The Meaning of Thanksgiving: When strangers are neighbors
While bountiful fall harvests are celebrated around the world, Thanksgiving in the United States has a twist fundamental to its nature that has defined our country’s growth – a uniquely American ideal that welcomes strangers, making us a beacon for hard-working, freedom-loving people everywhere.
Pilgrim leader Miles Standish and his small group of undocumented immigrants at Plymouth had barely survived the winter, thanks to the public assistance of the land’s long naturalized citizens, the Wampanoag Indian tribe.
The tribe also gave the undocumented colonists the seeds and knowledge to plant the native crops that would sustain them into the future. At the colony’s first harvest, the invitation was extended and Wampanoag Chief Massasoit walked two days with 90 men to build their own guest quarters, adding to the small village’s seven homes, meeting hall and three storehouses. Over the course of a week and in between songs, performances, games and tests of skill, many meals were eaten together and some separately – the Indian gift of venison likely supplemented by duck and other water fowl from the pilgrims.
Where’s that spirit today? Planning for this issue of The Reader on the Next Americans started this summer, but President Obama’s recent executive action just about insures there’s going to be a new topic at this year’s Turkey Day table. The big difference between that first Thanksgiving and today is that undocumented immigrants aren’t strangers, they are our neighbors and have been for some time – paying taxes, building our community. Underlining this collection of stories on our Next Americans are some fundamental facts, courtesy of The Immigration Policy Council’s aggregation of the best research available:
• Nebraska is home to 116,124 immigrants, 6.3% of the state’s population and the Pew Hispanic Center estimates about 1/3 are undocumented, mostly Latino, but also Asian and African.
• According to the Urban Institute, 85.3% of children in Nebraska with immigrant parents are naturalized U.S. citizens.
• All immigrants pay sales, property and gas taxes and many pay income taxes. If undocumented immigrants were granted legal status, the Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy estimates Nebraska’s annual state and local tax revenues would increase $10.3 million to $52.6 million, mostly from income taxes.
• UNO reports that immigrants contribute $1.6 billion to Nebraska’s economy, generating 12,000 jobs.
— John Heaston
Reporting for this feature package has been possible thanks to underwriting and editorial support from the Heartland Project, a joint initiative of the Asian American Journalists Association and the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association.
From the Field to the City: One undocumented immigrant’s journey to legalization
Placido Bustamante Salgado was born in La Concordia,Teloloapan, Guerrero: “It’s the classic rural town where everyone knows each other, People work the field and mainly harvest corn and beans. Nowadays there is an elementary school and a Telesencudaria [distance education program], but when I lived there we only had an elementary school.”
Bustamante comes from a large family: “I’m one of the middle sons. We are five men and three women, and most of us live here in the United States. My parents had a hard time working to raise all of us, because my father always worked the field, harvesting corn, beans and peanuts, and my mother was a full-time housewife. As we grew up, we all had to leave our town to continue studying.”
At the Centro de Bachillerato Tecnologico Industrial y de Servicios (CEBETIS) at Teloloapan, Bustamante was able to learn about electro mechanics: “After that I worked for a while until I later enrolled at the Tecnologico de Acapulco for three years to become an accountant.”
He got married before finishing college, and the birth of his first daughter encouraged him to seek new opportunities outside of Mexico: “My father worked here when he was young with the help of the government. It seems that during World War II a lot of people enlisted in the army, and this created a void since there weren’t enough people working in the country. Thus the United States made a deal with Mexico to allow Mexicans to enter the country to work. They were called braceros, and my dad was one of them. My uncles also came here and stayed over in Washington, working collecting apples, cherries and peaches.”
In 1988, when he was 22 years old, Bustamante crossed the US border for the first time as an illegal immigrant: “I made the trip with a family I knew back then, and they contacted a guide, called a coyote, and he’s the one that takes you to the person waiting for you in the United States. We all arrived together at Tijuana at around 7 p.m., right as it was getting dark. We walked until 2 or 3 a.m., and, due to an error in our guide’s planning, we ended up where the border patrol was and we were arrested. Back then laws were not as strict, so they simply took us to a detention center where we waited for around 8 hours. That was long enough for them to arrest more people in order to send all of us back on a bus. There was no abuse, but I don’t know how hard things are today.”
