Nebraska immigrants transition to new lives

A sign on the door of Grand Island's Multicultural Coalition greets guests in a variety of languages. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)
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February 19, 2014 - 6:30am

Nebraska’s immigrant population is increasing. According to the most recent census data, foreign-born people calling Nebraska home make up about six percent of the state’s total population. But what types of services are available to help transition these immigrants into residents?


On a cold Sunday evening in Lincoln, Officer Tu Tran with the Lincoln Police Department used his radio to contact dispatch.

“Five-Adam, 16-69. I’m on duty,” Tran said, before he pulled his patrol car into traffic. The roads were bumpy with packed snow and ice. A far cry from his native land of Vietnam.

“[Vietnam is] really nice, hot. Not cold like this, that’s for sure,” Tran said.

Tran and his five siblings grew up very poor in Vietnam.

“[Our] house was made of straw, palm leaves. Not really a regular brick house until later on,” Tran said.

During the Vietnam War, Trans’ father was a soldier in the South Vietnamese Army, “fighting alongside American soldiers.”

Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News

Officer Tu Tran with the Lincoln Police Department was born in Vietnam and moved to Lincoln at the age of five. Tran's father fought for the South Vietnamese Army during the Vietnam War, and spent eight years in a POW camp before being granted asylum by the United States. Tran said he felt there are more opportunities now for immigrants coming to Nebraska. He said the increase of Vietnamese-owned businesses in Lincoln is a good sign that foreign-born immigrants are adjusting nicely to their new homes.

But after the fall of Saigon and the U.S. troop withdrawal, Tran’s father spent eight years in a North Vietnamese POW camp.

In 1992, a decade after his release, Tran’s father brought his family to Nebraska. They were political refugees, and with the help of Catholic Social Services, began to settle into their new lives.

From refugee to resident

“When we first set foot down in Lincoln, they had a house rented for us already, a meal for us, it was two or three in the morning, but it was ramen noodle type meals, which wasn’t unusual for us, to eat ramen noodles,” Tran explained.

Tran enrolled in the Lincoln Public School system; something he said was invaluable in teaching him not only the language, but also about the culture of his new home.

He’s the third Vietnamese police officer to patrol Lincoln’s streets, but he might be the most popular.

“When the word came out that there was a Vietnamese officer, somehow quite a few people got access to my phone number, my cell phone,” Tran said, chuckling.

During his first year or so on the force, Tran said he’d get calls at all hours of the day and night, from Vietnamese immigrants looking for help.

“They’re so used to being afraid of cops, or police officers, back in Vietnam. So it does affect them in a way because of what happened in Vietnam, but I think people are getting used to ‘Hey, you do have rights here. You do have a say in things,’” Tran said.

By the Numbers

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, between 2000 and 2011, the number of foreign-born immigrants living in Nebraska grew from about 74,000 to just more than 116,000, an increase of 55.6 percent. That’s almost twice the national average (29.8 percent) during that same time period.

While there are some government programs, much of the work to help immigrants transition into their new lives falls on the shoulders of non-profits and volunteers.

Lincoln Literacy is one such organization.

Image courtesy of Immigration Policy Center

This infographic depicts the type of impact the immigrant population has in Nebraska. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the majority of Nebraska's immigrant population comes from Mexico, Vietnam, and El Salvador.

In a small classroom at an old church in Lincoln, four adult students from very different parts of the world gathered around a worksheet, which had several pictures depicting different scenes inside a home.

Lincoln Literacy teaches around two-dozen classes like this every week at several locations throughout Lincoln.

Funded through an assortment of federal, state, and local grants, Lincoln Literacy is dedicated to teaching English and communication skills to as many immigrants as resources allow.

Amanda Hefner, a coordinator with Lincoln Literacy, said her organization depends largely on volunteers, and serves about 300 students a year.

“There’s this friendly face and there’s this person that says, ‘It’s going to be okay. By the way, this is table, this is chair, this is whatever.’ They’re really grateful for that support, even perhaps more so than the instruction,” Hefner said.

More than language

Hefner and other immigration experts said learning the language is one of the most important ways to succeed in a new land, but it’s hardly the only thing to learn.

Finding quality housing, dealing with an insurance claim after a car accident, knowing where to go in case of a medical emergency… these are the types of real life events the Multicultural Coalition of Grand Island helps immigrants deal with on a daily basis.

Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News

Located at 221 W 2nd Street in Grand Island, the Multicultural Coalition serves as a "one-stop shop" for immigrants in need of a variety of service. The coalition's executive director, Jocelyn Schade, said it's important for Nebraskans to realize local demographics are changing, and it might not be long before many Nebraska areas have a minority majority in terms of population.

Betty Frausto, a native of Chihuahua, Mexico is the coalition’s community outreach coordinator.

“We create a personal, individualized plan for them, and we look for their needs and the agencies that are in the area, so we can start referring the person or the family to [the right agency],” Frausto said.

Working with Frausto is Jocelyn Schade, the executive director of the coalition.

Schade said when the organization started 10 years ago, the idea was for it to be a liaison of sorts for new immigrants, offering a variety of services.

“We can refer them to someone who can give them legal advice, or set up appointments to get them to the doctors, we can go with them to the doctor to help translate. We can set up shelter in a place if someone comes in and they’re homeless or something like that,” Schade said.

She added organizations like the Multicultural Coalition will play a vital role in the near future as more immigrants begin to call Nebraska home. Schade said the more education and support a person has, the more likely they will be to succeed.

Training and education programs helped Tu Tran and his family make a successful transition to a new life in Nebraska.  Now as a Lincoln police officer, Tran is a resource for new immigrants, as well as the citizens of the city that took him in.

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