to nonprofit groups to develop affordable housing — either new or refurbished apartments — for low-income workers, including those with refugee status.

Another $2 million would be earmarked for job training.

Dorn said a recent study found that the state’s housing shortage was particularly acute for those in “extreme poverty,” with only 41 affordable units per 1,000 people.

“There’s no place like home,” the senator said, and refugees especially “are anxious to build a new home and new life” in the United States.

Also supporting the bill was a representative of Catholic Social Services in Lincoln, which has resettled 150 Afghan refugees so far and 50 refugees from other countries.

Jesus was a refugee

Tom Venzor of the Nebraska Catholic Conference said that because there’s a shortage of safe and affordable housing for refugee families, his organization has had to spend $50,000 on hotels that could have been spent in better ways. 

Venzor added that Jesus was once a refugee, when his family fled to Egypt to escape King Herod’s order to kill all baby boys in Bethlehem. 

Mohammed Jimale of East African Development Association of Nebraska, which helps 450 low-income families in the Omaha area, also spoke in support of the bill. No one testified against the measure.

Nebraska Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Nebraska Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Cate Folsom for questions: info@nebraskaexaminer.com. Follow Nebraska Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

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