Tag Archives: English

Dreamers In the Heartland

November 1, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Illustration by Matt Wieczorek

Asterisks (*) designate pseudonyms. Portrait subjects photographed for this article were approached by Omaha Magazine independently from the research conducted by professor Thomas Sanchez. These current, former, and would-be DACA recipients consider Omaha to be their home; they volunteered to share their stories and thoughts about the termination of DACA. 

Driving through rural Nebraska, I noticed the battery gauge dropping slowly toward zero. Soon after turning from Highway 30 onto Highway 15, the engine stopped. I pulled to the side of the road. Thinking about my options, I looked in the rearview mirror and saw a sign that read “Batteries for Sale.” I scurried the quarter mile to the farmhouse and knocked on the door. An elderly gentleman answered, and we quickly proceeded to a barn filled with hay. There was an array of car batteries arranged on shelves; I chose the cheapest. We got into his pickup, drove to my car, and installed the battery. Then I drove back to the farmhouse to pay.

“Omaha is my home. I’ve been here for a while–16 years–went to high school and college, and I don’t really know any other place that I can say, ‘I know this place.’ This is my home. I know were everything is at. I fI have a problem, I know where to go to…I’m afraid of what’s going to happen. What’s next for us?” –David Islas Ramirez, 30, Works in the health care industry (Originally from Mexico, Isla is a current DACA recipient, a graduate of Benson High School and Bellevue University.)

When he looked at my check, he said, “Sanchez, you speak pretty good English.” I thought to myself, “Here we go,” but answered calmly, “I better speak pretty good English, it’s the only language I speak” (which was not completely true. I grew up speaking only English and, like many third-generation U.S. citizens, learned Spanish in college). He replied, “No, I know you speak good English, but where are you from?” I answered, “I am from Scottsbluff, way out in the western part of the state.” He said, “No, but where were you born?” I said, “I was born in Scottsbluff.” He persisted, “But where was your father born?” I replied, “My father was born in Texas.” He followed up with, “Where was his father born?” and I answered, “My grandfather was from Mexico.” He did not say anything but he gave me a sigh of satisfaction as if to say, “See, I knew you were from somewhere else.”

I am a light-skinned Mexican-American with a Ph.D. who speaks English with no hint of a Spanish accent. I was born and raised in the middle of the United States. I am also a tenured associate professor at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. I am the quintessential “American,” but personal experiences have demonstrated to me that many in the United States think Latinos are qualitatively different from them—that Latinos are “from somewhere else.” I do not have an immigrant experience, and I do not pretend to understand the immigrant identity. But my light skin color coupled with my upbringing in the Mexican barrio of southeast Scottsbluff has always made me fascinated with issues of ethnic and cultural identity, issues I teach about in all my classes (especially “Race and Ethnicity” for the Sociology department and others in Latino Studies).

My personal and professional interest in identity made me wonder: how do young people, who are “American” in every aspect except legal, negotiate and deal with their identity? How do they make sense of their lives when their personal history and the vast majority of their experiences have taken place in and around Omaha, Nebraska, yet the governmental authorities and the media present them as foreigners?

“DACA, to me, meant an opportunity to become a full human being in the American society…because before that, I was just a person hiding in the shadows. Through DACA, I was able to do simple things like get a drivers license and drive–obviously, once that was also available through our legislature.”–Yanira Garcia, 28, (Originally from Mexico, Garcia is a former DACA recipient who became legal U.S. permanent resident in March)

Throughout my career, most of my research has been conducted with immigrant communities in Nebraska. But my poor Spanish always made it difficult to conduct interviews (much of the consternation was mine, being embarrassed at how bad my Spanish is at times). Interviewing recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (a federal program created by President Barack Obama’s executive memorandum in 2012) offered relief from my occasional language hiccups. Nebraska has about 3,000 recipients, and there are approximately 800,000 nationwide.

The catalyst for my DACA research was an announcement at a faculty meeting of the Office of Latino and Latin American Studies at UNO; private scholarship money was being designated for DACA recipients. I immediately thought that I could continue my research on “immigrants” without worrying about my inability to communicate well because most DACA recipients are in college (71.5 percent of them), and to get into college one must speak, read, and write English. A new research avenue was born.

The following semester, I was readying my application for a faculty development fellowship (formerly referred to as a sabbatical) from the College of Arts and Sciences. A colleague suggested that I get a letter of support from potential interview subjects. It was late on a Friday afternoon, but I called the Heartland Workers Center and was referred to the Young Nebraskans in Action (previously known as the Dreamers Project Coalition). The next week I met with two leaders of the group. Each agreed to write a letter of support to the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

“I actually had made a deal with my mom and said, ‘Well, we’re only going to go there for six months, because I didn’t want to come. I was so little. I really didn’t understand the situation or why she was making the decision. So , she agreed to six months, and now it’s going to be 18 years.”–Luisa Trujillo Estrada, 28, CHI Health & Human Resources staffer (Originally from Mexico, Trujillo is current DACA recipient engaged to a U.S. citizen).

My DACA interviews began with three in December 2015. I conducted seven more interviews in January 2017 after receiving the fellowship. All of my interview subjects were born in Latin America: seven in Mexico, two in Guatemala, and one in El Salvador. At the time of their interviews, the ages of these DACA recipients ranged from 19 to 26. Although not born in Omaha, they were all raised here or in surrounding areas. Nearly all speak English perfectly (without any trace of accent). At the time of the interviews, nine were enrolled in college and receiving above-average marks in their coursework. One had recently graduated. None of them have criminal records.

