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Restoring Dignity brings hearts together to serve the refugee community

by Leo Adam Biga

*Note: Photos shared in this story were taken prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Restoring Dignity depends heavily on volunteers and donors to ensure refugees have a decent place to live.
Restoring Dignity brings refugee families furniture and household items to transform a living space into a home where they can thrive. Their work also includes teaching basic cleaning skills and providing critical housing advocacy for refugees.
Volunteer Jeff and Crystal Young make community service projects a family endeavor. They began pitching in on Restoring Dignity makeovers of refugee homes after seeing a call for help.
“We like Restoring Dignity because we can usually sign up within a week of the go date,” Crystal says, “and they have specific needs that don’t require much planning or special skills. That’s what makes Restoring Dignity really appealing for our family of ten.”
“It’s always a very rewarding experience for our family,” says Jeff. “You see a lot of the same (volunteers) coming back because once you do it, it becomes a very positive experience you want to recreate.”

Cory Nelson intersects with the makeovers through his employer, Relevant Community Church, whose members join other metro area volunteers to redo distressed residences.
“It’s cool to see people from the community unify together to show this love for families that have gone through so much,” he says.
Restoring Dignity founder-executive director Hannah Wyble first became aware of dire refugee housing needs as a social worker. She befriended a Sudanese family who endured trauma abroad. She learned even after escaping war or genocide to start anew somewhere, refugees may be re-traumatized here by suffering a personal loss, financial hardship or stark living conditions.
The refugee odyssey is particularly daunting. It begins with fleeing one’s country of origin to a holding camp in a strange land as a displaced person. A lucky few get resettled – but often half a world away. Language and other barriers can be frustrating. Those coming to America often move several times before finding a permanent residence. Refugees may still struggle to turn a house into a home due to unsafe, unhealthy living conditions in rental properties that some landlords are lax in addressing. Some refugee cultural practices, combined with unfamiliarity on how to keep up a home, can lead to unsanitary conditions that breed pest infestations.
In Omaha, what began as a one-off activity to aid a single family multiplied when Hannah realized many refugee families, whether from Burma, Nepal or the Congo, face similar circumstances. Her compassionate concern led her to form Restoring Dignity.
“I’ve always been an advocate,” she says. “I have always felt the need to stand up for people who didn’t fit in anywhere else to try to make them feel more welcome.”
Restoring Dignity has grown into a full-fledged agency with its own donation center and the ability to marshal scores of volunteers. 

“Usually, the families that qualify for a home makeover are dealing with a terminal illness or major disability that prevents them from pulling themselves up by the bootstraps,” she says.
The mission is to give people who’ve lost so much a little comfort.
“I feel like the inherent dignity in these families has been stripped away in so many regards,” Hannah says. “From having to leave their country due to war raging there, to family members killed in the conflict, to loved ones killing themselves here because it’s all too much to handle, to living in horrible conditions slumlord owners will not repair. I feel like restoring dignity is what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to give them back that sense of feeling they are important and worthy.
“My goal is to just do as much as we can to reduce unnecessary suffering and to help refugees thrive in our community.”
Many refugees also live paycheck to paycheck from meatpacking jobs, leaving them one layoff or injury away from losing everything.
“Families reach out to us who have gotten sick with the coronavirus and haven’t gotten a paycheck for two weeks,” she says, “and they don’t have money for diapers or other essentials.”
In this summer’s record heatwave, donated window air conditioners are vital.
“When we drop off air conditioners,” she notes, “it’s a hundred degrees inside some houses. It’s just horrible. There’s a risk of heatstroke. The need is very great.”
Cory Nelson can attest to the challenges some refugees face. “It’s an eye-opening experience,” he says. “We’ve seen some pretty terrible things.” He admires Hannah’s activism in “holding landlords accountable for their rental properties.”
AC units only begin to describe what a makeover entails. During an all-day marathon of volunteer crews working in two-hour shifts, an entire residence is emptied, then deep-cleaned from top to bottom, before brand new household items are placed inside.

“It’s going in and giving them a fresh start,” Cory says. “It’s a huge undertaking from start to finish. Restoring Dignity’s done it so many times they’ve got it down pretty well. Some of us do the heavy lifting. Others, like my wife Kristin, clean and decorate. It’s pretty cool how there’s different opportunities for volunteers to plug in. There is a spot for everybody.”
The Young family got hooked on their first project. “We had such a good time our kids said we need to do that again,” Jeff Young recalls, “so we’ve done four or five (makeovers) as a family.”
Giving back, Crystal Young says, “is part of our family culture.”
The work’s made an impression on 14-year-old Roger Young. “This has really given me a view for what these people’s lives are like, what they have to go through, and how little they come to America with. It gives us a chance to help improve their life. It’s a very humbling experience.” This experience was one that inspired his 2019 Eagle Scout project.

“I built palette bunk beds for refugees. I came up with the design and the materials. Lowes generously donated all the lumber.”
The Youngs assembled the beds in refugees’ homes.
Makeovers are on hold until COVID-19 concerns ease, but Hannah and her volunteers are eager for them to resume.
“I really hope it happens sooner rather than later,” she says, “because I love doing the makeovers. Normally we need between 40 and 80 volunteers on one day. It’s huge. It’s a great time.”
Year-round, volunteers are needed to staff Restoring Dignity’s donation center inside Lockbox Storage near 74th and Dodge to sort through items, discard trash, and shelve things.
Hannah doesn’t take any volunteer for granted.
“I always say never underestimate the power of one because sometimes one person has brought in a hundred volunteers. Every person who reaches out to me is extremely important because you never know what they bring with them.”
She loves interacting with volunteers and families.
“I love being hands-on. The best days are when we are able to directly impact families in a meaningful way.”
She also treasures hearing refugees’ stories of resilience and survival. Restoring Dignity employs several refugees and, Hannah says, “One of my visions is to see this organization passed off to the refugee community and run by refugees for refugees.”
Those who follow her Pied Piper call sing her praises.
Jeff Young, a retired Union Pacific systems-operations expert, says, “The organization Restoring Dignity puts around this is really quite remarkable. Hats off to Hannah. Her organizing people to come together to provide this service is remarkable. Her leadership, passion and commitment to take that on is commendable.”
“Her drive to make our refugee community better is awesome and inspirational for me,” Cory Nelson says. “She is a person who is definitely for community.”
Roger Young is hungry to do more.
“When the opportunity presents itself, I will definitely choose to go serve and help again.”
“To see the joy on the families’ faces when they realize people actually do care about them” is most satisfying to Cory Nelson. He adds, “I’m really looking forward to getting back to serving these families. We’re still on some level helping, staying engaged, donating furniture, bedding and household items.”
Currently, Restoring Dignity needs the following items donated:
Cleaning supplies – Details here.
Window AC units – Details here.
Cloth masks – Volunteer to sew masks here.
Hygiene items
Culturally appropriate food
For more on their work, visit Restoring Dignity’s SHARE Omaha profile.