Instead of feeling discouraged, this first failure motivated Bustamante even more: “You think about the family you’re leaving behind, and even though you know you’re taking many risks, you go on. You just want to get there to start working because they’re expecting you to start helping them with some money. There is definitely uncertainty, but you don’t give up so easily. For example, we went back to a hotel in Tijuana to recover from the journey and to wait for the right time to do it again during the next day. For this second try we walked with our guide pretty much all night long. Around 3 or 4 a.m., the person who was our contact at the United States came to pick us up. Our group had kids (the smallest one was 6 years old), young people and older adults.”
Carrying only a backpack with his ID, two changes of clothes, a sweater, a jacket and plenty of water, Bustamante carried-on: “We crossed in California, so we didn’t have to cross the river but we did get close to some streams, and we even crossed part of the interstate. Sometimes we had to run, and sometimes we had to take things slowly, always being quiet. I wasn’t thinking of the danger because I was lucky to be young and in great shape. Things have changed now, and I probably wouldn’t do it again, because if something goes wrong, my family would be left adrift.”
The cost of this journey “wasn’t too much, maybe $800,” and this allowed him to arrive at Riverside: “After that, our relatives waiting for us in this country must be ready to pay the guide so that he can present us before them.”
Once he was with his relatives, Bustamante started to work very hard in Washington state, were he managed to legalize his status: “Back then there was a program that allowed me to obtain my papers. Since at the time the government wasn’t as strict, I didn’t have to wait long before bringing my family here.”
By the time he was living at Nebraska, Bustamante got a chance to work at several jobs, including meatpacking companies and even in the kitchen of a Chinese food restaurant: “While working full-time I also studied English at Metropolitan Community College and this allowed me to get a job at several companies such as ConAgra, First Data and eventually Wells Fargo. On top of that, I took some classes at Metro that made it possible for me to transfer to Bellevue University where I graduated in Marketing.”
After getting his license as a real estate agent, Bustamante went on to work a local realtor group: “I’m very happy with what I have accomplished. My second daughter and my son were born here. My two daughters graduated from UNO and my son will study engineering at the University of Florida. I have shown them that it is possible to work and study at the same time, and that education is key for having a better life.”
Even though he misses the “calm and cheaper” life of La Concordia, Bustamante acknowledged that “the insecurity at the state has grown considerably.”
— Marina Rosado
Rubbing In: Omaha’s booming African immigrant population
Swahili, Arabic, Dinka, and Nuer voices loudly, spoke and sung over fast and slow drum beats. This rhythmic sound ringing through the auditorium doors at Bryan High School. As dozens of Sudanese immigrants gathered in south Omaha for the second “Youth Empowerment Opening Ceremony,” on the stage is the United States flag and Nebraska state flag standing to the right and left of a center table draped with the Sudanese flag.
Although Sudan is located a little less than 8,000 miles away from the “Good Life” of Nebraska, thousands of Sudanese have settled here in the metro area and now call Omaha home. On this particular evening, a welcoming spirit filled the air as these dark brown shades of people of all ages greeted each other with hugs and smiles.
“Yeah, that’s how they greet. If you go to any Sudanese gathering you see that rubbing, --- shoulder knocking, hitting and patting on the back -- is always there,” explained
Christine Arach Ross. Ross is the refugee healthcare liaison for the Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska.
Ross has been in the United States for 18 years. In 2005 she said she moved to Omaha to attend University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) for her master’s degree in public health. Prior to living in Omaha, she lived in Mankato, Minn. Ross said as a refugee, when she hears on the telephone of other’s stories of struggle with language and basic daily functions including going to the grocery store, she feels inclined to invite them to come over to her state.