The following notes and excerpts from my 2015 and 2017 interviews provide a glimpse at the reality of DACA recipients’ existence in Nebraska using their own stories, their own words.

Each of the 10 interviewees articulated a profound love and appreciation for what the United States and Omaha have allowed them to do, the opportunities that the education system has allowed them to pursue. Most of them expressed the view that— if forced to leave their adopted city and country—they are not afraid of returning to their country of birth or to take their talents elsewhere in the world.

Of the 10 DACA recipients interviewed, many of them were politically active and know that being prohibited from voting does not take away their constitutional rights to engage in political activities. A couple of them were timid individuals and specifically stated that agreeing to be interviewed was a political act. One admitted to being shy, saying that their condition of being in the U.S. without authorization made them eschew attention and want to blend in with others around them.

In many ways, the experiences of the Nebraska DACA recipients I interviewed are similar to what academic and other research has revealed to be experiences nationwide.

Lourdes* came to Omaha when she was 6 years old. Now a community organizer in her mid-20s, she had this to say when asked which country she belongs to: “I tell people that my blood is Mexican, but my heart is American, because the two work with each other and they would not be able to exist without one another. So, that’s the best way that I can answer that question, just because, like I said, I was raised in the U.S., with U.S. principles and morals, but my culture is Mexicana and they work together to create who I am.”

All 10 of my DACA sources speak English and Spanish. Each speaks English well, and only one did not speak Spanish well. Most of them speak Spanish with parents and elder family members but English with others, including younger siblings. Only one of the sources claimed their parents could speak English well.

“When people [say], “Oh, you know they’re here just leeching and taking U.S. citizens’ benefits,” I just want to tell them that. We’re just here working hard, and all we’re asking for is an opportunity to continue to be blessed in the greatest country in the world.”–Armando Becerril, 24, Audit associate at KPMG (Becerril is originally from Mexico).

They have internalized the Nebraskan and Midwestern culture, especially in terms of work ethic. Not only driven by the work ethic of those around them, they felt obligated to prove (to themselves, to family and friends, and to society at large) that they will be successful. They work hard at jobs, school, and in their community. While they all claimed cultural connections to their country of birth, their inability to travel outside the United States makes those connections appear to be mostly imagined. They are connected culturally in ways that a second- or third-generation Mexican-American might be connected to their ancestors’ nation of origin. Their “Latino” culture is largely a U.S. Latino culture.

The vast majority of their personal experiences have been positive in Nebraska. Aracely* says: “In one of my classes in high school, I was told that Nebraska was one of the most racist states in the United States, and I thought that was pretty funny because I myself never really…saw myself being discriminated against for being Latino or for having Hispanic descent; however, when I found out that Nebraska was the only state left that didn’t give drivers’ licenses to DACA students…I realized that there’s just, like, so much indirect racism.”

All of the interviewees shared a positive image of Omaha, and almost all of the sources had mixed feelings about the conservative politics of the state. Nelson* (who says he migrated from El Salvador when he was “1 year old, maybe less”) was active in getting legislation passed such as LB 623 (which gave them the opportunity to get a driver’s license).

“I know there are a lot of Republican senators who really care about us, but then I believe everything is just politics,” Nelson says. “Maybe they do care about us. But their constituents, they’re very hard-line anti-immigration, and because of that we’re not getting the support that we really deserve in the government. But, in that sense, I understand. But then again, I don’t think the Democrats are doing enough for us either, and so it’s really difficult, and right now I just have a very negative attitude about what the government is doing for immigrants, especially with the rhetoric that Donald Trump has been spewing all throughout his campaign and continues to do so. It just makes things worse [for everybody] and it doesn’t do anything for immigrants.”

Interviewees reported few, if any, incidents of discrimination or overt prejudice in their everyday experiences in Omaha; however, several of them shared anecdotes of close friends—citizens who happened to be darker-skinned Latinos—having more overt discriminatory experiences than they as DACA recipients did.

Some of the 10 DACA recipients had arrived in the United States a bit later in life and always knew they were not authorized to be here (the age of arrival ranges from 10 years to three months with the average being 5 years old); others had no idea of their undocumented status until later in life.

Interview subjects mentioned “shame” when discussing their parent’s feelings about being in the United States without authorization and “stigma” when discussing their own feelings; the same words were used by Leisy Abrego (a University of California-Los Angeles professor who was herself part of the wave of Salvadorian immigration to L.A. in the early 1980s) in her groundbreaking research on DACA recipients in California.

“There are a lot of customs in Colombia that I am no longer familiar with. I am an Omahan. I am part of the city, and I want to see it succeed…If I were to go back to Colombia and start my life over there. I don’t even know where to begin.”–Daniela Roja, 24, Admissions counselor at College of Saint Mary (Rojas applied for DACA and was rejected due to her U.S. arrival date. She has lived in Omaha for 10 years and is now a legal resident.)

Some did not find out they were unauthorized—or they did not realize how it would affect them—until their junior or senior year in high school, when they began to fill out college and scholarship applications and were asked for a social security number.

All of them learned of the severity of what it really meant to be unauthorized when they could not get a driver’s license, even after they received DACA. All feel, to one degree or another, they missed out on that and other rituals associated with being a kid or “growing up.”

