Grief is incredibly complicated, says Gabriela Martinez.
Expressions of grief vary widely depending on the individual, family, and cultural context. Grief can be immediate or delayed. It may affect children and adults in different ways. And many things can trigger it, like the death of a loved one, the diagnosis of a serious illness, a life-changing injury, or separation through life circumstances like immigration challenges or incarceration.
But there is one universal constant. “Nobody ever wants to become a part of this club,” says Martinez, the bilingual (Spanish/English) outreach and inclusion coordinator for Grief’s Journey, formerly Ted E. Bear Hollow. “Any of these losses can be such an isolating experience. We want to make sure no one has to go through their grief journey alone.”
After earning a bachelor’s degree in social work from Creighton University, Martinez’s career has focused on equity and inclusion, an area of special interest for her, she says. Martinez herself is a first-generation American whose parents came to the United States from El Salvador in the early 1990s.
“I was raised in a very social justice-oriented family. My dad worked a lot in New York with the [El Salvador] Consulate, so I was raised around a lot of politics. One of his big motivators was the death of Óscar Romero (an archbishop and outspoken social activist assassinated in 1980), who just became a saint under Pope Francis,” she says.
She spent her early years in New York City surrounded by other families from Central America, so when her father took a job opportunity that brought the family to Omaha in the early 2000s, Martinez experienced some culture shock.
“When I first came here, everyone would say, ‘Oh, you’re Mexican.’ But there are people who speak Spanish from other countries,” she says. “There are a lot of differences between Latino cultures.”
Martinez says human services agencies and nonprofits must find ways to increase awareness and reach individuals who need their specific programs and services, especially underserved and vulnerable populations. The challenge is compounded two-fold when individuals and families are overwhelmed in a time of crisis and language is a barrier to communication.
“The outreach and inclusion role is to make sure we are reducing barriers for all individuals in our community who are currently experiencing a loss, whether that be through immigration challenges, illness, or a death,” Martinez says. For instance, people often don’t realize that Grief’s Journey support programs are free, open to both youth and adults, and available with Spanish-speaking facilitators. “I’m outreaching to those individuals that don’t necessarily know we’re a resource for them.”
Martinez’s responsibilities at Grief’s Journey reflect an organizational commitment to expand its services to a broader span of the population, CEO Rebecca Turner says.
“Grief’s Journey employs outreach coordinators charged with developing relationships and solutions for people who encounter obstacles to accessing support,” she says. “The agency addresses language and cultural barriers through paid and volunteer interpreters; provides snacks or meals at all of its programs; produces programs at a variety of locations, including partner schools and agencies; and frequently provides travel vouchers for program participants.”
Staff and volunteers are also trained to recognize potential need for other services beyond Grief’s Journey’s grief support programs (from individual or family counseling to food pantry access), and they collaborate with other providers to help guide families to the resources they need.
“A lot of it is referrals to, and interacting with, different agencies,” Martinez explains. “A death may just be one level of what this family is going through; they may need help putting food on the table or need other services as well.
Grief support is important because it can have far-reaching effects beyond the initial loss, Turner says.
“Research indicates that unaddressed grief correlates to issues such as poor school performance, poor work attendance, and lingering emotional and behavioral concerns; whereas healthy coping leads to long-term successes for children, families, and communities,” she says. “We believe everyone has a right to excellent and compassionate grief support and that our community is stronger with it.”
“It’s about creating that community where we’re empathetic to these individuals and their journeys,” Martinez says.
Editor’s note: These autobiographical pieces and corresponding photos are part of a special edition of 60PLUS featuring local residents who prove that fashion has no age limits. Click herefor the full list of featured models.
Tom Tomoser, 79
I’m a father of five, ranging in age from 3 to 61. The oldest four kids are all college grads and doing well. The oldest is an RN and has a bachelor’s degree; our second child has a CPA/MBA and is director of auditing at Creighton; our third child is a professor of economics and has a master’s degree from Sinclair University; and the fourth is GM of HVAC Co. and has a bachelor’s degree in zoology.
Our baby is the light of our life, being super-cute, talented, and very intelligent.
I am an entrepreneur. I started in meat packing and built a $2.4-million-a-year business from a throwaway beef byproduct, and was the largest supplier of the raw material for Jewish Torah scrolls. Eighty percent of the Torahs at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem were made from leather materials I supplied. At one time I had 92 percent of that business.
My biggest challenge today is building another million-dollar business to provide for my 37-year-old wife and our 3-year-old daughter. My wife was an on-air radio personality in the Dominican Republic and is an excellent photographer and cinematographer. Lone Eagle Records is our independent record label. To get national attention, I’m working up a pitch in order to get on the TV show Shark Tank. Rosmery T. Videos is our video arm. “Ros” has a channel on YouTube and over 15,000 views. We also have a sales company, selling memberships in a large buying co-op.
I am proud of many events in my life, such as being able to continue living a full, productive life at age 79 and providing for my wife and daughter. As a high school dropout, I am proud of having built a $1 million business. I also placed fifth in “Amateur Night at The Apollo in NYC.” I have become a successful karaoke performer. The Omaha World-Herald printed a big spread on me in December 2010, and CMT ran my videos on-air in 1986.
I always wanted to be a “snappy dresser,” as we said in the 1950s. My mother had six brothers who all stood 5’2” to 5’6.” I stood 5” when I was 10, so I received many expensive hand-me-down dress shirts and ties from them. From age 10 on I was a snappy dresser, as I always wore a shirt, tie, and sweater to school. When I went into the Navy, I bought tailor-made dress blues.
I tell everyone who will listen that I am the happiest man on Earth. I turned my life around when I found God and joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Like the Jewish people keep kosher, which means fit, we of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints obey a health law called “The Word Of Wisdom.” Obeying the Word Of Wisdom has contributed to my excellent health, which allows me to work 60-70 hours a week and still have energy to enjoy angels. Most important to health is a positive, can-do attitude. I adopted the attitude of Bobby Layne, who played quarterback in the NFL. Layne once said, “I never really lost a game in my career, sometimes I just ran out of time.”
This article first appeared in the January/February 2019 edition of 60PLUS in Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Editor’s note: These autobiographical pieces and corresponding photos are part of a special edition of 60PLUS featuring local residents who prove that fashion has no age limits. Click herefor the full list of featured models.
Ann Dunn, 77
I grew up in Omaha and was a student at Creighton University when I met and married Mike. We recently celebrated our 55th anniversary. In the early 1980s, I returned to school at the University of Nebraska-Omaha and earned a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration with honors, and a specialty in business information systems. With this degree, I worked at Mutual of Omaha for 20 years in information technology.
The one great sorrow in our lives was the loss of our son, Timothy, in 1988 in an automobile accident. Our other three children have blessed us with 11 wonderful grandchildren. We love seeing them frequently and being a part of each of their lives.
Through the years, I have enjoyed many different pursuits including tennis, skiing, running (now walking), golf (which I took up at the age of 70 and have achieved a hole-in-one), gardening, exercising, cooking, entertaining family and friends, reading, playing cards, mahjong, and travel. I treasure long-term friendships and therefore monthly outings are planned with my high school classmates, work friends, and siblings.
My advice for a long life is to exercise daily, eat and drink wisely, and never stop learning.
We have been blessed with a great family, good health, and wonderful friends. Life
Michael J Dunn, M.D., 79
I grew up in Lead, South Dakota, in the northern Black Hills. I came to Omaha in 1957 to attend Creighton University for pre-med studies and then attended the Creighton University School of Medicine. After graduation in 1964, I completed four years of internal medicine residency training and entered private practice in 1968. I became board-certified in internal medicine and, subsequently, became a fellow of the American College of Medicine and a member of Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society. After retiring from private practice in 2004, I became a principal investigator at Quality Clinical Research, where I have worked part time for the past 12 years.
The greatest joys and loves in my life have been my wife, Ann, our four children, and 11 grandchildren. I have enjoyed skiing since the age of 10, upland bird hunting, salmon fishing in Alaska, scuba diving, running (I have completed one marathon), and now stretching exercises and walking. I have enjoyed refinishing old furniture, some stone masonry work, gardening, and swimming pool maintenance (I’m the cabana boy for our backyard pool). Through the years I’ve kept up with reading current medical literature, and I enjoy reading mystery novels as well.
I attribute my success and happiness to my wife, Ann. One must choose their lifelong partner very carefully. I did that for sure.
This article first appeared in the January/February 2019 edition of 60PLUS in Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Injuries are a part of sports, but Creighton University point guard Jade Owens has weathered more than her fair share. After two years spent recapturing the health and athleticism she once took for granted, she’s returned to play for her senior season.
Owens earned a supporting role as a freshman before working her way into the starting rotation her sophomore year (2015-16). She averaged 7 points, 3.5 assists, and 1 steal per game and won admiration for her scrap and hustle. Things were panning out just as expected for the former all-state basketball player from the Chicago suburb of Fenwick.
Then, the summer before her junior campaign, just as she was coming into her own as a Division I player, she suffered the first in a series of major injuries requiring surgery. She was forced to sit out the 2016-17 season. Setbacks caused her to miss 2017-18 as well.
The promise of what might have been lingers. Her father, Ron Owens (who first taught her the game), says the persistent injuries have been “heartbreaking.”
After three separate six-month-long rehab sessions, she put the heartbreak and physical aches behind her to play in the Bluejays’ preseason exhibition (a closed scrimmage). She returned to the court for Creighton’s regular season home opener versus South Dakota on Nov. 7. The game was her first since March 2016.
“It’s been a road,” Owens says of her journey to recovery.
“Everyone always tells you, ‘You’re going to lose basketball one day,’ but you never think that’s going to happen. I lost it, and I’ve had to re-identify how I was on the team, how I fit in with everyone,” she says. “You don’t know how much basketball shapes your life until you lose it. All aspects of my life—different relationships, friendships, school—were affected by it. Just learning to adapt and to come back from things has been a huge life lesson for me.”