“People talk on the phone, people have been in the [refugee] camps together, people know each other. So, when they go to different states they exchange phone numbers and then they communicate,” she said. “They check on each other by asking how things are going, where they are located and share how things are going, good and bad.” Ross said she encourages people to come where they can get the best help. “So, people are trying to help each other to settle.”
When more Sudanese people from familiar tribes populate an area, there is a stronger support system and sense of family. Ross credits local groups like Omaha Together One Community (OTOC) and various church members from the Catholic, Lutheran, and Baptist churches for supporting her family and peers in transiting to Omaha.
Kara Tofte also works at Lutheran Family Services as the program coordinator at the International Center of the Heartland, a United Way community impact initiative providing “one-stop shop services for Refugees and immigrants.” Tofte said it is important for “outsiders” to welcome and help these communities because they treat everyone like family and deserve the same treatment.
“I’ve never felt unwelcome at any event or anyone’s home. It’s been extremely open. I can stay there for hours without feeling like I am bothering them. That’s huge because in the U.S., we’re not always like that,” Tofte said.
About an hour later the disc jockey took his post and the program started. Koang Dolouny organized the annual Youth Empowerment Opening Ceremony and it takes place in the early part of June. Dolouny is the program coordinator for the Omaha Talons Basketball Academy. The group currently works with about 70 to 120 young boys in grades 3 through 12.
In 1999, Dolouny and his family initially settled in New York but ultimately ended up in Omaha. Dolouny said Omaha became the perfect place for them because of the low cost of living, housing, education and jobs. He said his family had relations to the growing Sudanese population here.
“In New York they felt isolated. They felt like there wasn’t really anybody that they could mingle with, and connect with and relate to. I also think it was the large number of Sudanese people and the fact that they could feel a little bit at home. And, they could be somewhat traditional among their peers. I think that’s what ultimately brought us here [to Omaha].”
At the ceremony, live performances by local and national African musicians continued. Traditional African dancers took the stage and Sudanese trivia questions were asked throughout the night. This event was filled with musical messages of hope, education, family and an independent Southern Sudan.
— Angel Martin
Refugees Flee Persecution: Making a new home
In 2000, 90,000 refugees, seeking protection from their homeland persecution, were accepted into the United States. In Nebraska, Lutheran Family Services resettled 152 refugees, that year, according to the organization. It is difficult to get an exact population count of the Omaha Sudanese because there is currently no system in place to track these numbers, some may resettle here or just leave, the majority of them being women and children. In 1999, Dolouny and his family arrived to the United States. Dolouny said his immigration story is unique because unlike many other Sudanese his journey to the United States included both his parents. As the middle child of seven children, he recalls growing up in a refugee camp boarding Sudan and Ethiopia. Dating back to 1955, Sudan has been in civil wars, and in 2011 South Sudan gained its independence from the country. During these wars villages were bombed and Dolouny said, “all hell broke loose,” forcing them to live in camps. He said the camp was like an alien planet with a wide mix of families in the middle of nowhere.
“I didn’t own a pair of shoes until I got here [United States]. I walked around barefoot my entire childhood. I owned one pair of trouser shorts,” he said. “There was one meal a day that we ate which was dinner, and even that was a struggle.”
Dolouny is a part of the Nuer Tribe, the second largest tribe in South Sudan. Omaha has a large population of Nuer members. He said his tribe is very spiritual and connected to surroundings.
“We were a part of that environment. On a regular basis we maintained that eco system,” he said. “It’s a culture too where we didn’t have time. So, there was a lot of our time spent in leisure activity. Internally we were very connected to life. Everything wasn’t so much external. We still are very connected to family like a bond very connected to the moon and the sun,” he said.
He said only one of his sisters was left in Sudan for about seven years until she was reunited with them. Dolouny said his father prayed for that connection.
“When a kid is born everybody accepts that social responsibility to make sure that this kid gets to where they’re supposed to be in life,” he said. “That’s one of our strongest quotes,” Dolouny stated, “is that it takes a village to raise a child.”