As young children and teenagers, they were unaware of the consequences: both the social stigma and the legal pitfalls. They had been protected from the vagaries of their undocumented legal status—by teachers, counselors, churches, and other well-meaning adults and institutions.

Many of my interview subjects used terms like “coming out” for disclosing their unauthorized status. The phrasing seems to contradict previous assertions of “no shame.” But it could be that their general feelings simply changed from when they were younger and they did not see the effects as readily. As they grew older, the negative consequences of the same undocumented status became more acute and meaningful in their lives. The driver’s license issue is just one glaring example (one for which Nebraska gained notoriety in nationwide immigrant advocate and anti-immigration circles).

Due to a fear of immigration and law enforcement authorities, none of the people I interviewed had traveled much, if at all, outside the Omaha area. Some of them had been to Lincoln (on recruitment visits to UNL) and a few had traveled once or twice to Iowa or Wisconsin to visit family. Many admit that they love Omaha, they love Nebraska (even though they had not been anywhere in Nebraska outside of Omaha), and that they desire and plan to stay in the Midwest region of the country. Most want to stay in Nebraska and/or the Midwest in order to pay back those communities for the opportunities that they have been able to access.

In terms of social connections, about half of the interview subjects reported having mostly white friends or friends who are a mix of different races and ethnicities; the other half have friends who are mostly Latino. More than one of them mentioned the difficulty of meeting new people, especially in the romantic realm, and not knowing what or when to tell them about their immigration status. One respondent stated that they were afraid to tell a new dating partner about their status for fear that the other person would wonder if they were just dating them so they could marry and get their immigration papers fixed. Another spoke of being in a long-term relationship with a person who still does not know that they do not have government authorization to be in the United States.

When I began these interviews, I was interested in the question of criminalization. How did undocumented youths see their own “criminalization” in light of what labels have been placed upon them by some elements of society?

The research question turned out to be of little concern to my sources, with eight respondents emphatically stating “no” when asked whether or not they felt like criminals. Two others were not sure or had felt like criminals at some point in their life but changed their mind as they had matured. Almost all had mixed family statuses with little brothers and sisters who were citizens and parents who were unauthorized. At least two had fathers who had been deported.

Although born in foreign countries, their hearts and souls are firmly rooted in the United States, a country that officially rejects but tolerates them. Lourdes, the community organizer, says: “I do plan on staying in Nebraska…my skin and bones are still getting used to this weather, but beyond that, absolutely. I love Nebraska, and the fact that we are helping change the political landscape and [making] it be a place that welcomes is very enriching, and I’m beyond glad that I’m able to be a part of that with dedicated individuals. So as hard as it is knowing that we are going to be at the forefront of what’s happening and the change for our future families and friends… It’s of course [worth it]…and I love Nebraska and Omaha in general…I don’t ever take for granted what I do. And I feel like that journey wouldn’t have been possible had I not had the [immigration] status that I did. So it just enables me, helps me appreciate and really understand the significance of what I’m doing for myself and for my community.”

I came away from the interviews with a sense of awe.

As I interviewed each of the 10 young people, I had the sense that each person will not only be successful; they will be high-achieving contributors to the nation’s society and economy. Rather than being afraid for themselves, their worries overwhelmingly focused on the future well-being of their parents, siblings, friends, other family members, and people in situations like theirs who may have not had the tools, skills, or maybe just the proper connections to navigate the educational system.

I often wonder why anti-immigration advocates seem determined to cast out those who would otherwise be helping to pay for Social Security. In the end, it is not about their contributions to the economy, it is about what kind of society we choose for ourselves and the people we welcome into that society.

This article was printed in the November/December edition of Omaha Magazine.

View the condensed version of Omaha Magazine‘s video interviews with DACA current, former, and would-be DACA recipients:

Find the full interviews for the portrait subjects here:


Fighting Misogyny (updated)

December 15, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“Fighter” is a very connotative word. People hear it and think of large, brutish men knocking each other out for money. They think broken homes, difficult childhoods, and a last resort. Women are an afterthought, usually in the form of the devoted and completely dominated girlfriend or as the victims of domestic violence. The occasional person, when prompted, remembers Ronda Rousey’s infamous loss to Holly Holm—or how hot they both are. Typically, people respond so negatively to the idea of women in combat sports that I don’t even bring up the topic. Upon mentioning an upcoming fight or my training for the first time, the initial question people usually ask is not where do I train, or what’s my record; they ask what my boyfriend thinks of it. The readiness of this question, of the mindset that prioritizes the manner in which I relate to men as the most important part of my identity, is a big part of the reason I fight. The implication of that question answers the usual follow-up question of how I got into mixed martial arts.

I had my first cage fight in January of 2016, at 110 pounds. I invited only four people outside of my team to watch, three of them women. I defeated my opponent via unanimous decision, meaning the fight went the full three rounds but the judges agreed that I was dominant throughout. It felt like a victory for not only myself and my team, but for all the skinny little girls around the city who are constantly being told they are too small or cute to get into any sport rougher than tennis. Afterward, I felt a little better equipped to handle the frequent instances of random men deciding to follow me on a run or asking me to get into the car as they drove by. My only battle wounds were bruised knuckles and a small bump to the left of my eye that quickly faded into a minor, reddish bruise. I loved having the visible symbol of my victory on my face. In part, because combined with the right amount of “resting bitch face,” it seemed to deter creepy strangers from approaching me in coffee shops or while walking down the street.