Coach Jim Flanery witnessed Owens fighting for 24 months to reclaim the sport that once defined her. “That’s a long time,” he says. Twice she got close to returning before being sidelined again.
“It’s like you get to a point where you can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and then it gets darker again,” Flanery says.
He describes Owens’ ability to stay hungry and strong enough to withstand “the frustration and disappointment” as a case study in perseverance.
“I just hope I can stay healthy—that’s No. 1—and contribute any way I can,” Owens says. “I know it’s not going to be the same as when I played before. I have to keep that realistic vision and take one day at a time.”
She’s learned to lean on her teammates over the years. “They’ve definitely been my rocks,” she says. “They’ve been there for me through it all—through the tears and the laughter. I don’t know if I could have come back without them.”
Her parents have been there, too. “They’ve been behind me the entire time,” she says. Her folks supported her when she considered quitting and when she decided to try coming back even after one failed attempt.
Her father isn’t surprised by Owens’ grit and determination in enduring the grueling physical therapy necessary to recover her mobility and strength.
“I take my hat off to her for sticking it out this long, but I’m not surprised she did the work,” he says. “She just puts her mind to something, and she makes it happen. She’s always been like that. She does whatever it takes to get whatever her goal is.”
He saw her overcome an ankle injury her senior year in high school that resulted in surgery and rehab. That was hard enough, but nothing compared to the last two years. Owens herself still can’t believe she’s on the court again dishing, dancing, and driving after not being able to do much of anything.
“It’s really amazing to me after everything I’ve been through,” she says. “It’s just crazy for me to even think about.”
Then there’s the way she has defied medical opinion.
“Some doctors told me, ‘We don’t know if you can [play basketball] anymore.’ I’ve been hearing that for a long time,” she says.
Her road to recovery began when she noticed pain in her upper thigh during a pickup game on the eve of her junior year. It was treated as a groin problem. Surgery in Omaha didn’t relieve the issue. Then she went home to be examined by a Chicago orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Benjamin Domb, who found the real problem—a right labrum tear. He repaired it. Following six months of recovery, she was no sooner cleared to suit up again when the labrum popped out and she suffered a fracture during her first practice back. Then, this past summer, she suffered a meniscus tear in her right knee that meant another procedure—her third surgery in less than two years—and another arduous recovery regimen.
Fellow CU senior Audrey Faber and junior Olivia Elger marvel at what their teammate has endured.
“I can’t even imagine the long months, days, hours she’s gone through,” Faber says. “Everyone’s excited to have her back. She knows the game, and we have a lot of trust in her.”
Elger says the resilience and mindset Owens has shown “should be a lesson to anyone” dealing with adversity.
That fortitude has not only impressed teammates and coaches, but also Owens’ twin sister, brother, and parents.
“She’s been an inspiration to the family,” her father says.
She is just glad to be back on the court; however, her experiences have done more than nurture athletic recovery. They have inspired a possible career interest. She is applying to medical school (at Creighton and other universities), and she hopes to study orthopedics. She’s even aiming for an internship with her orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Domb.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in doctors’ offices, and I know the lingo,” Owens says. “I think I have some insight into sports medicine and what it’s like dealing with injuries.”
According to a 2016 study done by the Women’s Fund of Omaha, women make up only 19 percent of the board members at S&P 500 companies, and 25 percent of executive or senior level positions at those same companies.
That same study found that 42 percent of women in Nebraska work in management, a better figure yet. And one method of increasing those numbers may be for women to mentor other women in the workplace.
In this abridged roundtable discussion, B2B talks about mentorship with four businesswomen from Omaha—Anne Branigan, senior vice president of Innovative Services at Greater Omaha Chamber; Melissa Farris, marketing manager at Boystown; Sharon Robino-West, community employment coordinator at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Omaha; and Dr. Maria Vazquez, vice president for Student Affairs at Metropolitan Community College.
B2B: As a female mentor, what do you bring young women that benefits them as younger women in the workplace?
Vasquez: I am just in awe of the young women I mentor. They are dynamic, further along than I was at that age.
Farris: I’m open to being OK to saying “I don’t know.” I want you to be able to collaborate. I want you to find the answer to better the team.
Robino-West: To be able to say I am weak in this area and I need your help.
Branigan: The younger women have been able to adapt to technology so well. The acceptance of that new technology, to me, is something else.
Farris: We have grown up with technology. There is an expectation that this is going to work.
B2B: What do you gain from being a mentor to young women?
Vasquez: I like to see them having the confidence to do things, and if they make a mistake they own up to it. I want young women to be their authentic selves. Accepting who they are and what they can contribute to the workplace.
Robino-West: Last year, there was a Girl Scout who has risen through the ranks, and I asked her what she wanted to do after college. She looked right at Fran [Marshall, chief executive officer of Girl Scouts Spirit of Nebraska] and said, “I want your job.” That was so empowering.
Branigan: I really enjoy learning from them. You think of mentoring, and you think it’s one way. But I always appreciate someone making me think, or learn something, or showing me a new way to do something.
Farris: I’ve been on the receiving end. I’m still close to one of my mentors from college [Dr. Eileen Wirth of Creighton University]. One thing that always stuck out to me was her availability. The fact that I maintain that relationship 12 years later is a success.
B2B: Can you give us an example of a great experience with mentoring?
Robino-West: I did a TEDx Talk last year, and I partly did it to challenge myself. I didn’t think I’d get picked. It was about healing by writing. I got done, and I got in the elevator, and there was someone right there, wanting to know if I could speak to a different group. Rita [Paskowitz, a TEDx Omaha coach] “get ready, you’ll be asked to speak on a regular basis.” so I could see him paying it forward and spoke out. I thought “Wow—you just never know what kind of an impact you will make.”
Vasquez: About 10 years ago, I was contacted by someone [Amanda Ponce] to speak in a Latina sorority. We stay in contact, and now she works at MCC. Her growth has been quite dynamic. We’ve always collaborated informally, but now we can do so formally as colleagues. That has been rewarding.
This article was printed in the December 2018/January 2019 edition of B2B. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
From left: Dr. Maria Vasquez, Melissa Farris, Anne Branigan, Sharon Robino-West
There were so many dimensions to this situation. Emotions ran high. I put politics aside because I am angry at both parties that seem to put themselves before country.
Instead of politics, when I thought about what played out in the media, I focused on the question, “What are the ethical implications of the Ford/Kavanaugh testimonies for women and men in the workplace?”
First, for some people, the Ford/Kavanaugh testimonies were an in-your-face example of the double standard that exists. It appears that how she reacted was measured with a different ruler than how he reacted. Let me explain.
For Christine Ford to be credible she had to maintain a calm, measured, unemotional demeanor. If she cried as she testified, she would be seen as weak and unreliable. Yet Kavanaugh could be credible even when he raised his voice and interrupted others. When he showed emotion as he testified, he was perceived as passionate and strong in his convictions. This disparity in gender norms is striking and exists in the workplace. But it puts females at a disadvantage if males are allowed a wider range of acceptable behaviors.
For some people, the highest hope was that the process for making a decision about what she said versus what he said would be fair. Procedural justice should be served. The stakes, the reputations of individual people, are too high for anything less.
The American public had an expectation that the system would not only allow each person to be heard by unbiased investigators, but that exhaustive evidence would be sought, red herrings would be sorted out, and facts would be found. If it came down to she said/he said then clear-headed, fair-minded leaders would calmly and rationally make the best decision based on the exhaustive information gathered in a timely fashion, and then be accountable for that decision.
If we believe that the process is fair, we can live with an outcome with which we disagree.
Many believe procedural justice did not take place. Exhaustive evidence was not sought. Red herrings were not identified and put aside. Expectations were not met. If the senate judiciary system is not just, can we hope that corporate institutions will do better?
We must. We cannot let the distrust and anger felt from watching the senate judiciary process bleed into the workplace. The implications for women and men, working together, will be devastating.
This is a call to action. Our corporate systems must be fair. We must each be able to expect that when we step up to speak up, or when we defend ourselves against allegations, the process used to reach a decision is rigorous and unbiased.
If nothing else comes from this horrible mess, let’s at least have this one thing happen. Let’s re-examine our organizational processes and ensure that they are just, noble, and true.
This column was printed in the December 2018/January 2019 edition of B2B. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Beverly Kracher, Ph.D., is the executive director of the Business Ethics Alliance and the Daugherty Chair in Business Ethics and Society at Creighton University.
Photography by Bill Sitzmann, Kellie Hatcher, and Keri Hatcher
The wait was torture. Six months of back-and-forth, missing documents, interviews, and paperwork.
Finally, Ismail Ntakirutimana had a passport in his hands. Now all he needed was a student visa to the United States.
But on July 10, the day he was supposed to have an interview with staff at the U.S. Embassy, he was turned away. “You aren’t in the system,” they told him. His appointment had vanished.
“I felt like it was the end,” Ismail says. “When they told me that, I was really discouraged.”
With a heavy heart, he walked to the bus stop to catch a ride back to the apartment he shared with several other former street kids and orphans from the slums of Kigali, the capital of Rwanda.
Regardless of the application’s outcome, Ismail’s academic record is already a miracle. His impoverished upbringing, however, remains commonplace for youths growing up in the aftermath of the country’s 1994 genocide.
His identity card says he’s 20 years old, but his actual age remains a mystery. Ismail’s father abandoned him and two younger siblings when Ismail was only 5 years old. His mother eventually gave Ismail and younger brother Isaac to a neighborhood orphanage, hoping to spare them from starvation.
If he received the student visa, Ismail would be able to continue his studies at Creighton University on a scholarship. “By the grace of God,” Ismail says he received conditional admission to half a dozen American universities. Of the possible schools, only Creighton was located in the Midwest, close to the adoptive family that had been sponsoring him for the past five years.
Without the visa, he wouldn’t be attending any university in the U.S. He prayed for God’s mercy. But in this imperfect world of men, Ismail knew the student visa was not guaranteed.
He heard rumors that the U.S. had become tight-fisted with foreign-student visas, and he was all too familiar with how his story attracted scornful looks from neighbors in the slums of Kigali’s Kimisagara district.