Moving forward, Dolouny is now college educated and the program coordinator for the Omaha Talons Basketball Academy. He said basketball teaches the young boys in his group character skills like discipline and leadership.
“The worst thing that could possibly happen to the youth is that we move here and we just completely disappear and become a part of the system that is America. Omaha gives us the chance to maintain that uniqueness, our lineage, and our history,” he said.
At the age of 24 he said those younger then him look up to him as an elder in the community. And, he’s taken on that responsibility by working with anywhere from 70 to 120 boys twice a week. He knows what it is like, to “live in two different worlds,” and is there to help them build character and adjust.
“They trust and understand that I have their greatest good in mind,” he said.
Many of Dolouny’s peers have returned back to Sudan working in leadership roles including a director/advisor to the Vice President. “On his way to become the president of the country,” he said. He also has a friend who graduated from Syracuse University, in 2003 who’s currently the largest exporter of goods in South Sudan.
But, as for now, he said, “Only God knows” his plans and his “passion is right here in Omaha.” So Dolouny will continue to call Omaha home.
— Angel Martin
Language of the Land: Over 109 different languages spoken in OPS
Thiep Gach, along with his younger siblings and cousin, sit in their living room watching the Disney Channel, on a hot summer evening. Gach is a 12-year-old, Sudanese-American boy. He is attending Bryan Middle School this fall. Gach said his favorite school subject is reading.
“I want to be a lawyer when I get older,” Gach said.
Gach is bilingual and he speaks Nuer and English. In fact, there are over 109 different languages spoken in Omaha Public Schools (OPS), according to the 2013 enrollment numbers. Susan Mayburger works for OPS as a coordinator of ESL, Migrant and Refugee Education. She is responsible for the work involved with teaching the 7,000 English Language learners (majority from Spanish speaking homes), migrant, and Refugee students in the district.
She said OPS has a history of serving ESL students for decades. “We have our systems in place so that we’re able to serve students in all of our elementary schools. We have programs in probably seven middle schools and five out of our seven high schools.”
The number one goal of the district is to have high student achievement, have students graduate high school and have options for post secondary education or be ready for career and jobs, according to Mayburger. ESL has three main goals including; reading, writing, speaking and understanding English at the highest level. Secondly, to be successful in the content area classes that are needed to pass and to graduate from high school.
Lastly she said, “we want them to have pride in their culture and in their first language, we don’t ever want to take away a skill set that they have so we want them to feel proud that they are bilingual individuals.”
One challenge she said she faces is sufficient funding to do the level of programming she wants. For example, North High School doesn’t have an ESL program because there are fewer than five students needing those services. She said if a family does need that help and moves to that attendance area, other options will have to be worked out, such as transportation. But, overall, Mayburger said, she’s proud of the feedback she receives from parents with students in her programs.
“We do a survey of all of our parents who have children in the ESL program, every year. We have parents respond in the high nineties, saying ‘yes’ the Omaha Public School is meeting the needs of my child,” she said.
Mayburger is also an administrator for Yates Early Childhood/Community Center. This OPS facility includes early childhood education along with classes for parents to learn English, a sewing lab and a computer lab. Programming started on August 18. She said we should see the immigrant community as an asset to Nebraska.
“We should do our very best to educate both the children and the parents well. So that we can in the end have individuals that can really contribute to our community. Let’s just do it right from the beginning, let’s teach them English, well, from the beginning. Always respecting the home language and the fact that they’re bringing a bilingual skill set to the workforce, which I think is very helpful to Nebraska as we compete on the global economy,” Mayburger said.
At Gach’s north Omaha home, his mother, Nyangak Thoan, sits on a couch in a colorfully decorated living room. A poster hung on the wall above her, reading, “God Bless This Home.” She works at a hotel and said her children help her when she has English related questions. In fact, during our interview, Thoan’s children asked her questions in Nuer and translated her responses to English. She said the educational system here is good.
“In my country, Ulang, it’s war, and not peaceful but there is peace here. God doesn’t want us to hate,” she said.
