Tag Archives: immigrant

West African in West Omaha

March 1, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Chaima Dan-merogo Maradi often gets asked for the story of why she left Africa for the United States 15 years ago, but her answer is usually just three words.

“I followed love,” she says, referring to her move following the man of her dreams.

And her now-husband, Boubakar Souleman, followed love in turn when, in 2012, he helped his wife realize her dream of opening her namesake restaurant—Chaima African Cuisine. (Chaima is pronounced “shy-ma.”)

“He knew how much I loved cooking, how passionate I am, how much I talk about it,” Maradi says. “He wanted me to be happy. He said, ‘I don’t quite understand it, but I’ll jump on board with you.’”

Restaurant ownership is a huge commitment, Maradi says, with six-day workweeks and days that begin with morning prep and run through lunch and dinner service ending at 9 or 10 p.m. In addition to operating the restaurant near 108th and Q streets, last year Maradi bought a food truck, which appears at festivals and events throughout the city. Meanwhile, they are raising a family that includes two busy teenagers, a 6-year-old, and a 4-year-old.

“Sometimes I’m in here from time A to time Z. It’s a long day,” Maradi says. “It’s a lot of work.”

Chaima Dan-merogo Maradi

But it’s work she fully embraces because it makes the business she loves thrive.

“It’s an everyday life, and it’s a normal American life. When I read or listen about successful entrepreneurs, I’m like, ‘There’s nothing I’m doing wrong here. I should be proud of myself,’” she says. “This is what it takes…I have to keep pushing.”

Maradi still remembers her earliest days in the kitchen as a 9-year-old in her native Togo.

“The very first-ever thing I created was crepes,” she recalls. Her efforts were so successful that her crepes became a family tradition for Eid, a principal Muslim festival. At an age when most children can barely make toast, Maradi began experimenting with food, recreating fare she’d sampled elsewhere, trying out recipes from magazines, and even concocting new dishes.

“I just liked to get into my own corner and duplicate what I’d seen,” she says. As a young newlywed in the U.S., she turned to cooking to help her acclimate to American culture.

“When my husband was at work, I watched television. Food Network—that was my friend!” she says. “Emeril, he was the star of the show at that time. So that’s what I would do, watch Food Network, try to understand what they mean by everything because some of the vegetable names and things were completely different.”

Sometimes the food wouldn’t turn out the way she wanted, but Maradi would try again, and she had far more hits than misses.

“I would cook and then dish it, portion it into plates, and look for people who were actually willing to taste it,” she says. It took little persuasion for her husband’s friends and colleagues to become taste-testers, and word traveled quickly.

“Everybody loved her food—everybody,” Souleman says.

It wasn’t long before people began suggesting that Maradi open her own restaurant. She “wasn’t ready” at first, but Maradi says her confidence and customer service skills increased through employment as a grocery store cashier and later in a nursing home, which also helped sharpen her English. Eventually she leased space in a commercial kitchen, which ultimately led to the launch of Chaima at the repeated urging of friends and acquaintances.

“I heard it so many times: ‘I love your food and you’re so good at what you’re doing.’ At some point I said, ‘Maybe I should,’” Maradi says.

Chaima has supported fundraisers for the Muslim Student Association at the University of Nebraska-Omaha and Maradi, who’s proud to call herself a feminist, has also supported organizations like Congokazi, which advocates for Congolese women, and Global Partners in Hope, which assists impoverished communities around the world. She says her restaurant is another means of sharing culture and fostering understanding.

“Food always starts a conversation and brings a group of people to a table,” she explains. “People pushing, and trying to bridge the gap between fellow Americans and myself, that was my recipe of starting a restaurant in Omaha.”

Maradi’s business instincts are as good as her cooking. Chaima is the only West African restaurant in the area, so Maradi’s menu features photos of each dish and descriptions of ingredients to help Midwesterners ease into a new cuisine.

“I figured out that you eat ‘with your eyes’ first. So if it looks good, it’s going to appeal to you, you’re going to take the chance to read what it is,” she says. 

Peanut butter lamb stew with side of fufu

Maradi shops at two African groceries in the city and a fruteria in South Omaha, but also purchases supplies at warehouse stores “like anybody else.” Many ingredients will be familiar to Americans, Maradi says, like chicken, beef kebabs, cabbage, tomato, tilapia, noodles, and rice. She even offers French fries and chicken wings on an appetizer menu. Entrée names are a combination of French—the official language of Togo—and “Mina,” a language predominant in southeastern Togo. Dishes with Togo origins are most prevalent, but the Chaima menu also features cuisine from Ghana, Nigeria, Benin, and Ivory Coast.

“Once you make it in here, we want you to stay,” Maradi says, so she has placed Midwestern-friendly dishes on the first page of the menu. “That’s what I tell people; if you want to be in the ‘OK zone,’ you can’t go wrong with anything in the top four here,” she says. A noodle dish called Spaghetti Creole, Riz au Gras and Poulet (chicken and rice), and Amadan (fried plantains, noodles, veggies, and meat) are among the dishes leading the listings. Riz Creole, which overtook Riz au Gras as Chaima’s top seller soon after its introduction, appears at the very top. But diners won’t find it on the menu of any other West African restaurant anywhere, because it’s a one-of-a-kind dish invented by Maradi.

