Refugees and immigrants in Omaha have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. To date, the Omaha Community Foundation’s COVID-19 Response Fund has raised more than $1.3 million from over 6,000 community members and distributed $1.2 million to support 51 local nonprofits addressing urgent needs. A portion of the Response Fund was distributed to the Benson Area Refugee Task Force (BART). In this story, you’ll get a peek into the impact that donors’ generosity has made on one part of our community.

Meet Kubra, an Omahan from Afghanistan

Kubra Haidari is the project lead for a COVID-19 relief project in Omaha. A 26-year-old woman who was born in Afghanistan, she migrated to Pakistan as a child, then lived in a refugee camp for years in Indonesia. In 2016, Kubra and her husband moved here, to Omaha. They have three children, two of whom were born in Omaha. Kubra worked in a daycare before the pandemic hit. Her husband works in a meatpacking plant. 

Kubra says, “I didn’t have a big vision for my life. My big vision was to have a small car and learn to drive.” Smiling widely, she says that vision came true in Omaha. The Haidaris are also proud to have recently bought their first home in a Millard neighborhood. 

A self-proclaimed people person and extrovert, Kubra is well-connected within the refugee community of Omaha. She channels those relationships in her work with the Benson Area Refugee Task Force (BART), an Omaha nonprofit that supports refugees in the Omaha-metro area through advocacy, education, and empowerment.

Refugees and Immigrants Are Hard Hit by the Pandemic

Refugees and immigrants have been one of the populations hardest hit by the COVID-19 crisis, and BART provides emergency support for them through the COVID-19 Response Fund. The organization’s Director of Refugee Services, Pam Font-Gabel, says, 

“All the families we work with live at or far below the poverty line, have limited English proficiency, and many are employed in manual labor jobs such as meatpacking.”

Ninety-five percent of the households served through BART have a family member who works in a meatpacking plant or on factory lines. Even in the best of times, Pam says, the wages are low, the work is physically taxing, requires long hours, and provides little or no benefits like health insurance or paid leave. Kubra says that since the pandemic, her husband’s health risks have skyrocketed at work, and his hours have been drastically cut. It has left their family and others like hers in a position of immediate need for rent, food, and necessities. Kubra says,

“He goes to work for two or three hours a day—15 or 20 hours a week. It’s not enough to pay the mortgage.”

Kubra has been a part of BART’s HomeDish program for several years, first as a cook and then as an interpreter. HomeDish is a program in which BART hires a different refugee woman each month to curate and prepare a meal from her own country. The meal is shared between community members as they engage in an educational and cultural exchange. Because of COVID-19, HomeDish has been on pause since March, but it will begin a re-envisioned version of the program this fall.

The refugee mothers BART usually employs through the HomeDish program are now facing unexpected hardships. They are homeschooling their children in English, which is their second, third, or fourth language. Since most of the women only have a primary school education, they struggle to homeschool at higher academic levels than they have ever had. There are many more expenses with the children at home: groceries, school supplies, computers, utilities, and transportation. If women aren’t working in meatpacking plants, their spouse still does, which means added stress and less income for the family. 

BART Receives a $25,000 Grant for Sewing Masks

To respond to these needs, BART applied for a grant from the COVID-19 Response Fund. They were awarded $25,000 for a project that employed refugees to sew protective masks for other refugees who are disproportionately at risk of contracting coronavirus. Pam marvels,

“Our normal annual budget is less than $25,000 a year, so this more than doubled it!”

The nonprofit received and distributed the Response Fund grant money in just six weeks. Committed to providing a fair wage for the work and intentional about spreading the wealth among different refugee communities, they hired 17 refugees from seven countries.

Kubra created a mask prototype and together, she and Pam began gathering and organizing skilled sewists. Sourcing materials was a challenge since the early-pandemic buying panic was in full swing. BART put a call out for fabric donations from the community, and soon bundles of cloth were being dropped on Pam’s porch at all hours of the day and night. Once everything arrived, they put together boxes of supplies, including a sample mask, fabric, elastic, and notions, and the sewists were put to work. 

17 Refugees Sew and Distribute 4,821 Masks Into the Community

Seventeen people were hired to sew 4,821 masks then quickly distributed them to people throughout the refugee community. Since the sewists had urgent and immediate needs, BART paid them within a week of finishing each round of work. 

Kubra created the mask prototype and was also one of the sewists. She says it felt nice to be working from home “like educated people do”; her children were safe at home, and she could keep up with housework while earning a fair wage. Still, it was hard to see so many people in need. 

Sewists would come to pick up materials and be in tears, saying, “I need help.” Kubra would say, “I wish I could help you, but I’m struggling like you.” She assured them, “This job will allow you to pay rent this month.”

The Needs Are Still Great Among Refugees 

Nearly every dollar of the grant went toward supplies and refugee employment—with $23,000 directly to families who desperately needed it. Months later, Kubra still gets a call almost every day from a new person asking, “Kubra, do you have more work for me?” 

“They think I own a factory!” she laughs. “I tell them, ‘No, it was just a small project. I need work, too!’” Pam adds, “I’m looking around for more funding, but it’s hard to find.”

Participants Seek Solidarity and Make Meaning Together

BART is determined to keep doing whatever it can to help through listening to refugee needs, supporting their talents, and collaborating for the greater good. Those who work with BART say it’s a mission of compassion and mutuality. Pam is proud BART could provide just, satisfying, and meaningful work for people who desperately need it and are overlooked. “People might think less of these women because they can’t speak English or wear a headscarf or haven’t had the chance of an education. But through BART, we are able to uplift, empower, and teach.” She’s adamant about one thing: 

“It’s not just a great nonprofit because we can, because sometimes we can’t—we don’t always have the financial means. It’s listening, making resourceful connections, and being a voice for people who feel voiceless because they don’t speak our language yet; it’s a journey of solidarity.” 

Kubra shares the meaning she’s found through this project. 

“Everyone is running behind happiness. They think money is happiness. But we have to find our happiness. I find happiness in helping people, helping them to solve a problem.”

“Thank God for Kubra,” Pam says through tears. “I couldn’t do it without her.”

To learn more about how the COVID-19 Response Fund is making a difference in our community, check out the Impact Report. Urgent needs continue to impact the lives of our neighbors, families, and friends throughout the Omaha-metro. Please make a donation to the Response Fund today.

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