To me, “fighter” means being relentless, indomitable, dedicated, nurturing, receptive, empathetic, soft spoken, and even-tempered.

But I wasn’t quite able to wear even my minor injuries, symbols of a well-earned victory and a major milestone in my life, with pride like the male fighters can. I remember my boyfriend coming out of his first fight, his only loss to date, with a badly broken nose and blood in his eye. Everyone’s first assumption was that he had been in a fight; I know because strangers approached him, excited to talk about how he had engaged in the most masculine of sports and emerged in reasonably good shape. Where he was met with excitement, I was handed cards with hotline phone numbers from sympathetic gas station employees who didn’t believe my story. For the week or so that my bruise was noticeable, any boy I happened to be walking around with that day was on the receiving end of accusatory glares, head-shaking, and lots of poorly muffled whispers. Outside of the martial arts community in the area, it was like my victory was something I should have hidden behind closed doors. Apparently, even after all those days of getting up at 5 a.m. to train and then spend hours at the gym, I still looked like an easy target. It wasn’t my first time being silenced about something I was proud of. Gradually, I realized that MMA will not change how most people see me, but it has changed how I see myself.

During the month leading up to my second fight—this one at 115 pounds—I still encountered the stereotypical ways that women are perceived in relationship to the word “fighter.” But impositions of societal norms were not my concern during that time. Four weeks out, being a fighter means nothing about gender roles; it means constantly eating. Specifically, it signifies the consumption of a constant stream of protein shakes, eggs that I am beginning to accept will never taste good no matter how many different ways I cook them, supplements, vegetables, and what feels like gallons of water. I have put on close to 10 pounds of muscle since my first fight, in order to be able to cut a few pounds of water to make 115 pounds before weighing in, and then rehydrating back to a heavier weight the night before the fight. Beyond my diet, being a fighter means balancing the commitments of a full-time student working toward a double major, an internship, and a job while doing everything I can to win in the cage.

As a junior in college, fighting means training at an offensively early hour so I can get all my studying done before morning classes, so I can get school and work knocked out before maybe having time to eat an actual dinner, all so I can focus on working out and night training. It means trying to get to bed around 10 p.m. so my body can recover and I can do it all again the next day with a little more weight added to every lift and a little more of a push to get my 3.57 GPA up to a 3.6. It means discipline, and making adjustments when I need to study. I love my routine right now. I love training and then letting whatever Jiu Jitsu or kickboxing techniques I learned simmer in the back of my mind while I study, then letting my brain process information about Renaissance Europe and sonnets while I lift. My interests in academia and in sports complement each other, and I have heard the same from other fighters—contrary to the myth that fighters tend to be uneducated.


With all of these things considered, people wonder why I would choose to be a fighter. I grew up playing softball and soccer, and have no formal background in combat sports. I am attending college on full academic scholarships and do not fit the stereotype of a cage fighter. So why would I, at 19 years old, decide to add cage fighting to my resume alongside mission trips and semesters on the dean’s list? I guess I can see how on the surface the choice might seem a little incongruous, but to me mixed martial arts is the most natural thing in the world to pursue. The long answer as to why I fight is that I live in a world where I once didn’t get hired because I wasn’t “willing to consider leaving my boyfriend” (according to the man who was interviewing me). With such experiences in mind, I don’t get how becoming a fighter could be anything but a logical course of action. In a world where women are still considered annoying if they speak, people listen to me when they see MMA on my resume. The short answer is that I like it, just as I like soccer and softball. The sport fits my personality.

Random men still follow me and yell rude comments if I’m downtown at night. Realistically, I don’t think there’s much I will ever be able to do about that. Even as I’m writing this, there’s a boy I’ve never met at the table behind me yelling “hey” every time I stop typing, but no matter if they’re a heavyweight (205 pounds and up) or a third-degree black belt in taekwondo, almost everyone I have encountered in the MMA community has shown me nothing but respect. Yes, I train ground game and standup with men, but I have never had another fighter follow me to my place of work, stand outside the door, and yell for the girl in the dress. Even if I do look like an easy target, instances of disrespect I have experienced in this most “masculine” of sports are nothing compared to the disrespect I get from men on the street on a daily basis. I think there’s a lesson there, with regard to our society’s skewed perception of what it means to be masculine. The guys I fight with are not the same guys who are treating women like inferior beings on the street or in their relationships.

The fundamental message that fighters fight to convey is simple: “I will not be dominated.” To me “fighter” is not a word synonymous with troubled home life or hyper-masculinity or misogyny. To me it means being relentless, indomitable, dedicated, nurturing, receptive, empathetic, soft spoken, even-tempered—I think all of these words describe most fighters better than whatever people think of when trying to come up with reasons I shouldn’t be one. With all due respect to those trying to look out for me, I don’t see how it’s unsafe for me to be locked in a cage with another woman my size compared to how dangerous it is for me to walk down the street. Or to, in general, be a woman who physically exists and takes up space in the world. Silencing my interests won’t fix the real problem.

