Tag Archives: Sudan

Fighting Ebola

March 9, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Originally published in Spring 2015 B2B Magazine

Ten years ago, Ebola was known, but not feared. Just 17 people were infected with the virus in 2004, all in the Sudan. Seven of them died.

That same year, PRIMUS Sterilizer Company in Omaha completed a project that, in 2014, helped the University of Nebraska Medical Center (now called Nebraska Medicine) successfully treat two patients with the virus, putting the center at the forefront of the Ebola battle in the United States.

The fight took place in Nebraska Medicine’s Nebraska Biocontainment Patient Care Unit, designed to provide the first line of treatment for people affected by bio-terrorism or extremely infectious, naturally occurring diseases. It’s the largest facility of its kind in the U.S.

PRIMUS, founded in Omaha in 1990, provided the facility with its sterilization unit. President Michael Douglas is proud of the role his company played in the fight against Ebola here, though he’s cautious about overstating the effort.

“We did help, but we don’t want to overplay our help in the grand scheme,” Douglas says. “We were fortunate enough to have our sterilizer there. We are proud of being in Omaha and proud of the success they had at the hospital. They’re just outstanding people and considered the best in the world right now.”

Still, Douglas concedes, the PRIMUS equipment used was “a piece of the puzzle” in the secure, air-locked facility.

For the facility, PRIMUS built a double-door sterilizer that is 20 inches wide, 20 inches high, and 38 inches long. Material used during the treatment of Ebola-infected patients was put into one end of the chamber, sterilized by a process involving heat, pressure, and steam, then pulled out the other door completely sterile. Those materials—protective clothing, instruments, tools, food trays, etc.—then were incinerated.

If anything could have been improved, it might be that the sterilization chamber was bigger.

“They didn’t anticipate the amount of materials that had to be sterilized,” Douglas says. “It was a surprise even to them. There were 30 to 40 people being used in the treatment of one Ebola patient. That can generate a lot of protective clothing waste and other general hospital waste.

“I think it’s an evolutionary thing. Everybody is learning about it—how to treat it, what generates survival rates. There’s all sorts of learning, including disposal of all these materials and how to generate less waste.”

That PRIMUS was up to the task at providing cutting-edge equipment for such a dangerous health risk is no surprise. Since being formed 25 years ago, originally as Phoenix Medical Services, it has grown to become the industry’s leading U.S. manufacturer with more than 1,000 clients in 48 states and 23 foreign countries. That includes Stanford University, Seoul National University in Korea, Schering-Plough and, most recently, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration.

PRIMUS has 54 employees, one third in Omaha and the rest in Great Bend, Kansas, where its equipment is custom-manufactured in a certified pressure-vessel factory. PRIMUS serves four vertical markets: healthcare (hospitals, dental offices, surgery centers, etc.); laboratory research (food companies such as Cargill and Tyson Foods); bio-pharmaceuticals (Novartis, Merck); and vivaria (animal research facilities).

Douglas takes pride in the many ways PRIMUS equipment is being used. That includes for humanitarian efforts around the world in places such as Kenya, New Guinea, and elsewhere. A foundation started by Billy Graham is among the clients.

“It’s quite interesting to sell into these countries and see what these sterilizers are used for,” Douglas says. “We like to think they’re saving lives throughout the world.”

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On the Job

July 14, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

A program designed to help special-needs youth learn valuable job skills has had some unexpected results. In some cases, the students involved with Project SEARCH at two area Embassy Suites have become the teachers.

According to Embassy Suites La Vista director of sales, David Scott, one program participant is even teaching a fellow hotel employee—who is a political refugee from Sudan—how to speak English.

“Brian is teaching Cleo English and Cleo is teaching Brian housekeeping skills,” Scott says. “You just get out of the way and let it happen.”

In March, Embassy Suites Old Market won the Make a Difference Endowment Award issued by Hilton Worldwide. Embassy Suites La Vista won the same award last year.

Both were honored for their Project SEARCH initiatives, an intensive program that pairs hotel staff with area high school students and others age 18 to 21 with special needs, teaching them job-ready skills.

“The goal is to find meaningful employment for these individuals,” Scott says.
Starting in August, students work an average of five hours a day during three 10-week rotations in different departments. They begin with classes related to the work they’ll be doing and then engage in hands-on experience in areas including housekeeping, banquet kitchen, banquet set-up, and restaurant areas. The program continues until graduation in May.

Scott is getting some top-notch job recruits in the process. He points to Kelly, who had such an infectious smile and attitude that he asked her to greet guests in the complimentary breakfast area. “I thought it would be great for guests and I thought it would be great for her,” Scott says. But, she passed—for now—saying she wanted to stay in housekeeping because she liked cleaning so much.

Then there’s Connor. One day, food had arrived by truck and it was all-hands-on-deck so staff could get the food into the freezer. They couldn’t find Connor—he was already at working putting it away on his own.

Since being developed at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, Project SEARCH has expanded to 275 sites across the country and overseas, including hospitals, retirement centers, banks, zoos and universities. For now, the two Embassy Suites locations are the only Project SEARCH sites in the Omaha area.

The collaboration began in 2012 at the suggestion of the Papillion-La Vista School District. The district provides a special needs teacher and job coaches. Embassy Suites Old Market partners with Omaha Public Schools.

Seven students participated at Embassy Suites La Vista last year and 10 participated this year. The Old Market location had six students its first year. Both hotels expect 10 students in their 2014-15 classes.

“The students are totally involved, totally experiencing the new job field as opposed to isolation on a campus or school, or even coming in for a day and going back,” Scott says. “They live and breathe the organization. They learn side-by-side as interns doing the job on the job.”

