By Cara Wilwerding and Damien Croghan
Walking through the doors of the Yates School, a visitor first sees a book at the sign-in desk. Each page displays a portrait of someone representing one of more than 30 refugee communities in Omaha, accompanied by the word “welcome” in their native tongue.
Located in the Midtown area of Omaha, the Yates School gives immigrants and refugees a safe, inclusive place to learn English and foster a sense of community. Boasting an average daily attendance of about 200 people, the school also offers students classes in sewing and citizenship and an opportunity to enter their children in the K-12 program. The center also functions as a food pantry and clothing donation center.
The site, which once served as an Omaha Public Schools elementary school, was transformed into the Yates School four years ago. It’s financed through the
OPS migrant program and a state refugee grant, funds that diminished after the migrant program experienced a $1 million budget cut this year. Lutheran Family Services helps find volunteer teachers, but program director Veronica Hill said class sizes are still expanding rapidly with no extra staff. She noted that 667 people were enrolled in a Yates School program last year.
“I think that shows that there’s a huge need in our community,” she said. “We really want to strengthen the families
because when they come here they’re so vulnerable.”
Because refugees are supposed to be self-sufficient after 90 days, Hill said, the majority of students don’t stay long. Younger students or students with families to care for are more concerned with finding a job.
“Most people don’t have the luxury of attending school forever,” she said.
One current student, Ignacio Gomez, only recently began attending the Yates School, despite the fact that he’s already been in the United States for eight years. While his English skills are better than many students’ at the center, Gomez wants to continue to improve so he can pass an admissions test for Metropolitan Community College. He said he’d like to get back into architecture, his line of work before he move to the U.S. from Mexico City.
“I really want to be a better person, graduate college and find a good job,” Gomez said. “I don’t want to stay in the house and do nothing. I think I lost too much time.”
One of Gomez’s biggest motivators is his 12-year-old son, who still lives with his mother in Mexico City. While Gomez hasn’t seen his son in eight years, he said they talk on the phone often.
“I miss him,” Gomez said. “When I’m with my nieces and nephews, I really enjoy them, seeing them smile and playing. Before I just lived by myself. Now it’s a family.”
Gomez said he wants to see his son soon and would also like to have more children in the future. But right now, he’s focusing on improving himself.
The classrooms and teachers at the Yates School remind him of his past.
“I really like this school, learning and meeting new people,” Gomez said. “If you want to be here, you want to be happy and enjoy every day.”
The Yates School, which primarily helps refugees learn to speak English proficiently, strives to build meaningful relationships as well. Some students, like Hamifa Selemani, who came here from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, have found a sense of community lost after leaving their home countries.
“Congo is my country,” she said. “Congo is fighting all the time. We left because of the fighting. They kill my family. When they did that, I say, ‘I can’t stay here.’”
Selemani fled the Congo, whose civil war has led to the deaths of at least 3 million people, with only family her husband and daughter. The rest of her relatives were killed in the war, considered to be the deadliest war fought on the African continent, and now going for more than two decades.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo is rich in gold and other natural resources. Nicknamed Africa’s world war by some, the conflict stems from the conflict between the government—supported by Angola, Namibia, and Zimbabwe—and rebel groups supported by Uganda and Rwanda. All are competing for wealth in the mineral-rich country.
Selemani left the Congo after family members were killed.
“Killed by knife, killed by gun. They shoot them,” she said.
She misses her house and her favorite food, a Congolese staple called fufu. “For me, I miss everything.”
After leaving the Congo, Selemani moved around a lot, living in a number of refugee camps. She learned new languages to communicate, to survive. Now Selamani speaks many languages, including French, Swahili, Lingala, Kinganda, Kichuluwa, Zambian and Zimbabwean.
She arrived in the U.S. on Jan. 22, 2010, after spending five years in Tanzania. She first settled in San Jose, Calif., but learned of Omaha because her husband had a friend who had moved here. Her family arrived in Omaha that Decenber, and has been there since. More affordable housing and better employment opportunities have given her and her family a reason to stay.
“I didn’t feel well because I didn’t have a job,” Selemani said. “I wanted to get a job and a better life.”
“Here is easy to live. In California, I didn’t have a job, I can’t pay for my house. We lived in a one-bedroom house, $1,500 a month. Everything was very difficult. But here, it’s easy to get whatever you want.”
In Omaha, she has found, everything is easier. The Yates School is a big part of why she feels that way. “I feel comfortable to know this school. I have friends at Yates. I like it here.”
Although Selemani only knows of four other Congolese families in Omaha, the Yates School keeps her from feeling
isolated. She has made many friends here, and she enjoys the classes as well as the sense of belonging she’s attained.
“I like Yates because they help me to know more English and to know how to be in contact with other people.”
In addition to the students, the teachers also feel accepted in the Yate School’s tight knit community.
Amina Mejdoubi, who came originally from Morocco, has been teaching at Yates School for three years and currently teaches two adult ESL courses.
“Because I’m an immigrant myself, they can relate to me,” she explained.
Mejdoubi is now an Arabic and French translator working in Omaha Public Schools. She uses her success learning English to encourage her students, some of whom have no previous experience with the language.
“If I can teach English for a living, [recent immigrants and refugees] can learn to speak fluently,” she said.
Mejdoubi draws from her own struggles in adapting to American culture and speaking English to help her students learn more effectively. Initially working in an Omaha high school, Mejdoubi learned of the Yates School through a former coworker, and has never looked back.
“When I tried, I just fell in love with adult ESL,” Mejdoubi said. “I feel like I’m traveling to a new country every day … It’s more than a job for me. It fulfills me personally and professionally.”