OPS supports growing refugee, migrant population

By

November 6th, 2013

Omaha, NE — Nearly 70,000 refugees from 65 countries have been admitted for permanent resettlement in the United States for fiscal year 2013, according to the Refugee Processing Center. Since 2000, 6,900 refugees have resettled in Nebraska, many of whom are in need of an education. Omaha Public Schools have answered the call for students and their parents.

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‘Optimal education for refugee students’

Susan Mayberger, coordinator of the migrant and refugee education programs for OPS, said there are more than 7,000 students who qualify for the English as a Second Language program. She said there are nearly 100 different languages spoken by OPS students.

Hanifa Selemani and her daughter use the ESL program offered by OPS. (Photo Courtesy KVNO News)

Hanifa Selemani and her daughter use the ESL program offered by OPS.
(Photo Courtesy KVNO News)

“We do our very best to provide optimal education for these students. Our philosophy statement says it’s our goal to provide them specialized instruction in reading, writing, speaking and English,” Mayberger said.

She said it is very important for parents to enroll their children in school as soon as possible because children and teenagers could have been out of school for an extended amount of time already.

These students are given assessments to determine their educational needs before being placed in a school. Elementary students are generally assigned to an ESL teacher in addition to their regular classroom instruction. Middle school and high school students who can’t read and write at a second grade level in their first language are placed in the Teen Literacy Center.

Hanifa Selemani  migrated to Omaha four years ago from California by way of the Republic of Congo with her husband and daughter. She now has a 10 month old and her eldest daughter, Rosine is a fourth grader at Benson West Elementary School.

“Omaha Public School help my daughter different things too. Migrant program is important for my daughter and tutoring. It help my daughter to know how she can read and writing so right now she has tutoring after class and reading and writing after class,” Selemani said.

Federal funding is used to host afterschool programs, and classes are also held Saturdays at Franklin Elementary School for about 300 K-12 students. A citizenship class and a conversational ESL class are held for about 100 students and their parents at Yates every Saturday. Students also have the opportunity to earn credits during spring break and summer vacation.

Theodora Kyle said the language barrier is the biggest challenge in teaching a classroom full of students whose first languages are Nepali, Karen and Karenee. But year after year, the four and five year olds never fail to amaze Kyle.

Nura Guleid(background)  teaches citizenship classes at Yates. Theodora Kyle teaches pre-school as part of the migrant-refugee program. (Photo Courtesy KVNO News)

Nura Guleid(background) teaches citizenship classes at Yates. Theodora Kyle teaches pre-school as part of the migrant-refugee program. (Photo Courtesy KVNO News)

“I see a tremendous amount of growth with them. They learn their letters, shapes, colors and how to count,” Kyle said. “They learn how to follow the routine and they know what the expectation is and what’s going to happen next. They’re more comfortable and excited to learn.”

‘From Refugee Camps to Opportunities’

The support shown by the staff at Yates may be the biggest testament for families like Bhim Gurung, a Bhutanese Bilingual Liaison for OPS. Gurung, his parents and 10 siblings were evicted from Bhutan, a small country that shares borders with China and India, in 1991. He was just six-years old at the time.

“I came here to Omaha in 2009 February. When I came I was the second family to come here from my community,”Gurung said. “My family became good at speaking English. I’ve been helping with this community from 2009 until now. Finally I got the opportunity to serve in a school district. This is how I’m getting more of an opportunity to help Bhutanese refugees who are living in Omaha.”

Bhim Gurung and his family have made the most of their time in Omaha with the help of Yates Community Center. (Photo Courtesy KVNO News)

Bhim Gurung and his family have made the most of their time in Omaha with the help of Yates Community Center.
(Photo Courtesy KVNO News)

Gurung said his family didn’t have anything when they arrived at the refugee camp. Living quarters were close together, food was scarce and school was nothing like what he has witnessed in the United States. Students of all ages learned in the same classroom, according to Gurung.

“When I started in school it was under a tree. We didn’t have a school building for three years and then we got a school building. We were very, very excited. It was made of bamboo and plastics,”Gurung said.

As a bilingual liaison, Gurung is the point of contact between teachers, students and their parents. An opportunity like this is Gurung’s way of helping Bhutanese refugees resettle in the city.

“I feel very happy because since I was young I was wishing to help those poor and weak people, people with little source of opportunity because I have been through that situation,” Gurung said. “When I came here it was really tough for me because American life is really a new life for me. And that’s what they’re experiencing right now. It’s been very easy for me to explain how the life goes here.”

‘An Influx’

Currently, there are nearly 2,500 Bhutanese refugees in Omaha. Mayberger said Omaha began experiencing an influx of refugees 15 years ago. Refugees and migrants from Sudan, Somalia and Burma have resettled in Omaha.

According to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, 764 refugees resettled in Nebraska in 2012. Out of that population, 393 were from Burma, 269 were from Bhutan, 55 were from Iraq and 25 were from Somalia.

“Omaha is kind of a popular place for a variety of reasons. We’ve had low unemployment compared to the rest of the country. There has been work here for refugees. We also have a low cost of living and refugees also tell me that they like the educational opportunities here,” Mayberger said.

For Gurung and his family, Omaha and Yates have meant the difference between despair and prosperity. Although, his parents are still in Nepal, his six brothers have resettled in Omaha and started businesses selling Nepali goods and groceries. They are also preparing for the arrival of three of their sisters from Nepal.

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