In 2000, she migrated to America. Thoan said she didn’t choose to come here but rather her faith in God has her in Omaha. They attend Trinity Lutheran Church and sing in the choir and help with outreach and fundraising activities. Thoan said she is thankful for programs like the Omaha Talons for working with her children and she hopes for the best for them.
“They will do great things and succeed in life, when they get older, here and back in Africa,” she said.
— Angel Martin
Leaning a New Language: When you’ve known a different one your entire life
Their faces light up as they recite the alphabet all together, eager to show they know their letters. “T, U, V, W, X, Y, Z,” they say with a flourish and clap their hands when they’ve finished, pride beaming in their smiles.
This would describe many a kindergarten classroom, but in this instance, these are no children. Their faces show the wrinkles of time and the weathered skin of people who have seen their fair share of life. One of them, Shree Subba, is 66 years old. He grew up in Bhutan but at the age of 45 was forced to flee his homeland with this wife and seven children. A year and a half ago, with the help of the United Nations, he re-settled in Omaha from a refugee camp in Nepal.
“Everywhere there is just house and road and all cars everywhere, but in back home country there is a lot of land to farm,” Subba says through a translator. “I struggle to find friend.”
That is a common adjustment issue that the people who run the Intercultural Senior Center in south Omaha understand. With the emphasis on getting adults employed and children educated, the older refugees can feel left out and isolated. They don’t speak English, they don’t drive.
“I think they all look for a place where they’re accepted,” explains Carolina Padilla, the Executive Director of the center. The senior center originated as a place for older Latinos to find a sense of community. It found its home at 20th and U, also known as Sokol South Omaha, the home of the Czechoslovak Museum which celebrates the an earlier wave of Omaha immigrants.
A year ago, it opened its doors to refugees. “Response has been amazing.”
Today there are four people working with the Asian population and programs run five days a week. Typically about 60 Bhutanese and a dozen Karen immigrants participate weekly. The number is limited to what the center can provide for transportation.
Once the seniors arrive, there are activities, English classes, help with health resources, and plenty of socializing. “It is a great place to come and fellowship and help them improve their lives,” Refugee Program Coordinator Marie Schussman points out. Already there are plans to look for a new home for the growing center.“He’s very happy to be here,” Subba’s interpreter tells us. “There’s no way to go back to Bhutan, but he hopes, someday, to go to visit.” As Subba sits contentedly, watching the set-up for another activity, a petite Latino woman holds the hand of a Bhutanese lady to show her around. Proof that friendship and a sense of belonging doesn’t need a language.
— Carol Wang
A Home in Their New Home: Karen community breaks ground on church campus open to all
Like a proud father, Saw Khu, who everyone calls “Rocky,” opens his tablet and starts showing off pictures. But they aren’t of his children, they are of twelve acres of land and the church about to break ground and become the Karen Christian Revival Church.
“It’s not just a church, it will be a community center. The church for all people,” Khu says with strong conviction.
The $2.3 million project at 49th and Sorensen is an ambitious capital campaign for any organization to undertake, but it’s extraordinary for a refugee group who has only been in Omaha since 2007. People who work with the Karen immigrants say it’s largely been driven by Khu.
“He’s a real visionary with a humble soul,” enthuses Lacey Studnicka, Program Development Officer for Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska. Studnicka says Khu encouraged other refugees to move to Omaha to take advantage of the opportunities he saw and they’ve taken off from there. “Their sense of community is really inspiring and they inspire other refugee groups.”
Along the way, Khu has become a successful businessman. He and his family own a grocery store and restaurant both named Salween Thai at Northwest Radial Highway near Nicholas Street in Omaha and a second grocery store named K’nyaw Poe Asian Market at 90th and Fort. They’re currently scouting out locations for a second restaurant.
“All we are doing now is for them [future generations],” Khu states simply. As one of the pastors of his church, he’s determined to lead his people as they adjust to their new lives. “We have never seen this amount of money, this big a house.” He says they need to move past being refugees and raise their standards of living to that of other Americans.