Omaha, Nebraska—more than 8,000 miles away—seemed impossibly exotic from the tropical highlands of Rwanda. Ismail could imagine how embassy staff might view his case: a street kid with dreams bigger than his means.
He had never seen snow or traveled on an airplane, let alone left the country. Nevertheless, ever since his primary school days, Ismail had prayed for the opportunity to study overseas. Even when he was starving on the streets of Kimisagara.
The realization of that dream felt so close, yet so far. “Maybe it was just a fantasy after all,” he thought to himself, discouraged.
The bus continued onward. Ismail returned his attention to prayer.
“And the angel of the LORD said unto her, Behold, thou art with child, and shalt bear a son, and shalt call his name Ishmael; because the LORD hath heard
Ismail did not witness the Interahamwe militia shouting “Hutu Power!” as they rounded up his mother’s family for extermination. He did not see relatives butchered by neighbors, indoctrinated by a caste-like system of tribal identification that lingered from the days of Belgium’s colonial rule.
Blood stained the streets, and the air stunk of rotting human flesh.
The genocide in Rwanda lasted approximately 100 days, and the international community turned a blind eye. Meanwhile, Rwanda’s economy came to a standstill amid the government-sponsored killing spree to purge the nation’s Tutsi minority population. By some accounts, nearly 1 million Tutsi died in the genocide—roughly 18 percent of the total population in the small, landlocked, eastern Central African country.
Ismail was not yet born when his homeland turned into hell on earth. But like so many young Rwandans, he would grow up under the crushing weight of trauma so heavy that his mother still struggles to get out of bed each April (the month when the 1994 genocide started).
“She doesn’t talk, she doesn’t eat, and she is always crying,” Ismail says of his mother’s recurring post-traumatic episodes.
Among those murdered in the genocide was her first husband. The Interahamwe—men and boys, civilians with machetes, rifles, grenades, and deep hatred for Tutsi—had a list of all the people with Tutsi identity. It was a death list. Ismail says the name of his mother’s first husband was at the top of the document.
From the side of the road, his mother saw her husband’s body piled in the back of a truck filled with corpses. “She only told us that she saw him,” Ismail says. “During the 1994 genocide, it was not easy to take someone who was dead to bury them or to have a funeral.” She saw his feet had been cut off, and other body parts were mutilated. Burns covered his body. She could assume his fate. “The bodies were put in trucks so they could throw them in the river,” Ismail says.
She could not mourn. She escaped on foot, fleeing with their three children (Ismail’s half-siblings, with whom he does not have a relationship), as she had just enough money to bribe her way into Zaire, the country now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Horrific scenes repeated across the country. Elderly were slaughtered alongside adults and children. Infants were ripped from mothers’ arms and left for wild animals to devour. Men infected with HIV raped Tutsi women and girls. Hutu sympathizers and intertribal spouses met similar fates. Some were given the opportunity to pay for a swift death by gunfire rather than machete. But not all of the murderers would take payment, especially in the early days of the genocide.
“Weed out the cockroaches,” urged the newspapers and radio stations. “Get rid of the cockroaches!” jeered the Interahamwe, hunting their countrymen in public. Terrified Tutsi refugee families gathered in stadiums and churches for safety. Interahamwe attacked them in confinement. They tossed grenades into the stadiums and bulldozed the churches filled with innocent people, massacring the huddled masses.
The bloodshed made no sense. Hutu and Tutsi people speak the same language, Kinyarwanda. They have intermarried for generations. They were neighbors and classmates. There were stereotypes that supposedly differentiated the groups: Hutus had wider noses, Tutsis were taller; Hutus were the working class, Tutsis were the royalty complicit in the old colonial system. But the reality wasn’t so simple.
Today, Rwanda is a model society in many respects. The economy is booming. International investment is pouring in. Kigali streets are clean and orderly. Meanwhile, President Paul Kagame has remained in power since his Rwandan Patriotic Front (a militia consisting of exiled Tutsi and sympathetic Hutu) overturned the extremist Hutu government in 1994.
The nation’s future appears bright, and discussing Hutu or Tutsi tribal identity has become taboo. Tribal divisions once enshrined in identification cards—dating back to the colonial era—have been wiped clean from public discourse.
In the early ’90s, regional massacres of Tutsi provided a testing ground for ethnic cleansing techniques and international reaction prior to the 1994 genocide. Bugesera was one of those regions. Imana Kids sponsors children from Bugesera (including students at this school).
“You can’t say Hutu or Tutsi in Rwanda at this time,” Ismail says. “At the moment, it is like it is illegal, because they want us to see ourselves as Rwandans in one shape. What we are taught is this: We are all Rwandans. No one has to belong to one of these [tribal] groups.”
Ismail only knows of his parent’s tribal affiliation from the few times his mother spoke about the dark days that preceded his birth.
After the genocide, she returned to Rwanda from Congo. She began living with another as man and wife in Kigali. “She was Tutsi, and my father was a Hutu,” Ismail says. “After meeting him, she thought he was going to change her life.”
But her hopes never came to fruition. “Instead her life became worse, and that increased her trauma,” Ismail says.
“Call me Ishmael.”
(Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, 1851)
In accordance with Rwandan custom, Ismail received his two names from his parents. One of his names, Ntakirutimana, means “nothing is greater than God” in Kinyarwanda. Traditionally, Rwandan families do not share surnames or pass them from parent to child. The names are meant to be unique.
His other given name translates from Arabic to “God will listen.” The choice indicates religious affiliation. His parents were Muslim, so Ismail received the Muslim spelling of “Ishmael.” In both Christian and Muslim accounts of Genesis, Ishmael is the firstborn son of Abraham and the ancestor of Muslim people. Ishmael is Abraham’s son by his wife’s servant in the Bible; the “wife’s servant” is Abraham’s second wife in the Quran.
Although the Constitution of Rwanda explicitly defines marriage as monogamous, Ismail says having multiple wives is not unusual among the minority Muslim population of the predominantly Roman-Catholic nation.
Ismail was the first son to his father’s third “wife.” They never officially married. Parents are supposed to list their offspring on their own identity cards, but Ismail’s father did not claim them.
With money from selling her previous husband’s home, Ismail’s father bought his third wife’s current mud hovel—located a 20-minute hike up a steep hillside on a treacherous path of broken cement and sandbags for stairs—overlooking the crowded Kimisagara slum that stretches across the valley. There was no running water. They had to haul jugs of potable water for cooking and cleaning. In the rainy season, the steep path became a torrential waterfall preventing access up or down.
Ismail remembers his father leaving the family’s hillside home in 2002, but he returned after a while. “The oldest one of my father’s wives really hated us and didn’t want us to stay with him,” Ismail says. “I think she could be the one to tell him that he doesn’t need to come home.”
His father left again in 2003 and never came back. That was the end of their family unit. Financial support disappeared with the father figure. Then came starvation. Meals were a luxury. Sugar cane was the only food in the house for a time, and there were days when they didn’t have that, either.
Paternal grandparents, aunts, and uncles turned their backs to the plight of the third wife. “Our dad’s family rejected us,” Ismail says. “They didn’t want us. Since then, I have carried a big burden in my heart. I was worried about my mother and younger siblings. This made me want to work harder so I can bring a big change in their lives.”
He knew academic success would be his path to change. But his mother could not afford fees for the local primary schools. Fortunately, a school in the area waived tuition for Ismail and his siblings. Walking several kilometers there and back on an empty stomach was still difficult, though.
“Most of the time, I had to go to classes without taking any food,” Ismail says. “Going to school was somehow easier, but turning back was really hard. Sometimes I had to sit on the street and wait until I regained the energy so that I could move on.”
After classes or during holidays, Ismail and Isaac made extra money for food; they gathered scrap metal or crafted little metal toys from fence wires. Life on the streets could be dangerous. Police would capture street kids and put them in jail. Some of their friends carried razorblades to slash the officers in order to escape.
“When I was picking scrap metals, I had to communicate with my friends who were in the streets to give them what I had collected instead of going to the place,” Ismail says. “My friends on the streets were good at escaping the police. Then they would get the money and give me some.”
Adults in the neighborhood called him a “street kid” and “illegitimate.” The words stung his heart. Although Ismail slept at his mother’s home, he felt like one of the street kids. “I was on the streets most of the time, and many of my friends were street kids,” he says. “That’s why I felt rejected from society. I didn’t love the other kids from better families. I felt different, like the street kids were the only ones I could associate with.”
His mother converted to Christianity in 2008. Ismail and his siblings eventually followed her lead. Meanwhile, a makeshift orphanage sprang up on the hillside next to his mother’s home. The owner, Antoine, seized part of the family’s small plot of land for his orphanage. He also started offering Ismail and his family food. Without Antoine’s handouts, Ismail suspects they might have died.
When the time came to take the national high school entry exam, Ismail received one of the region’s top scores. It was news in the community, and the achievement brought him into the spotlight for ridicule. His academic future was in limbo without enough money to even pay for the daily bus fare to attend high school, never mind the tuition fees.
“Everyone knew that I passed the national exam,” Ismail says. “People were making fun of me, saying I was a street kid from a really poor family, that I passed the national exams at the highest grade but I’m not going to high school. There were some adults who were being mean, because they had seen how we were living.”
Then, Ismail says, Antoine would only give them more food if they lived at the orphanage. He would also cover Ismail’s expenses associated with attending one of Rwanda’s top high schools, St. Andre College. Ismail couldn’t turn down the opportunity. He moved from his mother’s mud home into Antoine’s next-door orphanage with Isaac. The small building housed anywhere from 60 to 100 kids (depending on the day) in roughly a dozen cramped, cage-like rooms.
He felt like an imposter. Ismail was a day-student at St. Andre because the boarding option was too expensive. When other students talked about their families, Ismail kept silent. He felt out of place at every turn, so he endured abuse from others without protest. Loneliness crept into his heart.
