The award winners for resilience and service to the community receive their awards at the International Women’s Day event. Christine Ross is pictured third from the right in her traditional gomesi outfit, a colorful floor-length dress. / Photo by Elizabeth Moran

By Elizabeth Moran

Christine Ross’ passion for women’s rights and support for other women began during her stay in a refugee camp in Kenya.

Ross, a South Sudanese refugee, spent her time in the refugee camp talking with many women and forging relationships in three different camps. United Nations officials noticed her efforts and asked her to help the 8,000 women in the camp connect and talk.  One of the first things she did was explain a new cooking method that conserved firewood so the women didn’t have to venture into the forests, where they were vulnerable to capture by Somali rebels.

When Ross came to the United States in 1995 with a cousin and her daughter in tow, she continued her passion for helping others by working to strengthen the community of refugee women in Minneapolis. She did the same once she moved to Omaha, where she helped create an International Women’s Day event.

Ross and a group of women make the event happen each year as a way to celebrate women and their accomplishments. Ross said she believes women need a space where they can be empowered.

“A lot of women were asking me about it,” she said. “International Women’s Day is a huge thing. They don’t see it here. They thought, ‘Are the American women not proud of being a woman?’ I told them, ‘We can start something.’”

So several years ago, Ross and Linda Duckworth, president of the League of Women Voters of Greater Omaha, came up with the idea of creating a local event.

Attendance doubles 

Now in its third year, the event doubled its attendance this year when about 150 women showed up on March 5 at the Barbara Weitz Community Engagement Center on the University of Nebraska Omaha campus. Representing all ages and many backgrounds, the women laughed, ate, mingled and perused the more than 20 booths representing local and national organizations that surrounded the outer edges of the room.

At one point, Acholi dancers, dressed in bright red and blue outfits, swarmed the room, blowing whistles as music played.  They performed the traditional African dance and then let attendees join in the fun, creating a large circle of women dancing together.

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Traditional Acholi dancers invite event attendees to join in the dance after their performance. / Photo by Elizabeth Moran

For refugee women in particular, International Women’s Day makes them feel more at home and comfortable, Duckworth said.

“It’s welcoming,” she said. “Americans absolutely ignore it, though. We’re unusual in that way. In other countries, people get the whole day off to celebrate International Women’s Day.”

Others agreed about the importance of International Women’s Day to the refugee women.

“This is a big day for women worldwide,” said Michaela Brown, program director of resettlement and integration for the Refugee Empowerment Center. “We should recognize and celebrate triumphs over the years, especially with international populations in Omaha. We should be thanking them for their contributions in Omaha, and we should promote their opportunities for advancement.”

Strong refugee women

Refugee women face many obstacles and adversity.

“Just because women don’t have a degree of don’t have good English, that doesn’t mean they’re not smart or resilient,” said Christa Yoakum, a coordinator for Nebraska is Home and the Immigrants and Communities Program at Nebraska Appleseed in Lincoln.

Refugee women arrive in the U.S. and have to learn how to exist in another culture, but more importantly, they have to remain strong for their families and keep them together.

As a woman refugee herself, Ross wholeheartedly agreed.

“Among the refugee population, men get stressed out and give up,” she said. “Women do a lot of stuff in their families. Women stay strong. They think, ‘What about the children?’ They hang on.”

For Ross, International Women’s Day isn’t the only way she helps her community. She works as Omaha’s community health educator in the Office of Health Disparities and Health Equity, part of the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. In 2012, she created the Refugee Women Organization of Nebraska, which brings women together in various ways.

First year with budget

Ross said the International Women’s Day planning committee members were encouraged by the growth of this year’s International Women’s Day event, which was held on Saturday, March 5, three days before the worldwide observation of the day to take advantage of the weekend. This is the first year the group had a budget to work with for the celebration. About $800 was donated by area organizations, including Lutheran Family Services, the University of Nebraska Omaha and the Refugee Empowerment Center.

And to help boost attendance and help with transportation issues, buses were used this year to shuttle people from Augustana Church and Omaha Public Schools’ Yates Building to UNO.

Each year has meant increased attendance and improvements for the event and team, which is always looking to the future.

“How can we go back and empower these women?” Ross asked. “How will we keep the fire burning a little bit? I feel like the empowerment cannot stop.”

The International Women’s Day planning committee hopes to see the event grow even more.

“I want it to keep growing and get a majority of Nebraska women to get involved,” Ross said. “I want an empowered young generation of women. We need women in leadership positions. We need power and the will to come in this setting. Single families are succeeding because of the women.

“This is important.”