By Ashley Wolff
Eh Paw sits on the floor of a classroom at the Refugee Empowerment Center in Omaha and weaves a scarf. She concentrates on the ins and outs of the yarn on the homemade back-strap loom.
“I want to tell my people’s story,” said Paw, who learned how to weave in the Umphiem refugee camp in Thailand, where art and music were an important medium for storytelling.
Paw, a Karen refugee from Myanmar (Burma), was resettled to Omaha about two years ago through the Refugee Empowerment Center. The center provides resources for incoming refugees, including airport pickups, housing, education, medical appointments and help with employment.
In addition to resources, the center also provides a variety of programs, such as English Language Learners classes, driver’s education classes, art classes and computer classes. A bike program helps refugees with transportation issues and community gardens provide refugees with use of land, tools, seeds and the ability to connect with the community.
The Refugee Empowerment Center began in 1997 under the name Southern Sudan Community Association. Initially, the center was focused primarily on assisting Sudanese refugees with resettlement to Omaha. Over time, it expanded to include refugees from Myanmar, Bhutan, Burundi, Congo, Ethiopia, Liberia and Somalia. In 2015, the newly named Refugee Empowerment Center put into place a strategic plan to redefine its mission to include all refugees.
One of the center’s newest programs is the New American Women’s Alliance, which focuses on providing a forum for refugees to practice their traditions in art and textiles, said Scott Larsen, the art program’s creator.
Larsen, who became the center’s Education and Outreach Coordinator in June 2015, is focusing on growing community-based programming such as the art program.
Larsen noticed an enthusiastic response to providing an open shop with looms, sewing machines, fabrics, yarns and other art materials. Women like Paw have taken the most interest in using this space because for many of them, weaving tools have not been available to them since before living in refugee camps.
“You wouldn’t believe the talent and raw creativity of these women,” Larsen said. “I have heard stories about what they would love to do, but they don’t have the money, access or support. I’m working to change that.”
Arts help refugee’s transition
Tee Ku, 24, is also taking advantage of the space and trying to learn how to weave. As Ku weaves the shuttle of fabric in and out of different threads, she laughs.
“I’m really no good at this,” she said.
Ku also is a Karen refugee from Myanmar. She spent the first 16 years of her life in a Thailand refugee camp. She currently is a student at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and is helping with the center’s English Language Learners classes.
“The hardest part of living here is the difference in culture,” Ku said. “Before you get to know someone, you need to know their culture.”
But many people were not interested in learning about Ku’s culture, she explained. Shortly after her arrival, she began school at Burke High School, where she said she was constantly bullied.
“There were lots of tears,” she said. “People would make fun of my English and would call me Chinese. I had other refugee friends, but I never had an American friend in high school.”
Ku relied on her four siblings, her parents and the Refugee Empowerment Center to get used to the vastly different place Omaha was to her.
This year, the center is expecting about 300 refugees to arrive in Omaha. Larsen wants to have more spaces for refugees to create and have a positive outlet because often times their days are filled with hardships and barriers.
The center sells the refugees’ handmade items at local markets and pop-up shops, including the Gifford Park Market every Friday night throughout the summer. In the future, Larsen envisions moving the New American Women’s Alliance to a bigger space that would have a retail shop in the front and a workshop in the back.
“It not only gives them the opportunity to practice their traditions, but learn how to be entrepreneurs,” Larsen said. “Fully developing a space like this would be the first of its kind.”