Imana Kids purchased land in Bugesera to build Hope Village (a trauma-informed school, church, and foster care village). All of the “original Imana Kids” joined the land-dedication ceremony on July 18. Among the group was the first of the former orphans to be married. His wife joined, too, with their baby on her back.
“At St. Andre, I had a classmate that made fun of my name saying I am the son of a slave woman and saying that I’m an illegitimate kid,” Ismail says, comparing the at-school insult to the hurtful words hurled by adults in Kimisagara. “He [the classmate] didn’t know where I was from, but calling me that made me uncomfortable. The school was attended by many rich students from rich families, and this made me feel even more isolated.” He didn’t protest. He didn’t want to make a scene.
In those days, life at the orphanage was better than his mother’s home. At least there was food. But there’s no such thing as free lunch, Ismail learned. Antoine had the children make mud bricks, gather water, care for his cow, dispose of manure, and do other labor-intensive chores. When they misbehaved, Antoine would beat them or lock them in the dark without meals.
Girls at the orphanage suffered worst of all, though Ismail says he did not learn of their trauma until the end of his time lodging there. Antoine had a prostitution ring on the side. He made some girls go home with men to perform sex acts.
There were times when Ismail considered running away from Rwanda to join one of the militias in the forests of Congo. Most of the time, though, he dreamed of enrolling at a foreign university, somewhere far from his Kimisagara slum and the troubles of daily life.
Ismail turned back to his school books, and he prayed.
“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress…”
The 2004 film Hotel Rwanda reminded the world of the country’s genocide. Nominated for an Academy Award, it tells the heroic story of the manager of Hôtel des Mille Collines giving shelter to more than 1,200 Tutsi refugees in Kigali. The hotel manager responsible was Hutu (the son of a Tutsi woman) and married a Tutsi woman.
A few years after the film’s theatrical release, Kara and Ryan Higgins were watching a DVD rental of the movie at their home in the suburbs of Kansas City. The experience set in motion a series of life-changing events for the married couple.
“Initially, I was shocked that I didn’t know more about the genocide because I can remember seeing it on the news,” Kara says. “Later in the same week we watched the movie, the adoption agency we were in contact with told us about a new pilot program for adoption from Rwanda. We thought this must be a right fit, our kids must be in Rwanda.”
“At the time, I didn’t think of it as the turning point for our family, but it definitely was,” Ryan adds.
Adoption was an ongoing discussion for the Higginses since before they had married. By the time they watched Hotel Rwanda in 2009, they had two biological children—6-year-old Molly and 4-year-old Blake—but complications during both pregnancies meant they couldn’t have more biological kids.
Watching the movie, they realized a humanitarian crisis was looming over a new generation of Rwandan youth. The genocide had orphaned tens of thousands of children. Many were born to victims of rape during the ethnic cleansing. Some had watched the murder of their parents. Others—Hutu and Tutsi alike—were simply falling through the cracks of an overburdened child welfare system.
The Higginses added their names to the waiting list for adopting Rwandan orphans as part of the new pilot program. After months of waiting, nuns with the Sisters of Charity at the Home of Hope Orphanage paired the couple with Etienne and Ezekiel. The nuns estimated Etienne was close to 3 years old and Ezekiel was about 18 months old.
Kara and Ryan didn’t hesitate. They jumped at the opportunity to complete their dream family. Flying to Rwanda for the first time, they arrived and fell in love with the country. The boys’ adjustment to the foreign, white American family was difficult, Kara admits, but worth the struggle.
“They were No. 7 and No. 8 to be adopted out of Rwanda,” Kara says. “The government closed international adoptions in 2012, so it’s a pretty small community in the U.S. of Rwandan-American adopted kids.”
Just before adopting the boys, the Higginses relocated to Council Bluffs to be closer to Kara’s family in Omaha. Ryan was teaching engineering at Abraham Lincoln High School. Kara was a midwife and nurse practitioner at OneWorld Community Health Center in South Omaha.
In the year that Rwanda closed foreign adoptions, destiny came calling again.
Clockwise from left: Blake, Molly, Ryan, Kara, Etienne, and Ezekiel Higgins (the founding family of Imana Kids)
“Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household.”
Visiting Orphans, a faith-oriented nonprofit out of Tennessee, wanted to know if the Higginses would lead a summer 2013 trip to volunteer at an orphanage in Kigali. The organization had learned of the Higgins family through Kara’s blog, Room4More, which had attracted a large following in the adoption community.
Eager to give more to the country that had completed their family, Kara and Ryan answered, “Yes.” But Kara gave one condition: “We wanted to go to the place with the greatest need.” The Visiting Orphans coordinator knew of just the place, a difficult-to-access orphanage in the slums of Kimisagara in Kigali.
The Higginses’ daughter, Kara’s parents, an aunt from Omaha, friends of the family, and Kara’s midwife mentor (Manya Schmidt) joined Kara and Ryan’s first organized group to Rwanda.
They had plans for a grand vacation bible school week, but the number of children they found crowded into Antoine’s dilapidated orphanage overwhelmed their plans. Most of the kids weren’t even going to school. Ismail was one of the few children even interested in studying.
“That very first day, I knew that this is going to change the rest of our lives,” Kara says. She started collecting profiles of the kids with the help of a translator. They asked each child what they wanted to do when they grew up. Very few had answers. The struggle of living day-to-day fully occupied their minds.
One of the older boys was Ferdinand. With broad strong shoulders, Ferdinand was one of the bigger kids. He was an orphan of the 1994 genocide. As an infant, his sister tossed him in a river to save him from killers. Then she jumped after him. She saved him, and she took care of him for several years—until she died of HIV-related illness, a result of being raped.
When he was living on the streets, Ferdinand was one of those street kids carrying razor blades to escape police. He was one of those street kids tossed into jail. Eventually, he ended up under Antoine’s roof in Kimisagara.
Ananias (pictured in the center) joined the Hope Village dedication ceremony. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2019 with help from Omaha-based Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture
The orphanage, high on the hillside, was packed with children. Sewage seeped into where the kids played, and many suffered from serious health problems. Overwhelmed by the dire circumstances of the orphanage’s living conditions, the Higgins family and their group of foreign volunteers didn’t notice anything amiss, at least not yet. Kara says they were naive.
“On the first day, we learned a phrase that means, ‘See you tomorrow.’” The kids didn’t believe us that we would come back a second day,” Ryan says. They had seen foreign aid groups before, but none returned for a second day. The kids were overjoyed when the muzungu (slang for “white people” in Kinyarwanda) actually came back to the mud-walled and mud-floored orphanage the following day.
Their final day was a tear-jerker. “We can’t come back tomorrow, but we will see you again,” the Americans told the kids. “That last day was gut-wrenching. I remember getting on the bus and just sobbing,” Ryan says. Kara had never seen him cry like that.
Discussions on how to help the kids began as soon as the volunteers returned to their hotel in Kigali, before they had even flown home. Back in the U.S., the Higginses and the rest of their team began researching how to start a 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to the desperate children trapped in Antoine’s orphanage.
By July 2013, about a month after returning home, they had formalized a nonprofit called Imana Kids, with headquarters at the Higginses’ dining room table. The first part of the name, Imana, translates to “of God” in Kinyarwanda. Their mission: “Love one child, change the world,” with a focus on building sustainable person-to-person relationships.
The first trip under the new nonprofit came in September. Ryan and Kara flew back to hire an in-country director, open a foreign Rwandan bank account, and find boarding schools for all the children. Most schools, however, declined to take “street kids” because of the potential liability.
Before they could do anything more, Imana Kids needed a dependable translator. Kara and Ryan contacted the Rwandan husband-wife pastoring duo who had helped with translation during the previous Visiting Orphans trip. But they weren’t available on such short notice. Jane, the wife of Pastor Peter, suggested her brother—a born-again Christian named James Odongo. James would eventually become the team’s in-country director (also accountant, chaperone, father figure, mentor, disciplinarian, pastor, and friend to the kids).
James grew up in a Ugandan refugee camp. A Hutu-led revolution against Belgian colonialism overturned Rwanda’s monarchy and dispossessed the Tutsi ruling elite during the early 1960s. As persecution of Tutsis became a recurring threat in Rwanda, members of the minority group fled to neighboring countries.
Abandoned by his father, James led a life of vice and adventure before devoting his life to the gospel. He served in Paul Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front, pursued Hutu militias into Congo, and occupied high-ranking military positions with regional revolutionary armies. He even led a gang of robbers before finding redemption through Jesus Christ.
He learned to speak English from the Lord. James says he never studied it, but could one day make sense of the foreign tongue like the Book of Acts (where the Holy Spirit descended to earth in flames, granting Jesus’ disciples the ability to speak in foreign unfamiliar languages).
Ryan returned over Christmas. He and James got the kids from the Kimisagara orphanage ready with assorted school supplies and mattresses for boarding school rooms. During the visit, Ryan discovered that the secondary school had unexpectedly blocked the orphans from enrollment. So, they had to find a replacement school.
The orphanage’s academic all-star, Ismail, soon joined the rest of the older kids for a fresh start at the high school known as Lyceé de Kicukiro Apade. American sponsors began stepping up to cover associated fees and expenses. Ryan’s parents became Ismail’s sponsor. Kara and Ryan sponsored another boy named Ananias (who they later flew to Omaha for surgery to correct the uneven length of his legs).
Kara and Ryan began alternating their trips to Kigali. In January 2014, two weeks after Ryan’s trip to finalize new school logistics, Kara and another Imana Kids board member flew back to tie up loose ends.
They were worried about the younger kids trapped in the orphanage, not yet able to attend boarding school. But it was also on this trip when one of the older girls revealed a darker depravity of the Kimisagara orphanage. Antoine was forcing the older girls into prostitution.
“Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.”
(1 Corinthians 12:12-13)
“She told us in passing, ‘Now that I’m at school, I don’t have to do anything for a meal,’” Kara says. James began to probe with questions. “What do you mean?” She explained, “Well, I used to have to work for Antoine.” “What do you mean by work?” James continued. “I used to have sex, and then I would be able to get deodorant and things like that.”
