Making Homes Safer for Those New to the U.S.
By Ashley Peterson-DeLuca
Ester Paw grew up in refugee camps at the Thailand-Myanmar border before moving to the U.S. as a teen. She has called Omaha home for 15 years and is now a family educator with the Omaha-based nonprofit Restoring Dignity, which helps families adjust to their new country.
“Living in a refugee camp is very different from a house in the U.S. The homes are simple, made of bamboo and roofs are covered with leaves. There is no gas and no stove,” says Paw. “Here in the U.S. the houses are built different. There is a lot to know about how to be safe at home.”
“Knowledge doesn’t just drop out of the sky. We help people acclimate to a new situation through education,” adds Hannah Vlach, the Founder and Executive Director of Restoring Dignity.
Families who qualify for resettlement from refugee camps receive 90 days of assistance from the Federal Reception and Placement program. After that period ends, local programs like Restoring Dignity step in to help families create a safe and healthy new home in the U.S.
“We saw the need in the refugee community for fire safety, so we added that to our program,” says Paw. “For example, in our community, most families usually cook inside the home.
Sometimes the smoke from the cooking could sound an alarm, and some families
would think that a fire alarm can only be annoying before they know it could save
Knowing the Red Cross teaches fire safety classes, Restoring Dignity reached out for support through Juanita Sieben, a Nebraska & Iowa Red Cross Disaster Health Services and Disaster Preparedness volunteer who teaches fire, tornado and winter safety. It was a great fit and the two organizations were able to create a comprehensive education program together.
“The American Red Cross provides the smoke alarms for Restoring Dignity and trains their family educators on the process for installing them,” says Sieben. For persons with deafness or hard of hearing, Red Cross and Restoring Dignity go into the home together to provide and install shaker alarms.
The Red Cross also provided education materials, which were modified and translated into 10 languages and dialects —Karen, Karenni, Burmese, Dari/Farsi, Pashto, Kirundi, Kiswahili, Kinyarwanda, Nepali and Arabic.
“We can now teach families in their own language. They’re more comfortable, we can share information better and there are fewer misunderstandings,” says Paw. The classes are taught one-on-one in their homes by Restoring Educator family instructors who have also experienced the challenges of resettlement. In 2022, the team of five family educators taught 933 in-home classes.
Each family receives a series of three classes:
· A fire safety class where they discuss fire alarms, install them and create an escape plan in case of fire.
· A week later, they teach home safety covering how to be safe with electrical cords, fire starters, electrical devices and even how prevent lead poisoning.
· The final class covers Midwest weather safety including tornado and natural disasters, creating an emergency contact card and preparing an emergency bag.
“During one of the first family education classes, while discussing odors and what indicates danger, the family realized they smelled sulfur in their home,” says Vlach. “They found a gas leak. We started saving lives on day one.”
Restoring Dignity has served hundreds of Omaha-area refugees by providing much-needed household items donated by the community and education that enables families to thrive in their new environment. Learn about ways to support their mission to bring hope to families here.
Paw says: “We’ve overcome so much. We’re so happy to be part of the community. This is the land of opportunity.”