“Hey” boy just invited himself to have a seat at my table. He has started talking to me despite having been pointedly ignored for at least 10 minutes and the fact that I am obviously in the middle of something. I am not polite in response. I have no interest in being dominated by a culture that puts women in boxes and has taunts at the ready in case they try to fight back. I have no interest in being quiet about my sport in order to protect people from a discomfort that I’m guessing doesn’t compare to the discomfort of a 14 year old having her ass grabbed by a stranger. I don’t care if it’s “inappropriate” for me as a “young lady” to be excited to get into a cage and physically beat another girl. I’d rather autonomously lock myself in a cage than be folded neatly into a gender role. I don’t care what your perceptions are of what it means to be a fighter, or what you think it means to be a size 0 and 20 years old with blue eyes. As my coaches and training partners are constantly reminding me, I’m not here to apologize. I’m here to dominate.

“Fighting Misogyny” was originally published Friday, Oct. 14 online at omahamagazine.com.     


At Ralston Arena (on Friday, Oct. 14), I lost my second career fight via TKO in the final 10 seconds of the final round. The following Saturday morning by 8:30 a.m., I was back in the gym and on my way to becoming a stronger fighter.

I am not happy about losing, but I am also not devastated by getting punched in the face. I’m not fighting for perfection. I’m not perfect, and an imperfect record does not end my ambition in the cage. Rather, I’m fighting for all the girls who have contacted me to give support or share their story of fighting misogyny in their lives. I’m fighting for everyone who has told me it empowers them to see me get in the cage at all.

I want to take this opportunity to thank my incredible coaches, Mauro Siso and Sergio Rangel, and everyone at Legacy Martial Arts for supporting me on this journey. With lessons learned from defeat, we are making changes in my training regimen for the next fight.

Visit facebook.com/pg/lmaomaha for more information.


Marisa Miakonda Cummings

August 26, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

I would like to begin by introducing myself. My English name is Marisa Cummings. My Omaha or Umoⁿhoⁿ name is Miakonda or Moon Power. I was given my Buffalo Tail Clan name by my great-grandmother, Edith Walker Springer. My father is the late Michael Cummings, or Stampeding Buffalo. My father’s mother is Eunice Walker Mohn, or Buffalo Tail Clan Woman. My grandmother’s parents are the late Charles Amos Walker, or White Chest, and the late Ida Springer Walker, or New Moon. I am an Omaha woman. I am a Buffalo Tail Clan woman of the Sky people. I am the oldest child of eight children. I am the mother of four children.

As I wrote the paragraph to introduce myself, I was mentally translating from Umoⁿhoⁿ to English. The Umoⁿhoⁿ language is a beautiful conduit of culture. Self introductions are very important in our community. One must know who they are to know where they are going in this life. Language allows us to express ourselves to one another as human beings, to talk to the Creator, and express ourselves through song and ceremony. As language is a conduit for expressing thoughts and feelings, and relaying cultural knowledge, it is essential that our Umoⁿhoⁿ language is revered and preserved for our future generations. We must preserve our language to talk to our Creator through our ceremonies as we were instructed to do in our language.

Marisa Miakonda Cummings, with daughter and motherMy grandmother grew up hearing Umoⁿhoⁿ spoken as the primary language at home; it was her first language. She has told me about her parents waking well before sunrise and praying in Umoⁿhoⁿ in the kitchen. Her father, Charles Walker or Mongaska, was taken to Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Carlisle was a military-style school founded in 1879 by Capt. Richard Pratt under the authority of the U.S. government with the founding principle that Native Americans were a vanishing race and their only hope for survival was assimilation to white mainstream culture. The first thing done was to cut off the children’s sacred hair. The second step was to make them stop speaking their traditional language and converse in English. My great-grandfather came back to the reservation after his stay at Carlisle and remained fluent in both Umoⁿhoⁿ and English. He served on our tribal council for over 25 years. My grandmother’s mother, Ida or Metexi, was sent to Genoa Indian Industrial School in Genoa, Nebraska. She also returned to the reservation and spoke fluent Umoⁿhoⁿ. Both of my great-grandparents survived assimilation and Indian boarding schools and retained their Umoⁿhoⁿ language in daily practice in and outside of their home.

Tragedy struck when my grandmother was 10 years old. Her mother passed away and left eight orphaned children. Her father decided to send her, at age 14, to Haskell Indian School in Lawrence, Kansas. There was no more playing in the timber, no more collecting wild plums and gooseberries. She was alone. She said that she often wondered what she did wrong. Was her father angry with her? Why would he send her away? My grandmother graduated from Haskell and moved to Sioux City, Iowa, with the courage to start a life for herself.

My father was born in 1955. He was considered a “half-breed,” as his father was a white man. However, his grandfather, Charlie Walker, took pity on him and gave him the Umoⁿhoⁿ Buffalo Tail Clan name Te-Nuga-Na-Tide. My father was an incredible man. He received his master’s degree from Iowa State University and went to work for the corporate world. He always instilled in me the power of education and the importance of coming back to help the people with the education I received. I was raised to be of service and make a difference. My father also raised me like a first-born son. He made me tough, taught me to always speak up and use my voice, to be courageous and strategic. He told me that women have a strong place in leadership and that Native women will be at the front of the movement to bring back language and culture. He was very proud when I graduated with a degree from the University of Iowa.

Marisa Miakonda Cummings As a young woman, I was always interested in our language. I would ask my grandma and great-grandma to tell me stories. I would sit at their feet or at the kitchen table in my grandma’s trailer while I asked one question after another. I think she got tired of me at times. I still am always asking questions of my grandmother. How do I say this? Do you remember this? She is the matriarch of our family. I am blessed that my children can be close to her and experience her unconditional love and knowledge.