The career midwife has seen many abused women in clinics. But she had never heard anything like this. “She was just sharing the facts like she was talking about the weather,” Kara says of the candid teenage girl.
Kara began reaching out to local representatives of International Justice Mission and the Rwandan government. “The law in Rwanda is that you need physical evidence of sexual assault crimes, and that was difficult for the girls who were underage,” Kara says. Four of the girls were willing to wear hidden cameras.
But the Imana Kids leadership didn’t feel comfortable asking the girls to let themselves be abused. Before catching her flight home, James hired nannies to look after the younger kids. Kara gave stern instructions to the nannies and the older boys that they should protect the girls.
Meanwhile, Antoine was out recruiting new orphans for the spaces vacated by the children Imana Kids placed in boarding schools. The older orphans were safe in their boarding schools, and Kara only had to worry about them during school holidays or sick days when they were out of their school’s dorms.
Back in the U.S., Kara persistently contacted officials who could close the orphanage. “We were calling or emailing weekly, but we weren’t getting anywhere,” she says.
To the left of Kara and Ryan Higgins, James Odongo preaches at the future site of Imana Kids’ Hope Village.
The first Imana Kids group trip was part volunteering, part Mission: Impossible. In July 2014, Kara and Ryan led a dozen board members, sponsors, and participants from the prior Visiting Orphans trip that the Higginses had led.
“We had to tell that team what was going on in advance,” Kara says. “The environment was really tense. Antoine had put padlocks on the door, and he had a notification system where they rang a cowbell when cars arrived at the base of the hill. But Antoine still wanted us coming in because he wanted food for the kids, and thought he could get money from us. He didn’t want to lose the relationship with us.”
In between time spent at the Kimisagara orphanage with children, Kara was trying to meet with government officials and aid groups.
One night early in the visit, several Imana Kids board members organized a secret rescue mission to meet four older girls at a Kimisagara gas station. The girls were in beautician trade school and didn’t have a dorm like the boarding school students. Vulnerable and scared, they wanted out. James arranged for a safe house with friends in another neighborhood.
The day before leaving Rwanda, Imana Kids rented a soccer field in the valley below the hillside to avoid the mounting tension and fear that pervaded the orphanage. Kids ran and frolicked away from Antoine’s surveillance.
Their group came back to say goodbyes the following day. When Antoine was out, Ferdinand surprised Kara by drawing the deadbolt on the door of the orphanage. He cornered her while other boys kept lookout. They needed privacy to discuss threats facing other girls. He also worried what would happen to everyone if the orphanage was successfully closed. Where would they go?
With their departing flight a few hours away, crying children followed the foreigners down the hillside to their rental bus. Just then, a fleet of expensive cars—shiny black BMWs and other luxury vehicles unusual for Kimisagara—pulled to the side of the road.
“It was like a movie,” Kara says. “The minister of the Office for Vulnerable Children, who I had been emailing every week since the previous winter—until I gave up in April—walked up to me and asked, ‘Are you email@example.com? I just got your emails.’”
The government official did not expect to find Imana Kids or Kara there. As the foreigners drove away from the coincidental encounter, authorities marched up the hill and closed the orphanage. It was a success and another crisis at the same time. Orphans scattered from Antoine’s building. Some ran away and were never found. Others were in school and found themselves without a home for the next school break.
James tracked down kids with help from the older orphans. Imana Kids bankrolled a transitional home they called the Sparrows’ Nest (a reference to Psalms 84:3). Kara and Ryan found themselves continuing to take turns on return visits every few months. James found himself the 24-7 custodian for up to 50 kids at once, depending on the time of year.
By 2017, Kara needed more time to focus on Imana Kids every week. She took a second job as a nurse-midwife in the Navy Reserve, a lieutenant position, which allowed extra hours for Imana Kids while working less at OneWorld in Omaha.
The reach of Imana Kids has grown steadily. By fall 2018, the nonprofit has led 10 groups to Rwanda. They have 173 sponsor kids, including orphans as well as underprivileged children throughout Kigali and nearby communities. Ages range from preschool up to older students in trade schools and universities in Rwanda.
The Higginses refer to all the children from Antoine’s orphanage as the “original Imana Kids,” and they have enjoyed watching them gain confidence and mature into adulthood. The first of the original Imana Kids got married in summer 2017; Ryan and Kara attended the ceremony in place of his parents.
Cows are a traditional status symbol in Rwanda, and an important feature of wedding ceremonies. Kara and Ryan hired a herdsman to bring the sounds of a herd to the wedding (the actual cows were too expensive, so they paid him to walk through the service carrying a tape recorder with mooing on loop—a cheaper alternative that the herdsman suggested for their budget).
The next major milestone for Imana Kids was to get one of the former street kids into an American university. “For the rest of the world, I think this would legitimize that what we are doing is working, that any kid can succeed,” Kara says. “They just need to be given a fair opportunity.”
“And as for Ishmael, I have heard thee: Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful…”
“From the very moment we met Ismail, we thought he could handle a university in America,” Kara says. During the wedding visit, she and Ryan started to lay out the steps that Ismail needed to follow. He had already finished high school and was volunteering for the country’s national service program as a census worker.
After taking the necessary English proficiency exams, Ismail began sending applications to several dozen American universities. Creighton was always his No. 1 choice. But he tried not to get his hopes up.
His first conditional acceptance to an American university came from Franklin Pierce University, a private school in New Hampshire. He was also accepted to a university in Rwanda, backup if he could not secure a U.S. student visa.
The Kimisagara district in Kigali, Rwanda
On the bus, after being unable to complete his first scheduled visa interview appointment at the U.S. embassy in Kigali, Ismail thought it was all over. Luckily, he had a guardian angel keeping tabs with the embassy from halfway around the world.
“I got on the bus and headed back home, feeling very discouraged,” Ismail says. “Then Kara sent me a message telling me to go back: ‘They said that you can meet someone there.’ I told the driver to stop. I was halfway home, so I took the moto [motorcycle taxi] and went back to the embassy.”
It was the middle of the night in the middle of America, but Kara Higgins was following up with the Rwandan U.S. embassy over the phone. She was texting updates back to Ismail in real time, and he followed her instructions.
His motorcycle taxi driver sped through traffic, swerving around honking cars and trucks. He arrived back at the embassy, but was too late. Closing time. They told him to come back another day. “I was getting a little bit of hope,” Ismail admits with renewed optimism. He returned the next day, and the embassy gave him an interview (thanks to Kara’s persistent phone calls).
Unfortunately, he still had to wait another week to receive confirmation of whether or not the visa would be approved or rejected. With the uncertainty hanging over Ismail’s visa hopes, Kara and Ryan embarked on their largest-ever group trip to Rwanda. The 24-person team consisted of board members, familyrelatives, a married couple from Minnesota going to meet their sponsor daughter for the first time, pastors, college girls seeking missionary experience, and strangers from across the country who had only recently learned of Imana Kids on the internet.
Upon arriving in Kigali, the Imana Kids team hopped between boarding schools and preschools. A mountain of suitcases stuffed with crafts, sports equipment, and bible lessons traveled along with them. It was a weeklong, multi-stop vacation bible school for the younger kids (the sort the Higginses’ Visiting Orphans group had intended but were unable to accomplish). Older sponsor kids participated in workshops to build life skills. Every sponsor kid received a care package stuffed with goodies and a letter from their sponsor family.
Ismail’s day of reckoning at the embassy was scheduled for mid-week of the Imana Kids trip. If approved for a visa, Imana Kids would book his airfare to travel back to Omaha with the Higginses.
Though Ismail was anxious, Kara had no doubts. “Sure, he could be rejected,” Kara says. “But honestly, with every miracle that has happened for Imana Kids, I expected it. Because every idea and dream we planted, we have been able to watch unfold…although it hasn’t always been on the timeline we were hoping for.”
En route to the embassy with Kara and James, Ismail asked to stop by the old Kimisagara slum. He wanted to say goodbye to his mother. He might not see her again for four or five years, the length of his visa for undergraduate studies.
Ismail led the way, wearing a blue Creighton T-shirt. They trudged up the steep hillside between ramshackle mud structures. Her home sat just above the old orphanage. Antoine was still in the neighborhood, James says, but he remains under surveillance.
Entering inside the mud-walled home, Kara met Ismail’s mother for the first time. She thanked Kara and James, praising God, for everything they have done for her son. Tears poured down the face of Ismail’s mother.
The minutes slipped away, and suddenly it was almost time for Ismail’s embassy appointment. If he received the visa, he told his mother, he would be leaving for a place called Nebraska. He might not see her for several years. Then he was off, back down the hillside with Kara and James to discover his fate.
Their van speeds back to central Kigali for the appointment. A crowd of people hover outside the embassy’s entryway. When an officer announces names for appointments, Kara pushes Ismail to the start of the line.
An hour passes. Some of the people in line with Ismail begin exiting the embassy. Ismail was one of the first in, but he is one of the last to exit. Finally, he steps outside with a wide grin on his face. He’s holding a passport in his hand with the fresh visa page open. Kara screams and rushes to give him a big hug.
When they meet back with the rest of the Imana Kids team at a local boarding school, everyone swarms around Ismail offering congratulations.
Kara and Ryan’s checklist for Imana Kids is making progress: Ismail’s miracle. Check. The next miracle on the agenda? Hope Village (a purpose-built, trauma-informed school, church, and foster care village in Bugesera, an hour south of Kigali). Imana Kids has already purchased the piece of land, which is empty except for bushes and wildflowers. Construction is slated to begin in July 2019 with help from Omaha-based Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture.
They take the team to Bugesera to bless the land, joined by all the original Imana Kids from Antoine’s orphanage. Everyone forms a circle, holding hands. James offers a prayer. The Americans and former street kids sing, dance, and pray until the sun comes down. Just before sunset, a herdsman pushes a herd of cattle over the property past the revelries. Cows moo along with the singing voices.
“We’ve seen too many coincidences for them to be mere coincidence,” Ryan says. Ismail says the cows are a sign of good luck.
Ismail’s brothers and sisters from the orphanage join the following day at the Kigali airport to say farewell.
