What are some of the benefits of living in Omaha for Sudanese refugees? What are some of the challenges?
A Journey Well Worth It
Journey from Africa to America
Sudan is an East Central African country. Since 2011, Sudan has been divided into the Republic of Sudan and the Republic of South Sudan.
Sudanese Refugees Call Omaha a New Home:
Violent Civil War has been a reality for many South Sudanese citizens for decades. In the mid-1980s, the conflict started to turn. The South Sudanese People’s Liberation Army fought against the Northern Sudanese Army. Southern Sudanese citizens fled to refugee camps to save their lives. Many refugees were eventually resettled in the United States. Omaha, Nebraska eventually became the largest resettlement location in the United States. Refugees came to Omaha in search of a better life. Omaha offers career opportunities, affordable living, and an already established Sudanese community to join. While in Omaha, many refugees face challenges adapting to their new lives. Some of these challenges include learning English, finding employment, and developing a new identity in the states. The Southern Sudanese Community Association provides training and education for refugees in Omaha. From their establishment in 1997 through 2012, they have served more than 1,311 Southern Sudanese families. Many refugees feel that though this journey has been rough, it is one that is worth it for the sake of their families. They are hopeful Omaha will someday feel like home.
A 6 minute interview produced in 2012 interviewing Marie George and Gatluak Kang, both Sudanese refugees who lived in the refugee camps and came to Omaha. In 2012, they both worked at SSCA helping other Sudanese refugees.
Journey from Africa to America
Sudan is an East Central African country. Since 2011, Sudan has been divided into the Republic of Sudan and the Republic of South Sudan. The journey most Southern Sudanese take to America is more than 7,000 miles. For many Sudanese, it is a journey of hope for a peaceful future, but with these hopes come extreme changes that can be almost as frightening as a war zone. This journey shapes the identity of these refugees, allows them to be part of a new community, and enables them to be free democratic citizens. This story is important because it shows the determination and strength of this growing population within America's borders.
History and Migration
Sudan gained independence from Britain and Egypt in 1956. Civil War began as tension rose between the northern and southern parts of Sudan over political rights, economic resources, and religious freedoms. In the mid-1980s, the Sudan’s People’s Liberation Army in the South stood up against the violence perpetrated by the government in the North and a civil war began. Many people fled Sudan to refugee camps in bordering countries. The refugee camps were not easy to live in. One refugee described it as like a jail; you couldn’t leave without permission and there was very little food and water. Some refugees are able to escape life in the camps with the help of The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), religious and non-profit groups, and come to America. Upon reaching the United States, some refugees have to resettle multiple times, moving from city to city until they find a good place to live. Many South Sudanese choose Omaha because of employment opportunities, low cost of living, and an already established Sudanese community. The Federal ORR provides refugees with food, clothing, housing, and employment for a short amount of time (usually three months). After that time period, local agencies aid refugees. In their new location, refugees are faced with the challenges of adapting to a new community, a new culture, and new social norms to make it feel like home. This image is an article about a young Southern Sudanese woman relocating to Omahafrom a refugee camp with her small child. Many refugees share similar stories of hardship and hopes for a better future.
(Omaha World-Herald image from the Douglas County Historical Society Archives)
Southern Sudan Community Association
The Southern Sudan Community Association (SSCA) is a community-based, non-profit organization in Omaha, Nebraska. The mission of the SSCA is to teach refugees living in the United States and educate them at a basic level. Tor Kuet, a refugee from South Sudan, founded the SSCA in 1997. Omaha is home to many refugees because of its low cost of living and many employment opportunities. Since the SSCA was established, they have resettled 1,311 families in Omaha. They help refugees in a variety of ways, including case management, learning English, household budgeting, understanding currency and money, social norms, transportation, and driver’s education. The SSCA also trains and employs South Sudanese refugees. They provide training for housekeeping at the center as well as develop the refugees’ résumés, set up and practice interviews, and provide temporary transportation to and from their work sites. This image is the sign outside the Southern Sudan Community Association located at 3610 Dodge St. Suite 100A in Omaha, Nebraska. This is where many refugees come to learn about life in America.
The Vote for Freedom
In January 2011, the first voting took place in order to decide if South Sudan would secede from the North in hopes of ending the Civil War. Voting occurred all around the world. Omaha, Nebraska was chosen to be one of the voting sites because of all the refugees who live there. More than 3,000 people traveled from different states to Omaha to participate in the voting. The registration process was complex. Voters had to prove their Southern Sudanese roots by answering questions, showing some form of identification, and dipping their fingers in blue ink to prevent people from voting more than once. People who participated in the voting said they wanted to have their own country and identity, be a part of a democracy, as well as provide peace for their families in Sudan. The Sudanese who had never voted before could not stop smiling as they felt hopeful about the future. This image is St. Richards Church at 4320 Fort St., one of the polling sites used in the South Sudanese referendum voting process.
Blending of Cultures
Life in an African village and an American city are extremely different. Refugees from South Sudan experience these differences firsthand. Yet as time progresses in America, more and more connections are made between the life of a South Sudanese refugee and an American citizen. Language is an aspect of South Sudanese culture that blends with American culture. Many adult refugees struggle to learn English and speak their Sudanese languages at home, while the youth adapt quickly by learning English and acting as a translator for the family. Food is also an aspect of South Sudanese culture that has been brought to America. In Omaha, Sudanese grocery stores have opened, selling traditional Sudanese food. Many Sudanese families cook traditional meals at home as well as eat 'American' food and shop at local grocery stores. Sudanese food is also served on American holidays like Thanksgiving, The Fourth of July, and Christmas. The photo of the bathroom sign has three languages and an image on it all explaining that this is the Men’s restroom. This sign is displayed at the Southern Sudanese Community Association so all refugees can understand its meaning. This sign is displayed to make all refugees feel comfortable in their new community while they begin to learn social norms in America.