Staff members teach classes and assist as job aides. They also are paired with students as one-on-one mentors. Scott estimates Embassy Suites staff have put more than 4,000 hours into Project SEARCH.

The program works. Four interns at Embassy Suites La Vista found jobs last year and up to seven are expected to this year. That’s typical with Project SEARCH. Employment for special needs students averages 15 percent nationally, Scott says. The national rate for those who complete a Project SEARCH program is 60 percent. For those completing a Project SEARCH program in Nebraska it’s 86 percent.

And success sometimes goes beyond finding gainful employment. Scott points to Bruce, a student from the first class who now is planning to move into his own apartment. At the informational meeting for the 2014 class, Scott recalls a parent saying it was the first time she’d felt a sense of future for her son. That he would become a contributor to his community rather than a “burden to the system.”

“I’m elated with these kids,” Scott says. “I see these kids as inspiring.”

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.

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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.”

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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.

Gesu and Brother Mike

April 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Jesuit brother Mike Wilmot prefers his actions to speak for him more than his words. Lately, those actions have helped put several first-time homebuyers in new houses.

After years of coaching and teaching at Omaha Creighton Prep, then doing humanitarian missionary work in Sudan, he’s made North Omaha his ministry base. He helped build Jesuit Middle School and for more than a decade, he’s directed Gesu Housing, a nonprofit he founded that builds affordable new homes in high-poverty northeast Omaha.

Gesu helps him fulfill a Jesuit credo of finding God in all things. He gravitated to the Society of Jesus as a youth in his native Milwaukee.

“I got to know many Jesuits who were very influential in my life,” he says. “They were friendly, they were happy, I admired them, and then I kind of said, ‘Well, maybe that’s what I should do.’ In anything that any of us do, we want to make the world a better place to live in by spreading the kingdom of God and bringing that to all people, and housing-shelter is one of the ways you can do that.”

“Everybody should have a decent place to live.” – Brother Mike Wilmot

Wilmot’s work in Sudan impressed upon him the difference a suitable dwelling can make in people’s lives. Back in America, he realized many urban residents lack a home of their own.

“Everybody should have a decent place to live,” he says, “but it’s not the case, at least for a lot of people it isn’t. It’s proven that kids that grow up in a house [that] their family owns are much better off.” He says kids and families benefit from the stability home ownership provides.

Enter Gesu (Italian for Jesus) as a provider of quality, affordable houses in a working-poor area beset by distressed homes and vacant lots. Gesu mostly does in-fill on empty lots, thus turning neighborhood eyesores into assets. Wilmot lives with fellow Jesuits in the Clifton Hills neighborhood Gesu builds in.

He’s recruited former Prep students as key team members. Dale Barr, Jr., grew up in Clifton Hills and has gone from volunteer painter to board member to board president to paid general manager. Dan Hall, whose Hallmarq Homes is the general contractor for Gesu, played ball for Wilmot.

“It’s rewarding work,” says Barr, whose duties include promoting Gesu and raising funds. A recent direct-mail brochure he sent out netted new supporters. “It’s nice to find people who buy into Brother’s vision,” he says.

“It’s a great thing we’re doing down here,” says Hall. “We’re changing the neighborhood one house at a time.”

Gesu works closely with the city to tap HUD dollars that subsidize half the purchase price of each home and make it possible for low-income buyers to obtain low-interest loans and to assume small mortgage payments. Omaha 100 helps buyers qualify and educates homeowners in maintaining their places.20130114_bs_0907_Web

Both the Peter Kiewit and Sherwood Foundations have supplied major matching grants. Kiewit recently awarded a second $250,000 grant, but that means new funds must be found to match it. A fundraiser is in the works.

Barr says Gesu isn’t as well-known as older nonprofit players in the field, but what it offers is hard to beat. He says Gesu homes represent “a tremendous deal,” adding, “If you’ve got good credit, you’ve got a job, and you qualify for a $70,000 loan, you’re going to get into a brand-new, three-bedroom, energy-efficient house for $600 per month.” It’s why he hopes more people discover Gesu and support it.

“It’s not just people getting houses…It’s improving neighborhoods, it’s diverse people living together,” says Wilmot. “It’s been proven the best neighborhoods are diverse economically, culturally, ethnically. That’s the mission of Gesu Housing—to put people into houses and to make the neighborhoods better neighborhoods. “We’ve got to rebuild the city from the inside out.”

Gesu’s doing its part with 17 homes completed and occupied, five underway, and five new ones scheduled for construction this spring. More support can help build more homes and assist more families to live the ‘American Dream’.

“It’s a great thing we’re doing down here. We’re changing the neighborhood one house at a time.” – Dan Hall, contractor with Hallmarq Homes

“We’ve gone from two houses a year to four, and now our cycle’s five,” says Barr. “That’s gotten us in good graces with the city and HUD because we’re doing it…we’re building them and selling them. We don’t have inventory sitting around.

“We’re making our own footprint with these new houses. We try to be a part of the neighborhood. We ask neighbors what we can do better. We give away hams and turkeys to our homeowners and their neighbors at Christmas.”

Hall says the collective neighborhood is protective about Gesu homes because residents appreciate the investment they represent on their block.

“Neighbors that watch houses for me, I give a gift card. It goes a long way, you know, in establishing a relationship. You get some security out of it. Once you get people involved, if somebody isn’t supposed to be here, they’ll run them off or they’ll call me.”

It’s all about building a community, says Wilmot. “We started on Grant Street, then we went to Burdette, and now we’re going over to Erskine. Little by little…”

One house at a time.

For details about how to support Gesu, visit gesuhousing.com.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.