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With more immigrants on the way, how Ebrahim found his American dream

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Ebrahim Abdulsattar takes a selfie with wife Lubna Al Sebaie while celebrating receiving his master’s degree during the University of Nebraska at Omaha graduation ceremony in August. Abdulsattar, who grew up in Yemen, graduated from high school and college here, then got his advanced degree in Nebraska thanks to his own hard work and a helping hand from an Omaha couple.

With American troops gone and the Taliban now in charge, thousands of at-risk Afghans who worked with the United States are still stranded in their home country. Some have escaped, but many in the U.S. want to do more to help.

It is a storybook summer night in Omaha, and Ebrahim Abdulsattar is sitting under a pink-striped sky in Aksarben Village, eating a chocolate crepe and considering his happy fortune.

He is married to Lubna al-Sebaie, a woman who shares his Muslim faith, intellectual curiosity and zest for road trips (he’s been to 40 states). They are new parents to Layal, whose cherubic face fills Ebrahim’s phone gallery as he thumbs through, beaming. The 29-year-old has a good job at a Lincoln financial services company, a side gig in tech consulting and a green card — a path to citizenship in the United States.

Ebrahim is, by any number of measures, living the American dream. Life, he says, is pretty good.

As Nebraska prepares to receive some 1,400 people from other countries, including 775 evacuees from Afghanistan, let’s take a moment to understand what put Ebrahim, born and raised in Yemen, under that pink Omaha sky. What makes him confident in the present and secure in the future knowing that Nebraska “is now home.”

The story of Ebrahim’s dream first presented itself in 2016, when I wrote an Omaha World-Herald column about his college graduation. Retirees Ila Dean Horn and partner Frank Frerich first welcomed Ebrahim in 2009 for a year of high school. Then they housed and supported him as he navigated college at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Ebrahim worked hard, got involved and got his degree.

Chapter Two began five years later at a sports bar in a west Omaha strip mall. On that hot July day, Kiwanis Club members had gathered for a regular lunchtime speaker. The topic was terrorism. The speaker was the director of NCITE, the UNO-based counterterrorism research hub where I now work.

Afterward, Frerich, now age 81, approached. Did I remember him? Did I remember Ebrahim? Was I interested in hearing a good news story?

Interested? I flat-out needed it.

* * *

Ebrahim grew up in Yemen, a country at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula. In the past decade, the country has been torn apart by civil war and near-famine. The U.S. State Department’s travel recommendation to Yemen boils down to this: Nope.

“Do not travel to Yemen due to COVID-19, terrorism, civil unrest, health risks, kidnapping, armed conflict, and landmines,” the State Department’s website says.

Ebrahim was born in 1992. He was almost 9 years old when the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 happened. He was nearly 17 when he traveled almost 8,000 miles to Westside High School, part of a post-9/11 program to introduce America to bright students from majority Muslim countries.

Yemen is the foundation where Ebrahim’s future success was set. His engineer father and teacher mother valued education, so much so that this month, Ebrahim’s mother will receive her doctorate in education despite war and humanitarian disaster.

His arrival in Omaha proved rocky: Culture shock, language barriers, difficulty immersing in a co-ed American school. And Ebrahim was nearly homeless; his first Omaha host family did not work out.

The kindness of strangers became a second foundation for Ebrahim. Horn and Frerich invited him to live in their Omaha house. They went to his parent-teacher conferences. They taught him to drive. They pushed him to get involved, and Ebrahim did. He joined the band, learned to bowl, rode a horse and made friends.

When Ebrahim finished his junior year in the spring of 2010, Horn and Frerich waved him off warmly at Eppley Airfield.

Ebrahim returned to Yemen. Horn watched news coverage of the Arab Spring and uprising and got worried. She emailed Ebrahim and asked if he could come back. She worked the phones, calling UNO and the U.S. Embassy. She sent Ebrahim money and instructions for a visa.

In 2012, Ebrahim did come back. He enrolled at UNO, joined the honors program, won grants and scholarships and got a part-time job.

Just as he did at Westside, Ebrahim got involved. He headed UNO’s Muslim Student Association. He volunteered for nonprofits that needed IT help.

He graduated in December 2015 with his bachelor’s degree plus certificates in data management and systems development.

In January 2017, President Donald Trump took office. One of his first presidential acts was halting people, like Ebrahim, from majority Muslim countries from coming to the U.S. The “Muslim ban,” as it was called, was challenged in court, reworked, challenged again in court, then took effect after the second revision.

It kept Ebrahim from returning to Yemen to see his family. He didn’t want to risk leaving the U.S. (On Inauguration Day, President Joe Biden reversed the ban).

Ebrahim has spent one-third of his life in Nebraska, and the past decade has shown the social fabric, while stretched, remains resilient.

He knows Islamophobia exists, that hate crimes are on the rise and that Muslims, particularly hijab-wearing women like his wife, can face discrimination. He knows that when newcomers from war-torn places land in Nebraska, they experience grief and anger and acceptance. He knows they need help. He knows they can make it.

Ebrahim was eager to share these views the evening we met under one of the colorful umbrellas in Aksarben Village’s picnic area.

He rattled off the good things happening for him. He was excited about his August UNO commencement ceremony. He’d earned his master’s degree in management information systems the year before, when COVID-19 meant no in-person ceremony. Now he was going to don the black robe and walk across the stage.

He talked about Lubna. Denied the dream to study architecture in her native Syria, Lubna had spent years as a refugee in Egypt, where becoming an architect seemed absurd. Now she’s a junior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

They constantly remind themselves how far they have come.

In Ebrahim’s eyes, America is a place that, despite its challenges and fierce disagreements, can still welcome a stranger.

Ebrahim considers himself lucky, not just for finding love, starting a family and being somewhere safe. In planting Nebraska roots, he believes he's on the right path.

Life is not perfect. He hasn’t seen his parents and siblings in nine years. He’s not sure when he will be able to return to Yemen.

But under that pink, dreamy Omaha summer sky, he considered what he had and declared: “Life is good so far.”

His success is sweet affirmation to Horn, now 91, who had to defend taking in a Yemeni teenager to friends.

The great-grandmother had her reasons. She’s known hardship. She wanted her family to know someone of a different culture. She felt called.

“This is what I needed to do, and I’m glad I did,” she said recently.

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Ebrahim Abdulsattar and his wife, Lunda Al Sebaie, are shown in their Lincoln home with their daughter, Layal. The 29-year-old has a good job at a financial services company, a side gig in tech consulting, and a green card, clearing a path to U.S. citizenship. He says life for the newest Nebraska refugees, many of them Afghan, won’t be easy. But he also believes that the lives of those newest Nebraskans hold promise.

She credited Ebrahim for charting a successful course.

“He took advantage of every opportunity. He was always so good and really nice about everything,” she said. “It could not have worked out better.”

Ebrahim’s experience holds promise not just for the Afghans and other newcomers who are en route, but for the rest of us.

His story, the one that came amid stories of distress and failure, is a reminder that our national fabric is more resilient than perhaps we know. Sitting under that sky, I heard my story, our collective story as Americans, told to me by a young man who still believes in the American dream.

Who believes he’s living it.

The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter.

The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter. Learn more at flatwaterfreepress.org

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