His community is responding. The fundraising calls for members of the church to commit $5,000 a year for ten years. So far, 150 people have signed on, despite the fact that many of them have low-paying manual labor jobs. The donations so far have banked $500,000 and enabled the purchase of the site.
And while so many people praise what the Karen are doing and how fast they’re adapting, Khu laughs at the notion. “To me it’s very long. I would like to have it faster.”
Having fought as a soldier on the battlefields of Burma, to living in a refugee camp, to finally settling down in Omaha, he wants to make sure the Karen have a spiritual home here, where family and community are valued and celebrated. But he’s not stopping there.
“My dream is bigger than this. I would like to see this church become international delegation so this is for all people, not just Karen. We want to see all people, all colors,” he shares. “’This is your country now.’ I never thought this before until I became a citizen.”
— Carol Wang
Law of the Land: Fishing and hunting laws can be new to immigrants
Think of the last time you moved to a new city and what it entailed: finding a place to live, packing your things, saying goodbye to friends and family, learning your way around town, making new social connections, not to mention being the new person in your workplace again. It can be all-consuming in the first initial months. Add to that a language and cultural barrier and you can just begin to understand how difficult the process is for an immigrant new to Omaha.
“Yeah, it was really hard,” Krishan Subba, a refugee originally from the country of Bhutan, remembered. “Now it’s okay.”
But part of learning the way life works in Nebraska is also understanding the laws that can be completely foreign for those who have been just focused on survival. It’s an issue Lutheran Family Services, an organization that works with refugees in acclimating to their new home, sees regularly. LFS also takes the calls when some of the city’s newer immigrants get in trouble with law enforcement and end up in the court system.
“One of the biggest things we see, especially in the summer, are people getting tickets and/or arrested for fishing and hunting either without a license or they are not following the law on how they fish and hunt,” Kara Tofte, a coordinator at the agency explained in an email response to questions.
Violations of fishing and hunting laws have become enough of an issue that Nebraska Game and Parks Commission is working with Lutheran Family Services to reach out to the estimated 8,000 Bhutanese and Burmese who have settled in Omaha in the last five to seven years.
“There certainly is a need, in our opinion, for Lutheran Family Services and officers to do this type of outreach,” concurs Duane Arp, Assistant Law Enforcement Administrator for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission
A current case is highlighting just how serious the consequences can be for not understanding the regulations around wildlife. At the end of June, Nebraska State Patrol troopers arrested three men from Burma after spotting them at Cunningham Lake. In the report, the officers stated they found the men named So Reh, Lu Reh, and Su Reh in possession of 207 protected birds. Some had been cooked, according to the paperwork.
Typically, this type of offense is a misdemeanor and has the same consequences as a traffic ticket—those caught face a fine and court costs. But in this instance, the number of swallows the Rehs are accused of taking means they’re facing charges of fishing/hunting without a permit and taking protected birds which could net a maximum of a $1,000 fine and a year in jail. On top of that, the state statute allows for damages, which means if the accused are found guilty that could cost them up to $10,000.
This is the first time David Smalheiser, the City Prosecutor, has faced this scenario in his 30 years of law. He has, however, seen the impact immigrants have had on the judicial system.
“The courts have seen a rise in the need for interpreters in the courtroom,” he notes. And the language barrier creates challenges in helping Omahans with limited English skills access the law. “Whether it’s Karen or a dialect of a tribe from Central America, it certainly impacts our people who come to the counter and need our services.”
Tofte tells us Omaha Police and the Douglas County District Court work closely with Lutheran Family Services on legal and law enforcement issues that arise with Bhutanese, Burmese and Sudanese individuals.
The agency also collaborates with other organizations like the WCA to help their clients who are dealing with domestic violence find safety and self-sufficiency as well as Nebraska Families Collaborative when there are child abuse claims.
The cultural orientation program Tofte coordinates will now likely involve the Game and Parks Commission.