Racial Tensions and Generational Gaps
Racial tensions between the South Sudanese and African Americans exist, especially between the youth. At school, African Americans see the Sudanese as not a part of their culture. They label them Africans and separate themselves immediately, frustrating South Sudanese children. Because of that frustration, they develop their own groups to fit in with. Sometimes these groups are affiliated with gang activity. This leads to problems at home as well as develops tension with other gangs that are already established. At the same time, parents become frustrated and do not understand the obstacles their children face or the groups they turn to for a sense of belonging. Some parents and children struggle to find common ground and generational gaps begin to divide the Sudanese refugee population as both generations try to express themselves and adapt to their new communities. An example of this generational gap is marriage. Some Southern Sudanese elders wish to preserve the practice of traditional arranged marriages, while many youths want to choose their spouse. This image shows an article that was printed about a young girl who was a refugee and came to Omaha. Her family had arranged her marriage with an older man and she refused.
(Omaha World-Herald article courtesy of the Douglas County Historical Society Archives)
Parallels to African Americans
The Sudanese and African Americans living in America have many historical patterns in common. For instance, they both migrated to America after being forced out of their homes. African Americans were forced to migrate to America due to slavery, and Sudanese refugees were forced out of their homeland to escape the Civil War. When both groups migrated they brought many cultural traditions, but some faded when both groups started adapting. During the Great Migration, many African Americans in the South started their long journey to the North. They ended up in large cities, where there were more job opportunities and an already established African American population. While Sudanese refugees have taken a different geographical route, they share many experiences with African Americans during the Great Migration. Initially, placed in America, they may find life difficult without as many opportunities as they hoped. Often, they migrate to a city like Omaha where jobs are available and housing is affordable. Omaha has an established Sudanese community which then draws in more Sudanese refugees. In both groups, culture and a sense of community were important during migration. Both groups also experience racial tensions. African Americans have faced tensions with European Americans throughout American history, where Sudanese refugees have experienced tension with African Americans. The blending of cultures is also a strong connection between these two groups. African Americans in the Great Migration brought with them food, music, and storytelling. These aspects of culture changed as they adapted to their new home but many were preserved over time. Sudanese refugees have adapted their culture in many of the same ways. Culture is important because it helps people to form their identities and connect to others who share the same culture. Generational gaps are also a shared problem both groups face. In both groups, the youth have adapted much more quickly than the adults, creating a gap of understanding between the youth and elders. This image represents a traditional South Sudanese handheld drum that is displayed at the Southern Sudanese Community Association (3610 Dodge St. Suite 100A Omaha, Nebraska). This is a representation of a connection to the African American community because both cultures value music.
“I would just like to thank God for letting me come to the United States, and for a country that accepts everybody, everybody is the same, whatever color, just be an American to American. And, I hope that this happens in South Sudan, and that we become like the United States. And thank you to the United States for welcoming us here and providing a better future for our children.”
- Mrs. Mary George, administrator & Interpreter at the Southern Sudanese Community Association
The Making Invisible Histories Visible project focused on the African American population in Omaha, Nebraska, and uncovered hidden or ignored aspects of their history. The history of the Sudanese community in Omaha is slightly different because the population we researched does not self-identify as African American, nor does the African American population always accept this new population as the “same.” Therefore, our goal was to find specific themes that related to both cultures to ensure parallels between Sudanese and African American populations were apparent.
First, we compared the migration of Black people from South Sudan in recent decades to the migration of Black people from the U.S. South in the first half of the 20th century. A second powerful connection was how, after migrating, both groups of people began to blend their cultures with the cultures of their new home. Third, we highlighted the generational tensions between the elders and the youth of both communities. Finally, we emphasized the desire for political representation and freedom among African Americans and South Sudanese immigrants.
The South Sudanese population in Omaha continues to grow. However, the number of incoming refugees has decreased due to the official end of the Civil War in Sudan as of July 2012. South Sudanese continue to travel to Omaha because of the already established ethnic community as well as the abundance of entry-level jobs and affordable housing.
The Southern Sudan Community Association is a beacon in the community, providing assistance and support for new refugees in the Omaha community. Other notable agencies that help new refugees are Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska and Catholic Charities of Omaha. Omaha Public Schools also provides many services throughout the district for families who have school-aged children.
2012 MIHV Project
"Making Invisible Histories Visible was a phenomenal program. Not only did you meet a lot of new people but, you dug deeper into your past and learned about histories that are invisible."
- Ashley B.
"This program has opened my eyes and made me see Omaha with a whole new perspective. I wouldn't know how far we have come without this program."
- Nyayena C.
"I think MIHV has really shaped my identity because I learned so much about my family, what we have been through. I understand that these are not just stories, I live these histories."
- Nyayop B.
Pascale, Jordan. "Southern Sudan Referendum voter turnout in Omaha extremely high." The Lincoln Journal Star, January 18, 2011. Accessed July 23, 2012. https://journalstar.com/news/local/article_c8089db7-4737-5607-9517-77bcd7e81577.html
Pipher, Mary. The Middle of Everywhere: The World’s Refugees Come to Our Town. New York: Harcourt, Inc., 2002.
Southern Sudan Community Association. Accessed July 23, 2012. https://sscaomaha.info/ssca_wp/
Researched by: Ashley B, Nyayena C, Nyayop B, Molly B, and Bridget M.