On an airplane for the first time, he buckles in for a long haul—more than 28 hours with layovers in Burundi, Ethiopia, Ireland, and Washington, D.C. Many passengers try to sleep the time away. Not Ismail. He’s too excited to sleep.
At Dulles International Airport, he tastes his first American hamburger and samples sushi for the first time.
His final connecting flight lands at Omaha Eppley Airfield in the afternoon of July 21. There is a crowd waiting to greet him with balloons.
Ismail walks into his new life like a dream—and prayer—come true.
The spring gala for Imana Kids—“Love One Child”—will feature a film screening and international speakers over three days, March 21-23. Visit imanakids.org for more information.
This article was printed in the November/December 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Bob Warming’s unexpected return to Omaha in 2018—this time to head the men’s soccer program at the University of Nebraska-Omaha—is the latest turn in a lifelong love affair with coaching.
Warming, 64, twice helmed the Creighton University program in town. He’s known as the architect of a Bluejay program he took from nothing to national prominence. During his first CU run (1990-1994), Omaha became home to him, his wife Cindy, and their four children. During his second CU tenure (2001-2009), his kids finished school and came of age.
His passion for the game is such that even though he’s one of collegiate soccer’s all-time winningest coaches at an age when most folks retire, he’s still hungry to lead young people. After eight highly successful seasons at his last stop, Penn State, he did retire, albeit for less than two months, before taking the UNO post in April.
Love for family changed best-laid plans. It started when he and Cindy visited Omaha in November to meet their new granddaughter. Their intense desire to see her grow up caused Warming to step down at Penn State and move to Omaha.
When then-UNO soccer coach Jason Mims decided to pursue new horizons (Mims had played and coached for Warming at Saint Louis University, and traveled with him to Creighton and Penn State before kickstarting the UNO program in 2011), Warming couldn’t resist continuing to build what his former assistant had started.
“I have come back with even more energy. There’s a lot of younger guys I’m running into the ground,” Warming says.
He also brought knowledge gained from legendary peers and best friends at Penn State: women’s volleyball coach Russ Rose, wrestling coach Cael Sanderson, and women’s soccer coach Erica Dambach.
“I learned more coaching at Penn State than I had in all my previous years,” he says. “It’s not even close. I grew tremendously. I got a lot of new ideas about things. I derive tremendous energy from being a continual learner. Even in the 59 days I retired, I continued to research better ways to teach and train people.”
His son, Grant, played for him in Happy Valley and now assists at UNO. Grant’s twin sister, Audrey, died in a 2012 auto accident. The family honors her legacy with Audrey’s Shoes for Kids, an annual event that gives away soccer shoes, shin guards, jerseys, and balls to disadvantaged children in Omaha. About 300 youths received gear in this summer’s giveback.
Warming first fell in love with coaching at age 14 in his native Berea, Kentucky. The multi-sport athlete was a tennis prodigy on the United States Lawn Tennis Association’s junior circuit when his coach taught him a lesson in humility by having him coach 9-year-olds. In the process, Warming found his life’s calling.
“I had been very into myself only,” he admits. “I was a selfish little brat. Then all of a sudden I realized it’s about helping other people. It’s a great lesson my coach taught me. He knew if I was ever going to go any place with my life, I had to give something to others.”
Warming’s outlook on life gradually shifted. “I derive the most pleasure out of watching young people improve,” he says.
Soccer supplied his next life-changing experience. Berea College, a private college in his hometown, has a long history of inclusion. In the early 1970s, it recruited world-class footballers from Ghana and Nigeria. Warming was the squad’s goalkeeper (and also a varsity letter-winner on the tennis, swimming, and golf teams); he honed his knowledge of soccer from these foreign players and gleaned insights into diversity.
“I’m playing soccer and hanging out all the time with these black guys in the South—not the most popular thing to do in a town where on Sunday nights every summer the KKK burned a cross,” he recalls. “That was the dark ages in a lot of ways. But I was fascinated interacting with these guys from Africa and finding out how they live and what their culture is like.
“I was able to play with these incredible guys from a young age, and the game is the best teacher,” he says. “For me, it was a remarkable time in my life. I learned a lot about a lot of different things.”
Years later at Penn State, he brought more student-athletes of color into the soccer program than it had ever seen before. “That was a cool part of the whole deal,” he says.
He appreciates what a mentor did in giving him a progressive outlook. “The guy who eventually became my college coach was the leader of all this,” Warming says.
His own collegiate coach at Berea, Bob Pearson, succeeded his protégé a few years later when Warming left his coaching post at Berry College in Mount Berry, Georgia, for a coaching position at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte in the 1980s. Four decades later, the veteran Warming succeeded his own protégé, Mims, at UNO.
“I have all these crazy circles in coaching,” he says.
The kind of bond Warming has with Pearson, he has with Mims.
“Loyalty, trust, and respect are the basis for all relationships, and we have all three of those,” Warming says.
Pearson got Warming his first head coaching gigs in his 20s at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky (where Warming spent one season before heading to Berry University); he also coached tennis at both schools.
Warming was still only in his mid-30s when Creighton hired him the first time in 1990, poaching him from his brief tenure as director of athletics at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. At Creighton, he revived a dormant program that began winning and drawing fans.
He enjoyed the challenge of “building something from its inception and doing missionary work for our sport.” In exchange for free coaching clinics, he got local soccer clubs to turn out in droves.
“Thus, Creighton soccer was born. It came out of giving back to the community and coaching education,” Warming says.
He left CU in 1994 for Old Dominion. From there he went to Saint Louis University. The Rev. John Schlegel, then-CU president, lured him back in 2001 with the promise he could design a state-of-the-art soccer facility.
“Father Schlegel said, ‘Build me a soccer stadium. We want an iconic building to define the new eastern borders of our campus. I’ll pick the facade because I want it to reflect how the rest of the campus will look,’” Warming recalls. “Think about that. Where else has a soccer stadium determined what the rest of the campus would look like?”
The result, Morrison Stadium, has become a jewel of north downtown.
Warming’s CU and Penn State teams contended for conference and national titles. Now that he’s back in Omaha, he looks to take fledgling UNO soccer to its first NCAA playoff berth and create a powerhouse like the one he did down the street.
Back in Omaha again, he organized “the largest free coaching clinic in the country” at UNO in August. Some 200 coaches from around the nation attended, including 150 from Nebraska. Tweets about the event surpassed two million impressions.
“The selfish reason I did it was I want to kick-start this program into something, and to take soccer in Nebraska to the next level,” he says. “We have to get better.”
His methods today are different than when he last coached in Omaha.
“If you really want to train people, you have to get them in the mood to train using all the different modalities—texting, tweeting, playlists, video—available to us now,” he says. “You cannot coach, you cannot lead, you cannot do anything the way people did it years ago. You won’t be successful. The why is so important in terms of explaining things and building consensus and getting people involved to where they say, yeah, we want to do this together.”
In the full circle way his life runs, he feels right at home at UNO, where hundreds of students, including international students, get a free education. “We are the school of the people,” he says.
Meanwhile, he’s busily stocking his roster with players from around the globe—including France, Spain, and Trinidad and Tobago—with many more players from Omaha and around the Midwest.
Wherever he’s landed as a coach, it’s the new challenge that motivates him. No different at UNO. “One hundred percent,” he says. “I love it.”
Chinese migration to Omaha began, indirectly, during the Gold Rush of the mid-1800s. The “Old Gold Mountain” (i.e., the Chinese term for California) attracted a flood of unskilled laborers known as coolies. Nationwide, the Chinese population grew by leaps and bounds: from 758 (in 1850) to 35,565 (in 1860) to 104,468 (in 1880), according to U.S. Census data on the country’s foreign-born population.
Facing open hostility in the goldfields, many went to work in agriculture, mining, fisheries, started laundry or restaurant businesses, or joined construction of the nation’s first transcontinental railroad. The railway industry dispersed Chinese migrants throughout the American interior. With Union Pacific’s headquarters in Omaha, it’s likely that the railroad helped populate Omaha’s own early Chinatown. But documentation of Union Pacific’s role in attracting the city’s earliest Chinese residents remains scarce.
“We don’t have archival records of Union Pacific bringing Chinese labor to Omaha, but we’ve seen this pattern throughout cities and towns of the American West,” says Patricia LaBounty, curator of the Union Pacific Railroad Museum in Council Bluffs. LaBounty spoke with Omaha Magazine while preparing a research presentation focused on the contribution of Chinese labor to Union Pacific.
Among the earliest documentation is an illustration of Chinese railroad laborers crossing the frozen Missouri River with Omaha’s sparse skyline in the background—including the old territorial capitol, now the site of Central High School (printed in the Jan. 22, 1870, edition of Harper’s Weekly).
Mounting opposition to Chinese immigrant labor led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which halted immigration and banned citizenship. Many American Chinatowns dwindled and disappeared in subsequent years, with Chinese-American communities remaining staunchly Cantonese-speaking due to the early immigration from China’s southern regions. Post-World War II waves of Chinese immigrants predominantly spoke Mandarin, the language of mainland China and Taiwan.
The second wave of Chinese immigrants arriving in Omaha—and the U.S. in general—consisted of Chinese Nationalists and their families coming overseas after civil war split the Republic of China (Taiwan) from the communist People’s Republic of China.
A third wave of immigration followed normalization of U.S. diplomatic ties with Beijing during Richard Nixon’s presidency. This group included highly educated professionals, scientists, doctors, and students from the People’s Republic of China.
At the dawn of the 21st century, the number of students coming to U.S. universities (evident at the University of Nebraska system, Creighton, and Bellevue University) has steadily grown. Meanwhile, what could be considered a fourth wave of Chinese migration to North America has taken the form of wealthy Chinese looking to the U.S. for property and stock market investments.
May 10, 1869
Promontory, Utah—The driving of a ceremonial golden spike signals the completion of the nation’s first transcontinental railroad. Chinese labor played a critical role in completing the eastbound Central Pacific that met with Union Pacific.