“I like playing with flavors,” she says. Maradi has made concessions to the American palate and cultural expectations, for example, using lamb in dishes that would usually call for goat, or presenting her hot sauce and fried tomato sauce on the side. But she enjoys answering questions from curious guests and is happy to make recommendations. Diners who want to try something new can look further into the menu for novel ingredients like African yams—“more like potatoes than American yams”—or fufu, a starchy staple made in part from cassava, a root vegetable.

Chaima continues to evolve, and Maradi is always working on new offerings, like gyros and a plantain-based veggie burger. For fellow Muslim families, she’s developing versions of American fare like hamburgers and chicken nuggets that comply with Islamic dietary rules. Maradi has also begun bottling and distributing her popular pineapple citrus drink.

“We never gave up regardless of how hard things were getting; we kept pushing and pushing. Customers, friends that believe in us, and all of those good reviews on Yelp mentioning how good the food is kept me going,” Maradi says. “To see someone try my food and go, ‘Oh. My. God,’ that’s rewarding for me right there. It just makes me happy.”

To learn more, visit Chaima African Cuisine on Facebook at @chaimaafricancuisine.

Atieke Boisson Braise (tilapia with onion, tomato, and bell pepper) with sides of cassava couscous and fried plantains

This article was printed in the March/April 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.


April 9, 2015 by
Photography by Keith Binder

Originally published in March 2015 HerFamily.

Nicole Carrillo says she can make friends anywhere. Even at the airport.

Case in point: On a chilly night in November, Nicole stood with her fellow Thrive Club members at Eppley Airfield holding colorful signs. Nicole’s read “WELCOME TO OMAHA!” with the O’s shaped like hearts. Moments later, wild applause, laughter, and some tears erupted from the relatives, students, and coaches gathered for this moment.

Nicole’s soon-to-be-new friends were a refugee family just arriving from Burma. Marisol, Nicole’s mother and one of the sponsors of Thrive, was overwhelmed as tears flooded her eyes. “It was life- changing,” Marisol recalls.

Members of the Thrive Club, along with Lutheran Family Services, provided a cozy home environment for the immigrant family in an apartment volunteer’s chocked full of groceries, clothes, and furniture.

Nicole, a junior at Northwest High School, had filled out a grant to present to her principal, Thomas Lee, to do something for a family that would be lost in a foreign world.

Emigrating is hard, scary, often emotionally draining. Nicole’s empathy stems from hearing the story of her parents. Marisol, a native of Mexico, left for the United States in her teens to pursue a cosmetics license. It was difficult, she says, but she argues she had it easier than her husband Joel, who she would later meet in English classes.

Joel started his first job in the “worst town you can think of”—Aguascalientes, Mexico. He loaded heavy bricks into trucks and, along with 15 or so other boys, sold them house-to-house. He was five at the time. Joel came to the United States when he was 15. Later, he worked 60 to 70 hours a week while attending college classes at night, sometimes even taking a course during his lunch hour.

Nicole sees what her parents had to go through—all their hard work. So she strives to be the best. As a 4.0 student, Nicole is currently right behind her best friend for the top spot on the GPA ladder. “It has been a long steady fight,” she says, “but it’s all in good fun.” However, like most high achievers, Nicole gets upset if she receives a B on a test or paper, but her parents do not.

“My parents are like ‘you are doing the best you can,’” Nicole says resting her hand on her cheek during a recent interview.. “Love them.”

Nicole says attending Northwest was one the best decisions she has ever made. “She is one of the best ambassadors for the school,” Lee says. Nicole is active in all aspects of the school, including student council, National Honor Society, and choir. She has won numerous community service awards and was one of five in the nation to be selected for the National Youth Advisory Council.

Nicole is now eager to show the Burmese family all the “simple things we take for granted” around Omaha—“like the mall and zoo,” she says.

“Nicole has the heart to help…to make a better world,” her mother says proudly.


Lutheran Family Services

October 30, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Lutheran Family Services President and CEO Ruth Henrichs remembers meeting a young man a year ago who had a tattoo on his lower arm that read “Born to Lose.” When she asked him about it, he told her that life had always been against him—that he had been “born to lose.” That was, of course, until he came to LFS, he said.

“There are lots of people who come to LFS on a daily basis who have this sort of invisible tattoo on their hearts that says ‘Born to Lose,’” Henrichs says. “I want them to leave here after receiving help with a different invisible tattoo.”

Strengthening the individual, the family, and the community is how LFS intends to change those heart tattoos. And that’s exactly the mission the organization has followed since its humble beginnings in 1892.

“When you work somewhere like LFS, no matter how difficult the day is, you always go home knowing that someone’s life was changed because you came to work.” —Ruth Henrichs

Over its many years within the Omaha community, LFS has grown into a faith-based nonprofit providing multiple services in over 30 locations across Nebraska, Iowa, and Kansas to over 35,000 individuals annually regardless of age, race, religion, or income. In other words, just because it’s called Lutheran Family Services doesn’t mean you have to be Lutheran to receive aid.