In 1978, the Indian Religious Freedoms Act was passed. Our ceremonies, songs, and dances were no longer illegal. We could legally pray in the manner the Creator intended for us to pray. Yet, so many of the songs, ceremonies, and teachings were no longer practiced. In my life journey, I have rediscovered my love of ceremony. I enjoy collecting and preparing medicine. I love that I have the ability to be a lifelong learner of culture and ceremony, but in order to make that true connection, I must relearn a language that is rooted in my DNA. I believe that we can relearn our sense of true self and heal both individually and collectively.

My children have been born in a generation where our ceremonies are being revived and practiced. My children have been exposed to ceremonies, songs, dance, and love of our way of life. As I embrace our ceremonies and language, I know that I am also healing those who went before me. As I heal, I give reverence to ancestors whose hearts broke when they saw English replace Umoⁿhoⁿ in their homes, those who watched alcohol replace ceremony, and those who witnessed government commodities replace our sacred foods. As we revive our sacred way of life, we renew and honor all of those who went before us.

Read also from the September/October 2016 edition of Omaha Magazine:

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Ferial Pearson

December 1, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Ferial Pearson knows what it is to be an outsider. Born in Kenya, she is an ethnic Indian, and a Muslim. Growing up in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, her family was no stranger to prejudice. Kenyans of Indian descent are a minority, and most Indians are Hindu, not Muslim.

Her mother was born in a hut. No one in her family had gone to college. Pearson’s grandfather saved money for much of his life so that she could get a degree. Despite this, her family regularly opened their home to strangers if they needed a place to stay.

Pearson is an instructional coach and clinical practice supervisor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Before that, she taught English at Omaha South High School. Many of her students were outsiders—immigrants, LGBTQ, low-income. Moved by the tragic 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, Pearson challenged her students with a question.

Do modest acts of compassion have the power to change a person’s life?

Her students reacted and banded together in taking on the guise of the “Secret Kindness Agents.”

Anonymous acts of random kindness became contagious, and Pearson chronicled the results in a book, The Secret Kindness Agents: How Small Acts of Kindness Really Can Change The World. Inspired by a classmate suffering from juvenile diabetes, Pearson allowed the class to decide that every dollar from book sales would be donated to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. She told the story last year in a TEDxOmaha talk.

“That’s just the way I was brought up,” says Person. “If there is a need in the community, it is your responsibility. Whatever we have…whether it’s food, shelter, whatever…that’s a privilege. And we have to give back. It’s the Kenyan way.”

As a noted teacher, mentor, adviser, and advocate, Pearson’s passion for inclusion has been felt by a broad array of often disparate constituencies, ones whose common thread is that of “outsiderness.”

In 2010, she received the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network’s Educator of the Year Respect award. The next year she was the recipient of RESPECT’s Anti-Bullying Award. In 2014, Pearson was named one of Ten Outstanding Young Omahans by the Omaha Jaycees. This year she was the grand marshal of the Heartland Pride Parade.

She has also given her time to the Avenue Scholars Foundation, the Freedom Writers Foundation, and serves on the board of Inclusive Communities.

“I think of my community as my family,” Pearson says. “You can sit in a classroom and have all the resources possible. You can have the best teacher possible. But if you are hungry, if you are scared, if you do not have the vocabulary, if nobody read to you when you were little, if you’ve experienced trauma…how are you going to concentrate on what is going on in that classroom?”

Search Secret Kindness Agents on YouTube to learn more.


The Reality of the American Dream

March 25, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The apartment’s living room is warm. Blankets are on the couches, an old TV is playing cartoons, and 5-year-old Hana is mimicking the enthusiastic English of the monkey onscreen. Her grandmother, Zinab Abdelmote, watches from the couch, quiet and smiling.

Amna Hussein tells her daughter to lower the sound. “Zuza!” she calls her by nickname. Amna sets down a silver tray with one glass of juice. “From Egypt,” she says, gesturing to the delicate tray. Dinner, she says, is cooking.

She’s experiencing her first full winter in Omaha. She arrived in February 2013, after a circuitous route from her home country of Sudan that spans several years. Six of those were spent in a refugee camp in Egypt. Though Amna lives in a small apartment with Hana, her mother, Zinab, and her younger sister Elham, three of her siblings are still in Egypt. Two sisters, Najwa and Suzan, live close by in Omaha. Two other siblings are in Libya, two are missing in Darfur, and the eldest is living in the U.K.


There were 16 of them once upon a time. Amna laughs at the shock the number incites. “How did she do it?” she asks, gesturing at Zinab.

Amna is obviously proud of her mother. She, Najwa, and Elham take turns watching out for Zinab throughout the day. Her heart is bad, she has kidney problems, and high blood pressure. Her current dream, Amna translates, is to learn English. “Her willingness to study has stayed with her to this moment.”

Zinab’s daughters living in Omaha are already deep into studies at Metro Community College: a few hours a day of ESL, per the requirement to receive temporary aid for needy families (TANF). Their knowledge quickly outgrew the English classes provided by Southern Sudan Community Association, where they still receive some case management.

“We’re comparable to Lutheran Family Services,” says Marni Newell, SSCA program coordinator. “Just a lot smaller.” Newell explains that as a federal resettlement facility, they have 90 days to offer in-depth information on a wide variety of complex topics: Medicaid, food stamps, banking, job searching, English classes, cultural orientation, and driver’s ed. Other assistance includes helping to apply for relatives’ resettlement, applying  >for citizenship, and demonstrating how to ride the bus.