Jan. 22, 1870
Harper’s Weekly prints “Chinese Coolies Crossing the Missouri River” with Omaha pictured in the illustration. The article claims 250 Chinese laborers passed through Omaha to build a railroad in Texas.
Early documentation of Chinese labor passing through Omaha
The 1872/1873 Omaha City Directory lists Chinese laundries for the first time. There are two: “Yingalongjingjohn & Yingyang” between Farnam and Harney on 10th Street, and “Hong Lee” on Harney between 14th and 15th streets.
June 4, 1874
The Omaha Daily Bee reports on the burial of “Ting-a-ling” at Prospect Hill Cemetery, noted as the city’s first Chinese burial. His death is attributed to “too much ironing and ice cream.” The article explains that his remains will be exhumed after two years to be returned to China for final burial in accordance with traditional custom. The article also notes that the local Chinese population consists of 12 men and one woman.
Omaha has 14 Chinese residents.*
The Chinese Exclusion Act is passed by Congress and signed into law by President Chester A. Arthur.
May 6, 1892
The national Methodist Episcopal Conference is held in Omaha. A speaker condemns the Chinese Exclusion Act for jeopardizing U.S. missionary work in China, denounces the U.S. president and Congress, and argues “that the Chinese had the same right to be here as other foreigners, notably the Irish” (according to the New York Times on May 7, 1892).
Omaha has 91* or 93 Chinese residents.**
Feb. 15, 1893
Dr. Gee Wo Chan goes to the Supreme Court of Nebraska for practicing medicine without a license. He will lose his case, but his traditional Chinese medicine practice continues. At the peak of his business, he operates storefront clinics in Omaha, Milwaukee, and Chicago. The Omaha Daily Bee frequently publishes full-page ads promoting that Dr. C. Gee Wo “the greatest doctor that China ever produced is in your city.” His 1892 marriage to a Caucasian woman in Chicago was reported in the Omaha Daily Bee. His life story will be featured in a free online book, Chinese Medicine in Post-Frontier America: A Tale of Three Chinese-American Doctors (published in 2016).
Dr. C. Gee Woh ad in June 7, 1891 Omaha Daily Bee
Aug. 31, 1894
An article in the Omaha Daily Bee covers a revolutionary meeting of 150 Chinese “from Denver, Cheyenne, Sioux City, St. Paul, Minneapolis, Kansas City, and other surrounding towns within a radius of 200 miles,” who meet to discuss overthrowing the Qing Dynasty. Chinese revolutionaries draw support from overseas Chinese communities around the world. Years later, China’s Revolution of 1911 will overturn the country’s last dynasty and set in motion the establishment of the Republic of China.
The 1895 Omaha City Directory lists at least 21 Chinese-owned laundries (featuring names that appear to be Chinese).
Oct. 23, 1898
The Omaha World-Herald reports that 438 men, women, and children—including artists, performers, and cooks—were brought to the United States from China to help with the Chinese village at the Trans-Mississippi Exposition in Omaha. The expo allowed them to bypass the Chinese Exclusion Act restrictions. The newspaper alleges human trafficking and claims that women were sold into slavery or prostitution.
Omaha has 94* or 103 residents.**
Aug. 19, 1900
The Illustrated Bee publishes an article titled “Chinese in Omaha—Some Prominent Men,” which claims a Sunday school has offered English language education to Chinese youth since September 1885. Laundry is the chief occupation of local Chinese residents, and cleaners tuck “good luck mottoes” into fresh linens. Opium smoking is on the decline (allegedly the only crime in an otherwise “peaceable, quiet, and law-abiding” community). A sort of Chinese credit union offers loans to the immigrants at exorbitant rates. Joe Wah Lee is named as the community’s best English interpreter, the wealthiest local Chinese person, and the shrewd owner of Bon Ton Restaurant. Leo Mun, head of Quong Wah Co. is named the community’s most educated in Chinese but lacking in English skills.“Henry” Hong Sling is noted as affiliated with the community but based in Chicago where he is a railroad passenger agent.
Omaha has 53 Chinese residents.*
Gin Chin opens the Mandarin Cafe at 1409 Douglas St.
Nov. 22, 1916
The Omaha World-Herald reports on the opening of a “new hall” for the Omaha Chinese Merchants Association at the first known site of the On Leong Tong (111 N. 12th St.). Leo Wing is president and Chue Fing Sue is secretary. The report claims there are 150 Chinese living in Omaha.
The former home of the On Leong Tong, photographed in 2018
Omaha has 126 Chinese residents.*
Sept. 16, 1920
Gin Chin opens the King Fong Cafe near 16th and Harney streets.
Photo from the September/October 2007 edition of Encounter Magazine
Omaha has 147 Chinese residents.*
Following the Stock Market Crash of 1929, a city directory is not printed in 1930. The 1931 Omaha City Directory lists at least eight Chinese laundromats remaining in Omaha (six are included under a “Chinese Laundry” category, two are listed as hand-laundries). Omaha has 147 Chinese residents.* “When the Depression came in, there was no more business,” says Jeanette Chin, wife of Carl Chin (Gin Chin’s son). “If families could save some money, they could go back (to China) and live like royalty.” She came to Omaha in 1942 from a prominent family in New York City’s Chinatown. Local Omaha papers claimed her 1942 marriage to Carl was the city’s “last arranged marriage.”
July 16, 1938
The Omaha World-Herald reports on firecrackers and festivities involved in the dedication of the relocated On Leong Tong at 1518 Cass St. The article notes that the tong is raising funds for China’s fight against Japan in the war effort.
Omaha has 69 Chinese residents (44 native-born and 25 foreign-born).***
The year after the Chinese Exclusion Act is repealed (1943) during World War II, Gen. Albert Wedemeyer takes command of U.S. forces in China, relieving Joseph Stillwell. Wedemeyer was born in Omaha in 1897. He was likely familiar with Omaha’s ethnic Chinese community as he attended Creighton Preparatory School (when the school was located near downtown on the Creighton University). In 1919 he went to West Point Academy. Upon graduation, he was assigned to Tientsin, China, where he learned to speak Mandarin and gained a deeper understanding of China’s turbulent political climate with the consolidation efforts by the Nationalists and the rise of the Communist movement.
The 1946 Omaha City Directory lists one business under the category “Laundries—Chinese” (Louie Chas at 209 S. 13th St.), and the name disappears in the next year’s directory. The Chinese laundry category vanishes from record in subsequent city directories.
Omaha has 106 Chinese residents.*
Omaha has 130 Chinese residents.****
Omaha has 186 Chinese residents.****
Joe Kuo and his wife, Alice, open the Great Wall Restaurant at 72nd and Farnam streets. The restaurant’s success will spawn other Great Wall restaurants downtown (at 11th and Farnam streets), near 84th and Center streets, at Oak View Mall, and in Council Bluffs. Kuo had graduated from Fort Hays State University in Kansas with a mathematics degree in 1972, but with a new family decided against doctoral studies to enter business as a restaurateur in New York City and Chicago before coming to Omaha. The Kuos were founding members of a Christian fellowship of Omaha Chinese (established in 1977), which started as a bible study group (officially renamed the “Omaha Christian Chinese Fellowship” in 1980, and again renamed as “Omaha Chinese Christian Church” in 1986). Kuo’s restaurants host bible study gatherings. The church’s founding minister, Pastor Job Lee, is married to Joe’s elder sister (Grace). The church fellowship serves as a center for Chinese language and culture education. The Kuo family will sponsor local Chinese cultural events, leading to the creation of the Metropolitan Omaha Chinese American Association.
Omaha has 374 Chinese residents.****
The Omaha Chinese Christian Fellowship rents space at First Presbyterian Church. A few years later, in 1983, the fellowship will relocate to First Christian Church on 66th and Dodge streets.
The Metropolitan Omaha Chinese American Association forms with the goal of bringing all Chinese immigrants and American-born Chinese together, regardless of regional origins or political affiliation. The organization’s board includes Dennis Chin (a Bellevue Public School educator and Gin Chin’s grandson), his wife Betty Chin (a research organizer at Creighton and UNMC), and UNL engineering professor Bing Chen, among others. The association will eventually discontinue as political tensions mount and the community shifts to a predominantly mainland Chinese orientation.
From left: Dennis Chin, Betty Chin, and Bing Chen (at the Nebraska Chinese Association in 2018)
The Metropolitan Omaha Chinese American Association’s Chinese New Year celebration moves to UNO’s Milo Bail Student Center for a Chinese meal cooked by UNO chefs under the watchful eye of Joe Kuo followed by music, acrobatics, and dance performances at the Strauss Performing Arts Center. During its years of operation, the group also participates in the Omaha Ethnic Festival at the Civic Auditorium and hosts Mid-Autumn Moon Festival and Dragon Boat Festival gatherings.
The Omaha Chinese Christian Church purchases its own building at 81st and Blondo streets. Omaha has 553 Chinese residents.****
Mainland Chinese in Omaha are believed to organize local community events, including Lunar New Year gatherings. (Individuals known to be involved did not respond to Omaha Magazine’s request for comment.)
Omaha has 1,155 Chinese residents.****
In 2000, UNMC begins a formal faculty exchange program with Shanghai University. It is the first time the Chinese government has “awarded and funded a faculty exchange program between a Chinese medical school and [a] U.S. medical school.” In subsequent years, UNMC’s exchange programs with Chinese medical institutions continue to develop. By the year 2018, UNMC’s Asia Pacific Rim Development Program will have established partnerships with more than a dozen Chinese medical schools.
Creighton philosophy professor Jinmei Yuan begins annual student trips to China, supported by the Rev. John Schlegel (president of the university) and Soong Ching-Ling Foundation in China.
Omaha-born filmmaker Alexander Payne is part of a group that buys King Fong Cafe from the Huey family that has managed the restaurant in the years following Gin Chin’s passing. Also in 2007, the Confucius Institute (which operates around the world teaching Chinese as a second language) opens at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln; the institute will become a key sponsor for holiday celebrations with the UNL chapter of the Chinese Student and Scholar Association, Lincoln Chinese Cultural Association, the Asian Community Center in Lincoln, and the Omaha Chinese Cultural Association/Nebraska Chinese Association.
