For over seven years, Welcoming America’s model and local partners have helped Nebraska’s rural communities value and engage new residents and their local contributions. The state’s foreign-born population has grown by nearly 60 percent from 2000-2013 – double the national average – and Latino purchasing power there was more than $3.3 billion in 2010.
Because of the dedication of these communities and Welcoming America member Nebraska Appleseed's Nebraska Is Home program, welcoming efforts are thriving in places like Crete, Schuyler, and other places around the state.
Many of these towns have brought together leaders from schools, libraries, businesses, nonprofits, city governments, and more to plan for immigrant inclusion. Local business tours have connected longer-term residents with immigrant business owners and the goods and services they provide, and leaders from diverse backgrounds are building relationships and bettering their communities, together.
And thanks to these efforts, immigrants are bringing new energy to these Midwestern towns. They are now welcoming others, bringing new life to aging towns by creating new businesses and jobs, and participating in community life by leading community dialogues, serving in public office, and joining our armed forces.
Seif Mahagoub was welcomed to the United States as a refugee, and he has returned the favor by welcoming others to Nebraska, contributing to his local economy, and serving two tours in Iraq in the U.S. armed forces as the first Sudanese Nebraskan to enlist after Sept. 11, 2001.
Mexican immigrant Javier Arizmendi and his family found opportunity and belonging in Schuyler, where he has helped bring new vitality to town by reviving an aging hotel into a successful business, contributing to the local economy, and providing employment opportunities.
Q: Why is creating a welcoming community important to you?
A: Nebraska is where I’ve always lived, and so it’s really important to me that our communities are successful and retain the family-friendly atmosphere. Our demographics are changing, and we must be proactive to retain this environment. It can be challenging sometimes to bring everybody on board, but I believe it’s so important.
Q: What is your favorite welcoming success story?
A: The town of Crete (population 7,000) is hugely impacted by migration. They have a lot of industry that brings in about 1,500 workers a day from nearby towns, and many of those are immigrants and refugees.
As the city wanted to be more proactive in their Welcoming and inclusion and to ensure that is part of the local culture, they created a Community Assistance Director position. Because it is a director-level position, this will ensure new policies are friendly to everyone in the community, and they will examine existing policies to find ways to break down barriers and make improvements.
Q: How has Welcoming America been a resource to you?
A: It’s really huge to stay connected to the larger movement across the country because it can feel like you’re isolated, especially when you’re challenged or you have a problem. I can always contact Welcoming America or someone within the network who has had some similar experiences, and we can help each other. That’s a huge resource - as we grow, we are building connections and learning from Nebraska communities to places in Ohio, New York, or elsewhere.
Q: How does Nebraska is Home help transform communities?
A: Nebraska is Home works with community members across the state to actively break down barriers and create opportunities for all members of a community to engage and build connections. We have found that residents understand the strong need to be inclusive and that their community will see benefits - but they don't know how to build and implement a welcoming infrastructure. We work with local individuals and groups to set and achieve goals that fit their town. It’s so great when communities get to a point that I don’t need to be too involved - they are growing the welcoming movement themselves.
For example in Schuyler, a small agricultural town of about 6,100 residents, the storefronts of local businesses were shuttered and empty for years, but now they are vibrant and busy as immigrant entrepreneurs work alongside long-time residents for everyone's success.
Q: What is a challenge you have seen your community overcome?
A: Because our organization works statewide, we have a lot of different communities that are really embracing welcoming, and others that are a little more hesitant.
In some communities, the general population and local leadership may not be as aware of their growing immigrant population. It’s a little more challenging to start a conversation about meeting the needs of your whole community if they don’t even recognize their community is diverse.
We bring together long-time Nebraskans and newcomers and meet on a regular basis—diverse, multi-sectored community members—some who are in city leadership because they have a title, others who we’ve identified through talking to community members that maybe they have influence in the community. Good ideas and solutions for their community have come out of these dialogues.
One of these communities took our dialogue to heart and they are working to overcome this challenge. To be more inclusive, and based on these dialogues, one community is taking a proactive role to be sure their new library that is being built meets the needs of all their new community members, and so they have Latinos now on the library board and involved in fundraising to help shape the future library.
Q: It’s important to welcome because…
A: It’s important to welcome because we’re all going to do better if we have a community where everyone feels that they belong, that they feel welcome, and they feel valued in the community.