Amna reflects on how much she’s learned just in the year she’s been in Omaha. She and Elham entered the U.S. through Miami. The use of Spanish everywhere in the airport threw her off. “I asked a caseworker, are we really in America?” Amna recalls. She can laugh about it now. After a stop in Washington, D.C., the sisters arrived in Omaha. “I was thinking…I have been to small villages before but…” She chuckles again.

But she says, “Omaha’s like a land of knowledge. A land of peace. It’s a friend to all refugees to find a right beginning for their life. To resettle correctly, this is the right beginning. Leave the dreams for a while. Then later on, you can go.”

Elham sets down a plate of beans with tomato paste and spices, some thin bread, and two slices of American cheese. Amna excuses herself to get Hana her dinner.

Elham’s English is only slightly less fluent than Amna’s, but the confidence is there.

“Refugees see America as a dream,” Elham says. “But when they start their life, they face real problems. Many become, like, lost. Because their families back in the refugee camp think they will send money. And people in refugee camps think life in America is very easy. You can find money and jobs anywhere. But since February [2013], I haven’t got a job. I’ve interviewed many, many places.”


It’s a difficult life—going to school, finding work. “Najwa,” Elham says, referring to her elder sister who lives with three grade-school children, “is father, mother…everything. Here, you have friends to help you with these things.” But if you’re new to the country, she says, who do you have? She shrugs. “You can’t get a car without a job. And you can’t have a job without a car.”

Amna returns, saying it’s time to have tea. Her conversation is gentler than Elham’s as she stands over the stove, but she mirrors her younger sister’s opinions.

For example, she’s learning how to drive, but money has a lot of other places to go first. “At the beginning when we came,” Amna explains, “the organization does it for us. But three months is not enough. After three months, they require us to find a job. Some people can’t start school for two years because they’re running here and there to support the family. Even now, for me to go to a job and to school, it’s a problem.”

Still, she says she hopes to start work at Walmart soon as a cashier. The goal is to study at Metro and work at the same time. Of course, daycare is a problem. Due to Hana’s September birthday, she missed the cut-off date for kindergarten. Transportation, as always, is a headache.

But studying is important. “Here, there is no limit to education,” Amna says. “No matter your age, we can study what we like. We’re greedy to learn as much as we can.” She and her sisters hold college degrees in a variety of fields, but “the technology that America has reached, we feel that we are behind. In technology, development, education…”

Amna, for example, has a bachelor’s in English and sociology from India, as well as a diploma in health and social care from the U.K. She’s thinking of eventually taking up nursing studies.

“We will study according to what the market needs,” Elham chimes in. “If I studied geography, maybe I’ll do nothing. You must start with what the market needs. That is first.”Amna sets down a glass of hot tea with a single clove for fragrance. “You can take it with you,” she says, nudging the mug. “You will come back. It’s fine.”

Another winter day, another trip to the small apartment. A variety of pastas and glasses of nonalcoholic liqueur cover the dining room table. The atmosphere is intimate. The headscarves have come off, and the talk becomes frank.

“I lost my job,” Amna confides. Her voice is still gentle but frustrated. The buses, she explains, can’t reliably get her to Walmart on time and home again.

“I must work,” she says. “Someplace where I can walk to.” She mentions a few places she’s thought of and is unfazed when told it would take an hour to get there. “It’s good exercise for me.”

But here, in the small, warm apartment, frustrations are put aside for a moment. Elham brings tea to the living room, and Amna produces a small bottle of homemade perfume. “For after dinner,” she explains. “To cover the scent.”

Arabic and English swirl around the room as six women chatter about anything and everything and nothing in Omaha, Nebraska.

Editor’s note: As of late January, both Amna and Elham have found employment.

Family Success Story: 
The Ner Clay & Paw Tha Family

November 4, 2013 by

Ner Clay and Paw Tha are a humble couple with a story that is hard for most of us to imagine. They have lived three different lives—the first in Burma, their homeland; the second in the refugee camps of Thailand; and now their third in Omaha.

Burma—now called Myanmar by military rule, but forever known as Burma to its refugees—lies south of China on the Bay of Bengal. Home to a number of ethnic groups, the Karen (kuh-REHN) people make up about one third of the country’s population. The Karen are quiet, respectful, and industrious. Family life is extremely important. Marriages are strong and function as a partnership of equals. The parenting style is firm but loving, and children of every age are respectful and obedient. Traditionally, Karen do not have family names; each person is seen as an individual.

The Karen suffered political and religious oppression in their homeland for many decades. But it became much worse in the 1970s and ’80s when a violent new military régime took over the government. A systematic genocide began, driving the Karen people into the forest while government soldiers burned their villages. The only way to stay alive was to flee to refugee camps in neighboring Thailand, where the families of Ner Clay and Paw Tha found safety.


You might think of a refugee camp as offering temporary quarters. But history tells us the average stay for people in refugee camps worldwide is 15 years. Paw Tha lived 11 years in the camps. Ner Clay spent 30 years there.

“Life in the refugee camps was difficult,” says Ner Clay. “We were safe inside the fences, but we could hear enemy gunfire in the hills. People were crowded and lived in poor conditions. Monsoons washed away the dirt walls of our shelters, and we had to rebuild them after the rainy season. People could not leave the camp borders, and there was no way to earn a decent wage to a better life. When the fighting grew closer, the entire camp—thousands of people—had to move farther into Thailand.”