Arp says his department is ready to help, having worked with other groups in the past to help them understand the need for permits, when hunting for certain game is allowed, how much hunters and fishermen are allowed to take and what wildlife is off-limits. He believes the volume of cases his department is seeing involving immigrants can be lessened with education and awareness.
As for the three men accused of killing protected birds, the Rehs’ fates will be in the hands of a jury. Their trial is slated for October.
— Carol Wang
Finding Family in Omaha: Bhutanese build community here
When Krishna Subba thinks about the place he grew up in, there’s a sense of disbelief that comes across in his eyes and his voice. “It was so painful and so terrible.”
Subba’s memories are not of his homeland—Bhutan--a small country that sits between China and India. Instead, they’re of a refugee camp in Nepal. In the 1990s, struggles between ethnic groups and the government led to his people, Lhotshampas, fleeing into exile.
Subba was two years.. The “house” he moved into, he estimates was about 15 feet by 20 feet—the size of one bedroom—for his three siblings, parents and himself.
“Meat once a month; walk fifteen minutes to get water,” recounts the now 25-year old young man. Because the walls were bamboo, he says there was no privacy and you could smell what everyone was cooking.
“When we were in camp we were always told, ‘next year we’ll be back In Bhutan’ and then the next year, ‘next year we’ll be back in Bhutan.’ We never felt like it was home.”
Twenty years later, in June of 2011, Omaha became his new hometown. He was one of the 738 refugees re-settled in Nebraska that year. An estimated 2,000 people originally from Bhutan and living in camps, have been re-settled in the city in the last five years.
Families from Bhutan and Burma have made up the majority of the refugees brought to Nebraska beginning in 2007 and tracked by Nebraska’s State Refugee Coordinator, Karen Parde. She says people selected to immigrate usually end up in states where they have family ties so there is a support system in place to help them adjust. “Nebraska has a huge amount of family tie cases,” when it comes to Burmese and Bhutanese people.
More than 1,000 refugees were placed in Nebraska last year, according to Parde, largely because they already had family connections here. Typically, the state’s target number for resettlement is 720 people a year. “We’re not trying to grow a program.”
However, in the world of secondary migration, Omaha has become a popular attraction for the Karen (pronounced Kah-wren), an ethnic people from Burma. “Omaha is a wonderful place to re-settle because we have a welcoming community and employment opportunities,” explains Lacey Studnicka, who works with refugees for Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska.
Saw Khu, moved with his family from Minnesota because of economic possibilities and the low cost of living. He says word has spread among his people and at the camps, “If you’re going to America, go to Omaha, best place to raise family.”
Today, the best guess is that some six thousand Karen refugees are in the community.
Moving to the U.S. is not an easy feat. The state of Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services works with Lutheran Family Services and Southern Sudan Community Association to provide services for the refugees. Studnicka says the federal government gives the non-profits $925 per refugee to get them established during their first 90 days. That means providing an apartment, furnishing it, and stocking the fridge.
Within 5-7 days of getting off a plane in Omaha, the refugees are working with staff to create employment plans, making appointments to see doctors for their health screenings, enrolling kids in school, applying for food stamps, and other programs they might be eligible for including medicare, social security and disability. The main emphasis for adults is on filling out paperwork and looking for work.
The resettlement program in Nebraska is so successful, a report from The Office of Refugee Resettlement lists the state as having the highest rates of success when it comes to refugee self-sufficiency.. But Studnicka and the others who work with the refugee population are quick to heap praise on the immigrants and their work ethic for the positive outcomes.
“Refugees bring a lot to the state,” Parde states. “I’ve seen lots of success stories. It’s just their plain determination to make it work here.”
Subba knows he still has a lot of hard work ahead of him. His first three years in Omaha were spent employed at a manufacturing plant and learning English. He now works as a hospital interpreter. In 2015 a book he wrote about his life will be published in Nepali. He’s working on the English translation in his free time, when he’s not in school. And while he admits, Omaha is not yet home, “Someday, I’ll feel it’s my home.”
— Carol Wang