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Preparing the way: Creighton plans year of Friday service to help refugees settling in Omaha

Lizzy Curran, a staff volunteer, helps stock a shelf in an apartment that will be occupied by a newly arriving refugee family.So much depends upon this little red shopping cart, stacked with toiletries and bedclothes, being navigated through the aisles of the Family Dollar.

After all, it contains everything a family of six — fleeing the chaos of a war-torn, faraway nation — will be provided as they begin a new life in a small apartment in a new country.

Fridays over the course of the next year, Creighton University students, faculty and staff are going to take part in a Creighton Global Initiative (CGI) program — among the first in the new effort Creighton President the Rev. Daniel S. Hendrickson, SJ, launched in his inaugural address last fall — which will help refugees resettle in Omaha. Each Friday will present for the Creighton community an opportunity for service on an international plane.

For as Fr. Hendrickson, has reminded the community both in his inaugural address and subsequent statements about CGI, international service can sometimes begin right at home.

“CGI will take more of Creighton out into the world,” Fr. Hendrickson said in an announcement of the initial CGI awards in April, “and it will bring more of the world to Creighton.”

Last Friday, July 8, bringing more of the world to Creighton meant a wide array of volunteers pushing shopping carts through a grocery store and a discount shop to find shampoo, toothpaste, pillows, underwear, cabbage, rice, pots and pans: enough to give a weary family some comfort, sustenance and maybe, just maybe, augur hope.

“This will be more than they’ve seen in months,” said Emily Stoll, a junior medical anthropology and Spanish major who, with junior biology major Ayet Nguyen, will be the student coordinators on the resettlement service project. “It’s a start. But what we want to be able to do is not just provide these services. We want to be able to be liaisons between Creighton and the refugees. If someone comes up and asks about refugees: ‘How many are there? Where are they coming from? How can I help? What do they need?’ We want to be able to have answers ready.”

This CGI-sponsored project, Global Connections and Engagement in Omaha, assists Lutheran Family Services (LFS), which has been aiding in the resettlement of refugees in the Omaha area for more than half a century.

With Creighton’s help each Friday, LFS will be able to do the shopping, stock an apartment, and also begin the adjustment period for one more refugee family. The dozen Creighton volunteers present for the first foray did just that, starting from campus, shopping at the stores, filling the apartment and, all the while, trying to put some thoughts to the plight of those they were aiding.

“I’m shopping for things I don’t even know how to buy for my mother,” said Kelly Tadeo Orbik, associate director for the Schlegel Center for Service and Justice, as she patrolled the aisles of Family Dollar, on the lookout for the best deals on bedsheets and underwear. “It’s a pretty intimate experience.”

Stoll rolled up with another cart on which was stacked two bedsets — one with a Spider-Man print, the other with a contemporary design. She wondered if the young boys in the family would know who Spider-Man was and if they’d care.

In another aisle, a conversation circulated on what type of dish soap the family might prefer or what size of pots would be best. The discussion gradually drifted into a realization that the new arrivals might never have had such choices, might not have used a stove in some time, if ever. The shopping errand continued with some meditation on the bounty around the shoppers.

Creighton volunteers helped stock an apartment for a refugee family arriving in Omaha this week. The service project, part of the Creighton Global Initiative, will provide service opportunities for Creighton faculty, staff and students for a year.“LFS does so much for refugees and they do it in a way that is special and welcoming,” said Sarah Huddleston, a senior social work and Spanish major. “To be able to shop for them and to buy some new things, things they need and things we can spend a little bit of time thinking about makes this special. It’s not just packing up my old clothes in a box and dropping them off and forgetting about it. It’s making a decision with the family in mind and trying to think about what you’d want if you were in a strange place, thousands of miles from your home.”

As part of the resettlement effort, Creighton will also be helping refugee families with language classes and pathways to citizenship for those who wish to pursue them.

The aim of Global Connections and Engagement in Omaha is to build a consistent relationship between Creighton, LFS and the refugees arriving in the area.

“This isn’t Creighton’s first time working with LFS,” Stoll said. “But now we have a structured platform from which we can connect more people to volunteer opportunities and meet refugee needs on a regular basis.”

The arrival of the Creighton program, just as the international refugee crisis surges, will be a blessing to LFS, said Jennifer Gentle, LFS’s community volunteer coordinator.

“This partnership, this program, is wonderful for us,” Gentle said. “We’ve had different groups at Creighton that have gotten involved with refugees periodically and we’ve been very pleased with that help. When this partnership was mentioned, however, and we saw that there were a lot of people at Creighton who want to dedicate themselves to this and be a part of it, we loved it. We’re looking forward to doing a lot.”

René Padilla, executive director of global engagement, whose office oversees the Creighton Global Initiative, said the refugee project is an excellent illustration of how Creighton can reach out, even within Omaha, to forge a connection and understanding with the wider world.

“Refugees are our neighbors,” Padilla said. “When we think of refugees we often hear the call to ‘welcome the stranger.’ And welcoming the stranger is a good first step. But in this increasingly interconnected world, these strangers are our neighbors and we need each other. Our hope is that this CGI project will help Creighton members to work with their refugee neighbors for justice.”

As the work Friday buzzed about the small apartment, Gentle opened up on what she’s seen in the resettlement process.

“A lot of these families have been living on rations in camp,” she told the volunteers. “Then, when they get out of the camp, it’s three or four days of hard travel. They’ll get to this apartment exhausted, probably hungry, and one of the first things they’ll do is open the fridge and just stare at it, look at me, and say, ‘Really?!’”

Smiles flickered across the faces of the volunteers, but perhaps none broader than on Stoll’s and Nguyen’s. The two, as coordinators, have a special responsibility that hits with some of the Mondays following the Friday work.

They’ll occasionally meet families arriving at Eppley Airfield and be among the first Americans the new arrivals will meet.

“To really be able to know more about the refugees and to meet them right where they are, I think it’s going to be a humbling experience,” Nguyen said. “We feel like we’re building a bridge between the refugee community in Omaha and Creighton. I can’t wait to start seeing what happens.”

To sign up for a Friday volunteer service opportunity helping stock a new home for refugees arriving in Omaha, visit this link. Spots for the July 29 through Aug. 12 opportunities are still open.

Creighton University is a Jesuit, Catholic university bridging health, law, business and the arts and sciences for a more just world.