Faith and education are important values of the Karen culture, so churches and schools were organized. Ner Clay learned to speak English as a boy. As an adult, he served as a minister and helped charities organize services to the residents of the camp. Paw Tha arrived as a teenager who had already studied languages, history, and science. She taught English to first graders. Eventually, the couple found each other and were married. All three daughters—Victoria, now age 12, Gloria, 10, and Julia, 7—were born in the camp.

In 2008, Ner Clay and Paw Tha and their daughters were granted visas to travel to the United States. They were first placed in St. Paul, Minn., where they lived for three months. The couple’s English language skills positioned them in high demand. Then Ner Clay was asked to move his family to Omaha, where there was a need for a religious and cultural leader among the new Karen arrivals.

Ner Clay and Paw Tha moved their family into an apartment complex in North Omaha, and the Karen families followed. Day after day, they labored to settle their own family and jobs while helping dozens of new refugee families translate their mail, make appointments, drive for errands, and function in an all-English world.

Ner Clay became associate pastor of the Karen Christian Revival Church with a growing parish of more than 400 families. In addition to spiritual support and recreational activities, the church became a resource center for the community, offering resettlement assistance, clothing and household items, job-seeking advice, and educational programs that help the families adjust to life in Omaha.


Paw Tha is now an interpreter at Franklin Elementary School, and their daughters attend Springville Elementary School, both of which are in the Omaha Public Schools district. In a comfortable home in northwest Omaha, they continue to provide assistance to established and new refugees—explaining insurance policies, legal documents, housing requirements, and notes from the children’s schools. They feel very lucky to be in a position to help others succeed, and often repeat their own personal slogan: “We are blessed to be a blessing.”

Still, Paw Tha is concerned about some of the darker aspects of American culture. “In the camps, there is nothing to do, so there are many eyes on the children. Here, the children have so much more freedom and are exposed to many temptations,” she says. “I worry that they will lose respect for the ways of our culture.”

“Except for a few setbacks, things have turned out pretty much the way we hoped,” Ner Clay says. “Our people are finding success. They have bought more than 300 homes and have started new businesses—grocery stores, restaurants, clothing shops, and auto repair. We came here for freedom and citizenship, and we want to contribute to this great country. Anything is possible in America!”

This September, Ner Clay and Paw Tha became U.S. citizens, which granted automatic citizenship to their daughters. The couple agrees: “We hope our daughters will grab whatever opportunity they get in America.”

The International Omaha

February 25, 2013 by
Photography by The International Omaha

Beautiful, elegant horses competing in The International Omaha horse jumping competition will thrill audiences at the CenturyLink Center Omaha downtown on April 12 and 13.

“It’s not only a beautiful sport but a highly athletic sport,” says Susan Runnels, executive director for The International. The show is administered by the not-for-profit Omaha Equestrian Foundation. “It takes eight years for the rider to develop a relationship with the horse.”

As for the competition itself, “Riders have to jump 13 jumps in 80 seconds,” she adds. “They use English saddles and don’t have horns to hold onto. Sometimes, they are thrown off.”

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What is equitation? A quadrille? What does dressage mean? Before heading for the competition, visit InternationalOmaha.com. A glossary of terms unique to the horse world is listed under Show Jumping 101. Also on the website is a map of the course’s design. No two courses are ever the same. Jumps are numbered and have flags to indicate directions: A red flag is right, a white flag is left.

There are different types of jumps. For example, the Oxer has two verticals that are close together, making the jump wider. A Combination denotes two or three jumps in a row, with no more than two strides between each.

But there is more to The International than watching horses jump. It’s a family and fun event. During the daytime Equine Expo when admission is free, visitors can experience what it’s like to be around the 1,200-pound animals. They can also learn about eight different breeds of horses.

“Kids love to get close to the horses,” Runnels says. “They can jump over the mini-jump course just like a horse. Families will enjoy visiting all the interactive displays.”

Face painting, equine toys, clothes, jewelry, and a living historical display of cavalry days will be part of the fun. Daytime competition with riders and horses begins each day at 9 a.m.

The International’s goal is to “foster and develop international-caliber athletes with the equestrian sport,” according to Runnels. Competitors come from many countries for the almost two-hour shows. Last year’s winner out of 97 competitors was from Germany.

Who will enjoy The International? “Everybody. From 3 years old to 80 years old,” Runnels says. “It’s such a phenomenal sport.”

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Getting the most out of The International:

  • Stop at the Greeter’s Table. Look for a volunteer and ask questions. “There will be a lot of volunteers to answer questions,” Runnels says. “They will wearing the same colored tops and khakis.”
  • Pick up a program. Everything you want to know about where to go and what to do—and terms that are used in the horse world—are in the program.
  • See horses warm up in the warm-up area.
  • Be on time for the opening ceremonies at 7 p.m. Special entertainment on both nights will feature the Strategic Command’s joint color guard and the Omaha Police Department’s mounted patrol. Singer Marcello Guzzo and the comic act of Tommie Turvey will also perform. “It’s amazing what Turvey does with his horse,” Runnels says. The Omaha Symphony will play on Saturday night.

Stay for the Victory Gallop at the end. “It’s really cool,” Runnels says.