Mental health counseling, sexual abuse treatment, substance abuse treatment, foster care, adoption, pregnancy counseling, family support services, immigrant and refugee services—they do it all and more for people 
in need.

“When you work somewhere like LFS, no matter how difficult the day is, you always go home knowing that someone’s life was changed because you came to work,” says Henrichs, who worked as a pregnancy and adoption counselor, a marriage and family therapist, and Interim CEO with LFS before she became its leader in 1985.

She believes LFS’ work is part of the fabric of the community. For many years, nonprofits used to work alone, focusing only on their own work. Now, however, many organizations, including LFS, embrace the idea of uniting their limited resources with other organizations’ limited resources to provide a bigger impact.

“There’s a rich diversity of nonprofits in the Omaha community, and we all offer difference services. Together, we have a collective impact. It’s important that we all work cooperatively so that our community can be strong. Communities are only as strong as their weakest link. Everyone has problems in life. Sometimes, those problems are so great that people need the help of the community. When the community helps those people, it strengthens the community as a whole.”

Nancy K. Johnson, volunteer and president of LFS’ Forever Families Guild, agrees. “Children are the future, as cliché as it sounds,” she says. “If, for example, we can get in there and help a single parent learn to be a better parent, that trickles down into our community to make it stronger.”

“We work with families and children to increase academic performance and help with obstacles, like attendance, to make sure the students are doing well with their education.” —Nellie Beyan

Johnson, who also works in real estate as the senior vice president of CBRE-MEGA, was introduced to LFS about 15 years ago through Adoption Links Worldwide, which later aligned with LFS. She began attending fundraising events for the organization and met Cheryl Murray, who was the executive director of Adoption Links at that time. “I really admire Cheryl a lot. She’s passionate and dedicated to the cause of helping young women and children. She’s one of those kinds of gals that you can’t say no to,” she laughs.

Clearly, Johnson couldn’t say no to Murray, now a development officer and guild liaison for LFS, because she was drawn into more volunteer work with LFS. “I started volunteering more for them, and I became the president for LFS’ Forever Families [Guild].”

As the guild president, Johnson works to increase fundraising and gain more exposure through other organizations. “There’s an organization called CREW (Commercial Real Estate Women) that I’ve been involved with before through my real estate work. So I mentioned the Forever Families Guild to them, and they’ve picked the guild up as their philanthropy of choice for the next year.

“People are always afraid to volunteer because they think it takes too much time or money, but it really is simple…LFS can do a lot on limited funds and time because the group is so passionate.”

One such passionate supporter is Nellie Beyan, who works as a Family Support Liaison with LFS in the Omaha community and the Omaha Public Schools district.

“We work with families and children to increase academic performance and help with obstacles, like attendance, to make sure the students are doing well with their education,” Beyan says. “OPS has a large population of Burmese refugees [the Karen] that we work with, too.”

Working with refugees and immigrants comes easily for Beyan because she, herself, is an Omaha transplant. She moved in April 2000 from her home country of Liberia to work as an international volunteer with LFS. Later, she enrolled at University of Nebraska-Omaha to get her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work with the help of sponsors Mr. and Mrs. Howard Hawks and Mr. and Mrs. Jeff Alseth.

“I underwent a similar experience and hardships that most non-Americans undergo when they first come to America…I can put myself in their shoes because I know exactly what it’s like to come into a country with a new culture and new way of life, leaving family behind. It’s a difficult thing, the assimilation process. It’s very gradual, but it’s made easier by the available resources.”

“People are always afraid to volunteer because they think it takes too much time or money, but it really is simple.” —Nancy K. Johnson

Beyan likes working with LFS because she feels that the organization is everywhere in the community. “Imagine what Omaha would be like without LFS,” she muses. “I can’t even picture that. Without all that they have to offer, especially for all of the immigrants and refugees, people would be totally lost.”

Understanding just how many people in the community rely on LFS, Henrichs and the Board of Directors are taking major steps to improve LFS’ outreach and work in Omaha.

“Whether we’re talking children’s needs or refugee and immigrant needs, we’ve recently decided our focus in the program development should be primarily on prevention and early intervention,” she explains. “Many services are ‘fire truck’ in that they respond when a crisis happens. We need to become ‘smoke detectors’ and catch issues before they become bigger problems.”

Another improvement? They’ve been at their 24th & Dodge location for more than a decade, and they’ve slowly been acquiring the city block between Dodge and Douglas streets in order to renovate and build more space. “Many that we serve are in the heart of the city,” Henrichs says. “We’re going to stay right here.”

And here is exactly where the community wants them to stay.

Lutheran Family Services will host their annual Wicker & Wine® Basket Auction fundraiser on Nov. 7 at Mid-America Center (One Arena Way) in Council Bluffs, Iowa, from 5-7:30 p.m. Tickets are $40. For more information, visit lfsneb.org or call 402-342-7038.