Michaela Brown

Michaela Brown, the new program director of the resettlement and integration program, stands in front of the Refugee Empowerment Center’s front door in Omaha. The Refugee Empowerment Center has seen recent changes in its branding and mission statement. / Photo by Elizabeth Moran

By Elizabeth Moran 

The new program director of resettlement and integration at Omaha’s Refugee Empowerment Center is ready for the challenge of increasing resettlement numbers and overseeing a growing staff.

The center adopted a new name, developed a new brand and refined its mission in 2015. For the center’s resettlement and placement program, that means more workers hired, more refugees to resettle and more efforts resettling all populations, said Michaela Brown, the new program director.

“It’s promising for Omaha’s future. We’ve hired a few new people like myself,” Brown said. “We’re shaking up things and showing what we’re capable of doing in the future.”

That’s not the only change happening at the center.

This year, the center expects to resettle 325 refugees, a significant increase over the 280 resettled in 2015, Brown said.

“I think we’re ready for it,” she said. “We have great integration services.”

Focus on empowerment 

Formerly the Southern Sudan Community Association, the Refugee Empowerment Center’s new name shows the change happening within the nonprofit organization.

“We haven’t been focusing on just Sudan for many years, and it just wasn’t representing all of our services,” said Brown, who joined the center in February. “And another thing is we wanted to add the word empowerment to the name because that’s what we really focus on doing, and it really separates us from other resettlement agencies in Nebraska.”

The center’s mission is to “resettle refugees, provide programs to assist into their transition, and promote cultural, educational, social and economic development opportunities in their new communities.”  That’s exactly what the resettlement and placement program tries to do through its services and interactions with case workers.

“We’re helping refugees to find their role in our community and feel more connected to where they come from,” Brown said.

Brown manages the staff and oversees the resettlement and extended case management. Within Brown’s resettlement and placement program, growth is the trend.

“We are going through some organizational changes,” Brown said. “We’re growing. Our resettlement case workers team is growing.”

The resettlement process

The program assists refugees for the first 90 days after their arrival, much like other resettlement agencies. The refugees are given services such as housing, assistance in finding a job, help with Social Security applications and $1,125 to last them for three months.

“What we do is a social service,” said Netra Gurung, a resettlement case worker. “The process is that we have to do everything from picking them up at the airport to 90 days until they get self sufficient.”

Netra Gurung

Netra Gurung, a Bhutanese caseworker, sits at his desk at the Refugee Empowerment Center. Gurung has worked as a case worker there for almost four years. / Photo by Elizabeth Moran

The case workers see that many refugees face problems when they come to the U.S.

“Most of the arrivals have problems,” Gurung said. “The biggest one is the language problem. Those who can’t speak English are scared to talk to people, ask questions, or even go outside of the house.”

Transportation issues pose another obstacle for new arrivals.

“They don’t have transportation here and are scared to use public transportation,” Gurung said.

Brown’s department has five case workers. In addition, the program gained two part-time employees, including a housing coordinator who specializes in finding appropriate housing and furniture for incoming refugees.

Brown’s travels, cultural interests

Brown’s seven years of experience interacting with other cultures led her to be interested in a position at the center.

After graduating from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Brown went to Peru for a volunteer internship in a rural mountain community’s after-school program.

She has since lived in Ghana, Swaziland, Seattle and San Francisco and spent some time in South Africa. She estimates that she’s lived in 12 cities in the past five years.

“I have a dreamer spirit. I was wanting to know more about myself and the world.”

She said skills she learned as part of her advertising and public relations major — problem solving, working with people and creativity — has helped in her current job. She oversees the reporting and compliance with federal government contracts, coordinates the scheduling for the core services, and solves any issues that may arise with R&P cases.

The benefit of case workers 

All five case workers are refugees themselves; three from Myanmar (formerly Burma) and two from Bhutan.

“So what we’ve done, our business model is to make sure we can provide opportunities for people to help out if they want to after they’ve been resettled here,” Brown said. “And it really makes sense especially when we’re resettling people from the countries we don’t have the language capacity to serve.”

Gurung came to the U.S. on Aug. 6, 2010, after 18 years in a refugee camp in Nepal. He became interested in working at the agency after he spent time volunteering.

“I came as a refugee. Before, I was totally against people to do something like that,” he said. “But I started relating to them and translating English to Nepali for them. I like working for the organization here because I help with the new arrivals and community of people. I bridge them.”

Mary Hei, who came from Myanmar, is working with families from Myanmar, Thailand and Malaysia. Hei resettled in the U.S. in 2007 after growing up in a refugee camp on the border of Thailand for 24 years.

“For me, I didn’t trust my own government,” she said. “There’s lots of war with people fighting all the time in my hometown. If you’re unlucky, women are captured by Burmese soldiers there and raped.”

She fled her home to a refugee camp in Thailand, where she learned to speak English and became an interpreter for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

“In the camp, we had a leader. I could read and write some English, so he picked me to help,” she said.

Hei found refuge in the U.S. with her husband and daughter. Hei resettled through the center, where her case worker encouraged her to become one too. Now, she uses her interpreting and language skills to help communicate with new arrivals in her job as a case worker.

“That’s why we have three Burmese case workers and two Bhutanese case workers because for a time, we were resettling a lot of those populations,” Brown said.

This number has been growing some in the past few years with a noticeable increase in African populations coming to Nebraska, especially from Sudan and Somalia.

“We have a couple of interpreters who serve as case aids occasionally when we do have more refugees coming from a population we don’t normally see,” Brown said.

Focusing on key questions

Since Brown took over the position of program director in February, she has been focusing on answering some key questions to improve her department.

She said the first question is, “What are the bottlenecks within R&P that are causing blockage or congestion?” The other is, “What isn’t working?” And, she said, the overarching question is, “Are we getting the most important things done efficiently and effectively?”

So she’s focusing on things like work flow, working as a team, creating boundaries, sticking to her job of overseeing and effectively communicating with her team.

“I’ve learned a lot,” Brown said. “But I’m still learning.”