In 2008, Creighton’s School of Pharmacy and Health Professions establishes a three-month Rehabilitation International Summer Program. By 2014, the university will establish the China Honors Interprofessional Program for medical students and health care professionals in China. Partner schools will include 10 universities across China (along with universities in five other countries).
The Omaha Chinese Culture Association establishes in the wake of China’s tragic 2008 Sichuan earthquakes. In China, more than 69,000 are confirmed dead and 5 million people are displaced. Bellevue University’s director of global partnerships in Asia, Julie Verebely, was born in the area devastated by the quake. Verebely knew her home was affected, but she didn’t know how badly. She couldn’t contact any friends or family in the province. “She called me up and said, ‘We need to do something. It’s my hometown,’” recalls Linda Steele, who works with Verebely at Bellevue. With a core group of more than 30 Chinese-Americans and Chinese expats, they arrange several fundraisers that accumulate more than $30,000. During their fundraising efforts, Ping Ye (a systems analyst at HDR) suggests to fellow volunteers that they organize as a continuing Chinese association. Ye is the Omaha Chinese Culture Association’s first president, followed by Mae Keith, and then Steele. John Zhang is the association’s first chairman of the board, followed by Hong Zheng.
The Omaha Chinese Christian Church moves to its current location at 4618 S. 139th St.
Omaha has 1,437 Chinese residents.****
Feb. 3, 2009
The first Lunar New Year Gala is hosted by the Omaha Chinese Cultural Association at Christ Community Church. Locations will change in later years: Millard North High School in 2010, Burke High School in 2011-2012, Westside High School in 2013, Westside Middle School in 2015-2017, and Burke again in 2018.
In April, an Omaha delegation visits Yantai (in Shandong province) at the invitation of the mayor of the northeastern Chinese city. In October, Yantai officials will visit Omaha to sign a letter of intent to become “sister cities.” In June 2010, Omaha’s Mayor Jim Suttle will visit Yantai, China, in a trip to establish Omaha and Yantai as “sister cities.”
Oct. 3, 2009
The Omaha Chinese Cultural Association hosts the first annual Mid-Autumn Chinese Cultural Festival at Zorinsky Lake to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival.
June 4, 2011
The Omaha Chinese Cultural Association hosts its first annual Dragon Boat Festival on a Missouri River cruise.
Bellevue University establishes a partnership with Guangzhou College of Commerce in 2012. The first group of Chinese students will arrive in 2015. Also in 2012, the UNO College of Business Administration begins annual study trips to China.
During a visit to China, Nebraska’s Gov. Dave Heineman announces the state will open a trade office in China.
The UNO College of Business Administration hosts a China Conference focused on US-China economic relations and business partnerships. The conference continues for a second year in 2014.
March 18, 2013
Ceremonies in Nebraska and Shanghai are held to announce the opening of the Nebraska Center China in Shanghai. Upon taking office in 2015, Gov. Pete Ricketts continues to foster China-Nebraska trade relations with trade trips in 2015, 2016, and 2017. The Omaha Chamber also participates in overseas trips to China on an annual basis.
An estimated 1,000 Chinese investors visit Omaha for the annual Berkshire Hathaway shareholder meeting. In China, the “Oracle of Omaha” Warren Buffett is known as “the God of Stock Investing.” The number of Chinese visitors to Omaha during the shareholder meeting will continue to grow every year. An estimated 2,000-3,000 Chinese investors will visit Omaha for the shareholder meeting in 2016.
The Nebraska Chinese Association replaces the Omaha Chinese Cultural Association under the leadership of local Omaha businessman Hong Zheng (owner of the Asian Market) and its president Linda Steele (an adjunct professor Bellevue University).
Lion Dancers help the Nebraska Chinese Association celebrate the grand opening of the Nebraska Chinese Center in the site of a former church at 8206 Blondo St. The center offers language classes, cooking classes, a farmers’ market, tai chi exercise programs, and other cultural events.
King Fong Cafe closes “temporarily.”
The annual Berkshire Hathaway shareholders’ meeting continues to draw more Chinese visitors every year. Buses take Chinese tour groups to Warren Buffett’s home in Dundee for photographs. In 2017, Linda Steele estimates that there are 3,000-4,000 Chinese visitors. A gala dinner hosted by the Nebraska Chinese Association introduces overseas investors and local businesses. Steele expects 5,000 Chinese visitors for the Berkshire meeting in 2018.
June 14, 2017
Forty boxes of beef arrive in China from Greater Omaha Packing Co. The Omaha-headquartered business has emerged as an industry leader in reopening U.S. beef exports to China. It is the first shipment of U.S. beef to China since 2003 (following a mad cow scare that halted imports).
The National Register of Historic Places recognizes the historic status of the On Leong Tong at 1518 Cass St.
In the 2017/2018 academic year, Bellevue University has 258 overseas Chinese students; UNMC has 96 students from mainland China; UNO has 124 overseas Chinese students; Creighton has 36.
March 3, 2018
The 10th anniversary of the Lunar New Year Gala hosted by the Nebraska Chinese Association/Omaha Chinese Cultural Association takes place at Burke High School. Of the approximately 200 volunteers organizing the gala, 100 are overseas Chinese students. The association’s members include close to 800 people.
Nebraska Chinese Association board members from left: Grant Wu, Hong Zheng, May Yap, Jun White, Linda Steele, Li Li, Sarah Luo, Qiuming Zhu, Ping Ye, Jenny McAtee
*Source: U.S. Census data provided by the Nebraska State Historical Society
**Source: An Almanac of Nebraska: Nationality, Ethnic, and Racial Groups (published in 1975)
***Source: U.S. Census data provided by the Nebraska Library Commission
****Source: U.S. Census data provided by University of Nebraska-Omaha Center for Public Affairs Research
This article was printed in the March/April 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.
See other Omaha-Chinese content from the March/April 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine:
Glittery gold nail polish shimmers. Angie Seykora’s hands move animatedly as she talks about a sculpture made out of smooth flagging tape. Beat-up and worn-out, Seykora’s hands are her most important tool.
These same hands twist, weave, and roll everyday material into works of art.
In one photo, a roll of black plastic static intercept sheeting wraps around her like a glossy snake. Seykora, dressed in the same color, blends in with her soon-to-be-creation. Wearing black gloves, she molds and shapes it. She cuts the sheeting into hundreds of strips, constructing it with zip ties and metal chains. The final piece, which is for a solo exhibition at the Union for Contemporary Art, suspends from the ceiling all the way to the floor like a cascade of midnight.
“I don’t need elaborate facilities, just my hands and scissors,” Seykora says. “And space and time. Time is invaluable.”
Seykora felt the art itch as a child growing up in Minnesota and later South Dakota. Her mother sewed dresses for her. She watched her father saw, hammer, and drill in his woodworking shop. It was a mag- ical place. Four-year-old Seykora would draw circles with different faces and scrawl phrases, like “All people are important,” across the paper. “Making” offered a safety net during high school, and she spent any extra time in the art room, where she dis- covered like-minded individuals.
It was a hobby, a way to express herself, and Seykora didn’t think of it as a career when she attended Creighton University. One fatal drive would shift Seykora’s priorities. A drunk driver passed out, flew over the median, and hit Seykora’s vehicle in a head-on collision.
A broken left wrist. Torn ligaments. Aching bruises.
Conscious, Seykora was aware of the pain. She doesn’t dwell on it now. It was just something that happened. Yet, it was life-affirming. The accident made Seykora realize she could no longer suppress her talents and deepest desires because of societal expectations.
“I trusted my intuition, which is still a part of my studio practice,” Seykora says.
Seykora switched majors several times before settling on a Bachelor of Fine Arts with an emphasis in sculpture and a minor in business.
Sculpture, a once male-dominated art form, inspired Seykora in ways she never knew existed. She woke up to a world of creative possibilities. Space, light, and senses merged into making something out of nothing. Littleton Alston, a Creighton art professor, saw grittiness and greatness from the young artist who stepped up to any challenge he threw at her.
“She was a once-in-a-lifetime student,” Alston recalls. “Art is a deeper search for meaning of what it is to be human. Angie did that.”
She continued on to graduate school at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania with a Master of Fine Arts. The International Sculpture Center bestowed a rare Outstanding Student Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture award, which earned Seykora a residency in St. Urban, Switzerland, for two months during the summer of 2014. She returned in 2015. It allowed Seykora to experiment with material not readily available in the United States.
Seykora, now 30, is an adjunct instructor at Creighton University, teaching 3D foundations and sculpture. Plus, Seykora mentors at Kent Bellows art program at Joslyn, and she has a part-time job in retail.
But the bulk of her time is spent in her studio practice, dropping by each day in order to “exist in the same world” as her material. She is constantly on the lookout for various items. Discarded “trash” from friends, salvage yards, and second-hand stores become her artistic treasure. Electrical tape, plastic wrap, and vinyl have been transformed into stunning displays of talent.
“She is one of the most exciting contemporary artists in Nebraska,” says Launa Bacon, director of Darger HQ. The gallery hosted Seykora’ work, along with artist Ying Zhu, in an exhibition titled Lines Forming (on display through Jan. 7).
Seykora found a pink artificial Christmas tree in a dumpster. She is in the process of cutting needles off the branches and stems. The remaining wire is wrapped around a metal grid. Although a sculptural object, it is a gray area between contemporary sculpture and “painting.”
“This is a timely and meditatively engaged way of making,” Seykora says.
Much of her work is a time-consuming, sophisticated process. One conceptual sculpture, Flesh, took almost a year to finish. But it is Seykora’s way of creating her own world.
“Art is something I always have control over,” she says playing with her gold cage-like grid earrings. “My work is a direct reflection of my life.”
Transformation is the most powerful thing about art. Seykora hopes when someone sees her work that the conversation will not end. Don’t dismiss. Engage. Look closer.