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Omaha Pulls Together to Help Sudanese

  • Carol Schrader

Sudanese refugees began to funnel into Nebraska a decade ago… part of a massive international refugee resettlement program. More than half the state's Sudanese population of about 10,000 live in Omaha, making the city perhaps the largest concentration of Sudanese in the United States.

Many of the Sudanese have become part of the fabric of the community. That's especially true for the men, who often arrived here before their families. Still, these refugees face many challenges, and the University of Nebraska invited experts and activists to discuss what still needs to be done to help the state's Sudanese community.

More than 80 people responded to the invitation, crowding into a small room in a community center in the heart of the city's African-American community. The goal of the forum was to help those working with Sudanese residents become more informed about each other's efforts.

Sandra Elsea, a nurse with the , told the gathering there was little information for local providers when she began working with the Sudanese 7 years ago. "I just had to learn by the seat of my pants about the culture," she said, adding that she tries to learn more everyday. But she confessed she is still amazed at what the rest of the city does not know. "I even know people in Omaha who don't even know they're here. You know, we've got 5,000 people here. When I say 'the Sudanese refugees', they look at me like I've got a hole in my head."

The nurse has learned a great deal about Sudanese culture… and how it differs from U.S. society, and much of her work focuses on educating refugees about those differences. For instance, she said, clinics in Sudan are mostly 'Walk-in.' So it takes time to get folks to understand they need to make an appointment to see a doctor or nurse… then keep that appointment.

But, Ms. Elsea noted, cultural disparities can be more serious, and lead to the involvement of police, and other government agencies in what would have been a family matter in Sudan. She's seen it happen with what's considered domestic violence in the United States. "In Sudan," she noted, "corporal punishment is how husbands deal with their families. And when they get to this country, when the women and the children find out that that's not acceptable in the United States, then they get the number of [Child Protective Services] and call. And that leads to all kinds of problems with the family because Mom has no way to have an income [if she moves away from her husband]." Ms. Elsea said she'd like to see more cooperation and understanding of these situations among the police and other departments that deal with these families.

The cultural adjustment has led to stress and mental health problems in the refugee community. That's been Mary Obat's focus for the past 3 years. A Sudanese refugee herself, she works with women… believing they are "change agents," who can educate other women, children and, ultimately, the whole community. Sudanese women in Omaha, she said, are depressed. "Because they stay home all the time taking care of kids. They don't know the language. They don't know how to drive. And they cannot go out, meeting other friends or relatives. They always stay in the same place and their husbands go to school or go to work."

Some Sudanese women in Omaha have coped with this depression and isolation by forming a women's support group. Elizabeth Ajango told the forum it's been an education for her and her fellow organizers, "learning how to become an effective working mom and at home, (at) the same time, be a successful homemaker."

Help for these women is also available through the Omaha Public Library System. "The public library is a wonderful resource for you," its director, , told the audience, inviting those at the forum to take advantage of its services. "We have meeting rooms. We have programs. We have displays out there. We have a children's librarian in the room to talk about how we can help your children."

After an hour-and-a-half of discussion about everything from economic development to cultural diversity within the Sudanese population, Ms. Sass voiced the general agreement that there was still much more to learn, and to meet again. "Today was like the first day of a wonderful college course. And it's over today… and I want to come to the second class."

No one has scheduled that "second class." But there was the beginning of a better networking system for everyone trying to make the relocation experience a good one… for Omaha… and its Sudanese residents.

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