Light the lamb Lady Liberty: UNL students have their lives changed by refugees

Multimedia story by  Jacy Lewis News Net Nebraska

  • Brenna McFadden enjoys studying at coffee shops when she isn't volunteering. It's a time she can take for herself so that she can help others.


Almost a year ago, Brenna and Delaney McFadden walked up to the Zenkem’s apartment door and knocked. The family opened up their home to the twin sisters. The small apartment smelled like fish paste, which the family used to cook with, and there weren’t a lot of furnishing. But to the Zenkem’s this was a new home and a new start. To the McFaddens it was a volunteer opportunity that turned into a passion.

The McFaddens got involved with Catholic Social Services through Veronica Torgerson. She had an introduction to Africa class with a refugee case worker and struck up a discussion about Sundanese refugees. Two years later she introduced the McFaddens and Becky Baxter to the opportunity.

Torgerson is beginning a job with refugee resettlement in January called World Relief, which is based out of Baltimore, Maryland.

“It’s completely opened my eyes to a lot of suffering and struggles around the world,” said Torgerson. “It changed by perspective on the world and how I want to live my live.”

Volunteers have are some of the first Americans refugees can establish relationships with that will lead them through a new language and culture. Lea Sheets works for Lutheran Family Services as a program coordinator for refugees. She had volunteered with refugees in college and has seen both sides of working with refugees.

“Volunteers play an important role with how refugee services work,” said Sheets. “If we didn’t have volunteers it would be impossible to resettle as many refugees as we get.”

McFadden, along with her twin sister Delaney McFadden and friend Becky Baxter, have never been refugees and they have always lived a comfortable middle-class American lifestyle. However, personal convictions prompted the women to expand beyond their comfort to welcome others they have nothing in common with.

Lincoln, Nebraska has two organizations that help refugees resettle in the area. The McFaddens and Baxter volunteer with Catholic Family Services. Lincoln is now home to 2,320 refugees, according to the U.S. State Department Refugee Processing Center. Most of these refugees have left the Middle East or the Southeast Asia region. Lincoln also has the largest population of Yezidi, an ethno-religious group from Iraq, in the United States.

Refugee resettlement started with the Vietnamese relocation program in the late 1970s. In 1990, the U.S. Department of State designated Lincoln as a “Refugee Friendly” city. Resettlement could be traced back further to the Russian Revolution of 1917 when Germans from Russia emigrated to the agricultural lands of Nebraska to continue farming and escape persecution in Russia. They rebuilt their community in the South Bottoms of Lincoln and there is now a museum to document their ethnic history.


Lincoln has a large refugee population but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t struggling in some ways. There is a need for more volunteers but it is difficult to have enough staff at these non-profits to train all the volunteers they really need.

“We always need more volunteers,” said Sheets. “Especially patient ones.”

Refugees have small needs but sometimes those needs can be difficult to give. English is a difficult language and culture can make learning languages even more difficult.

“The biggest need that we come across is learning to speak English,” said Baxter. “It is something we never really take for granted as Americans.”

Brenna and Baxter explain what it has been like to work with refugees.


The family that Brenna and Baxter visit were originally from Burma, now called Myanmar. Delaney explains why the family left their country.  The region has been under civil unrest the past couple of years due to ethnic Chinese rebels and the Myanmar Armed Forces competing for power.  Lincoln has 746 refugees from Burma, according to the U.S. State Department Refugee Processing Center.


“Give me your tired, your poor. Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” – Emma Lazurus

These are the words engraved on the bottom of the Statue of Liberty which started welcoming immigrants to the United States on Ellis Island in 1886.

Brenna McFadden, believes that these words should continue to ring true today.

“I think that we should keep our arms open to refugees because they have so much to offer to our country,” said McFadden.

2 Years to FreedomPrint

For more information about Syrian refugee admittance.

Finding Happiness

Delaney volunteered with a refugee family last year. Delaney saw how the family she visited lived and by a normal American standard it would have been viewed as a crappy apartment. However, her family valued everything they had because in Burma they used to live in a grass hut with no electricity or running water. Americas worst living situations were like a 5-star hotel to these refugees.

“Seeing the kids always so happy with so little really humbled my view of the world,” said Delaney.

Experiencing the little joys in life has made volunteering with refugees one of the best time commitments for McFadden and Baxter.

“The most rewarding thing I have experienced while working with refugees is when they become comfortable in America and have started to feel accepted,” said Baxter. “There is this really binding concept of humanity. The fact that you could barely speak clearly to each other in a language but there is still this connection.”

McFadden had an idea about why the stigma surrounding refugees have shifted into a negative light.

“A lot of times the fear of refugees comes from ignorance and people not knowing what refugees are like because a lot times refugees seem really far away and distant but people don’t understand that they’re living her with us trying to make the best life for themselves that they can,” said McFadden. “They are the same as us.”

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