It is a storybook summer night in Omaha, and Ebrahim Abdulsattar is sitting under a pink-striped sky in Aksarben, 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 infant Layal, whose cherubic face fills Ebrahim’s phone roll as he thumbs through, beaming. The 29-year-old has a good job at a 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 in Nebraska. Life, he says, is pretty good.
We don’t hear stories like Ebrahim’s much these days. But 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. It was a story about desire and ambition meeting the kindness of strangers. Ila Dean Horn and partner Frank Frerich are retirees who welcomed Ebrahim first in 2009 for a year of high school in Omaha. 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 this 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 academic research hub where I now work.
The past two years have brought stories of challenge, suffering and loss. The social fabric of America seems very thin these days, so thin that the Kiwanis Club members gathering at D.J.’s Dugout that July day were anxious to learn more about terrorism. Domestic terrorism.
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 just south of Saudi Arabia at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula. Yemen is big, geographically larger than two Wyomings. It’s crowded: With close to 30 million people, it would be competing with Texas to be America’s second-largest state,
And it’s a country in crisis. In the past decade, the country has been torn apart by civil war and near-famine. It is so dangerous there now that 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 nine years old when the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 happened. He was nearly 17 when he left home to travel almost 8,000 miles to Omaha Westside High School. He arrived as part of a U.S. bridge-building program created in the wake of 9/11 to introduce America to young, 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 to 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 heard about this Yemeni teenager in need of a home and invited him to live in their Loveland 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 home to Yemen happier, but his prospects dimmed as the country began to slip into crisis. Back in Omaha, Horn watched news coverage of the Arab Spring and uprising in Yemen. She stayed in touch by email with Ebrahim, saying she was worried and asking if he could come back. She worked the phones, calling UNO and the U.S. Embassy in Yemen. She sent Ebrahim money and instructions for a visa.
In 2012, Ebrahim did come back. He enrolled at UNO, majored in management information systems, joined the honors program, won grants and scholarships and got a part-time job. Ila Dean and Frank covered the rest of his costs with this condition: When you’re able, help someone else.
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 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, and 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. to be locked out on return. The ban eventually prohibited travel by people from a number of countries including Yemen. (On Inauguration Day, President Joe Biden reversed the ban). But with an eye on the opportunities before him in Omaha, he worked hard and tried to return the generosity shown to him. Ebrahim volunteered for local groups that served refugees. He served as a driver, translator and tech fix-it guy for Syrians still trickling into the U.S.
Ebrahim has spent one-third of his life in Nebraska, and the past decade has shown the social fabric, while stretched, remains resilient. He feels he’s living proof.
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 Omaha, those newcomers experience a range of emotions from grief to anger to acceptance. He knows they need help. He also knows they can make it.
Ebrahim was eager to share these views the evening we met under one of the colorful umbrellas in Aksarben business district’s picnic area.
The perfect summer evening weather drew crowds to the sand volleyball pit. The outdoor tables were packed. Small children shimmied to live music in the garden. Inside, near the Inner Rail bar, young people competed in a name-that-tune contest. Blaring over the speakers was John Denver’s “Take me Home, Country Roads.”
Ebrahim 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.
He was thrilled to talk 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 on track to graduate in 2023.
Driving Lubna’s family around Omaha gave Ebrahim a chance to get to know her. They married in 2017 and moved to Lincoln in 2019. Layal was born in June.
They constantly remind themselves how far they have come.
In Ebrhaim’s eye, America is a place that, despite its challenges and fierce disagreements, is still one that can welcome the stranger. He was that stranger at Westside and UNO. He has watched his wife and her Syrian family get settled and build lives in Omaha.
Ebrahim considers himself lucky, not just for finding love, starting a family and being somewhere safe. He also believes that in planting Nebraska roots, he is 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 summer Omaha sky, he considered what he had and declared: “Life is good so far.”
His success is sweet affirmation to Ila Dean Horn, now 91, who had to defend taking in a Yemeni teenager to friends. They asked: Why would you do that
The great grandmother had her reasons. She’s known hardship. She wanted her grandchildren and great-grandchildren to know someone of a different faith and culture. She felt called.
“This is what I needed to do, and I’m glad I did,” she said recently.
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 Afghan 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 shared 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.