Research combined by Eh M., Eh Tha Y., Kleh S., Lwe H., Trey N., Colette A., & Virginia H.
The city of Omaha has an established history of white ethnic immigration, but the stories of recent immigrants and refugees remains largely unknown. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, foreign born people make up just over ten percent of Omaha’s population. Similarly, data from the Pew Center for Research states that Nebraska takes in more refugees per capita than any other state in the U.S. In recent decades, while Latinos have been the fastest-growing segment of the immigrant population, people from Southeast Asia and Vietnam, the former Soviet Union, Bosnia, the Middle East and Africa have also settled in our communities, dramatically changing the complexion of Nebraska. In Omaha, some of the largest refugee groups come from Sudan, Somalia, Nepal, Burma, Thailand and Bhutan.
Just as earlier immigrants have done, new Americans bring with them traditional culture, such as language, food, clothing, music and religion. The Joslyn Art Museum's World Refugee Day, Benson's New American Arts Festival and Afromaha’s African Cultural Festival are events intended to highlight new refugee and immigrant cultures and communities and to encourage established Omaha residents to learn more about their new American neighbors.
Music is a particularly powerful way that new immigrant and refugee communities strive to maintain their ethnic identity, preserve connections to their countries of origin and build a sense of community within the larger American society.This project reinforced our belief that music is a universal language. Amid a variety of differences including, language, experience, and religion, music speaks to universal human experiences, trials and aspirations. Even though many of the new groups in Omaha are still planting roots in our city, the sounds of New Americans are growing, and transforming Omaha in diverse ways. We have enjoyed interviewing these refugee and immigrant musicians and learning about their cultures, music and the refugee experience. We recommend that everyone take a listen and learn more about one another.
Published during the Summer of 2018
History in the Making, is about the music of refugees and new Americans. This documentary explores the connection between music and culture. The documentary can also be viewed on YouTube.
Refugees are people who have been forced to leave their countries due to war, violence or persecution because of their ethnicity, religion, or political affiliation. While Omaha has an established history of being home to a variety of immigrants, refugee history is not as prevalent. After the Vietnam War, Nebraska began accepting refugees, and has grown to accept more refugees per capita than any other state. Five countries provide two thirds of refugees resettled globally, those countries being Syria, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Somalia and Myanmar (Burma). Unlike immigrants, refugees have been unwillingly relocated from their homes and communities and have little to no input on where they will be placed once granted refugee status. Some refugees, such as those from Burma, have spent years living in refugee camps.
Since its incorporation in 1857, Omaha has been a community of immigrants. The Homestead Act of 1862 lured people to the territory with the promise of free land, but many settled into towns and cities, such as Omaha. The end of 19th Century ushered in another increase in white European immigrants as people came to Omaha for industrial jobs in the meat packing industry, brick manufacturing, and occupational opportunities with the railroad. The early 20th century Omaha witnessed the Great migration, the occurrence of African American families from the south migrating North in search of equality and better living conditions. Immigrants to Omaha in the late 20th century largely originated from Latin America, and often moved to the same neighborhoods that early migrants had inhabited.
The number of people accepted as refugees is influenced by the current political climate and administration's policies, rarely is the policy impacted by the number of refugee applications. 68.5 million people worldwide were forcibly displaced by the end of 2017, a 2.9 million people increase from the previous year. Despite the increasing number of refugees, the amount accepted into the United States has decreased dramatically. President Barack Obama set the refugee ceiling at 110,000 for 2017, however, only 53,000 were accepted under the Trump administration. This year (2018), Trump set the ceiling at 45,000, the lowest it has been in 30 years. In 2016, Nebraska became the leader in resettling the most refugees per capita with 76 refugees per 100,000 residents. Some of these refugees came from Syria, which raised concern for Nebraska officials. Governor Pete Ricketts in 2016 encouraged stronger screening process which resulted in the number of refugees resettled in Nebraska dramatically decreasing in 2017. The number was expected to be 4 in November and 20 to 30 total from November to March. This is in part due to Trump’s travel ban from Venezuela, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, Chad, Iran, North Korea, and Syria.
African refugees often find safety in other African countries, but neighboring African countries struggle to accommodate the millions of refugees in need of homes. Countries such as Ghana and Uganda are taking in refugees from other countries, but the political and economic situation in South Sudan caused by an ongoing civil war has created more than two million refugees. The sheer volume of refugees in Africa has created a refugee crisis, and while few refugees make it to America, many of those that do, end up in Omaha. Omaha is the home of the largest South Sudanese population outside of Africa.
Omaha has the largest and fastest-growing Karen population in the United States due to reunion with families and employment opportunities. The Karen are an ethnic group from Burma and Thailand who have been subject to ethnic cleansing and persecution from the Burmese government. After being relocated to refugee camps in Thailand, they have been resettled in Nebraska. There are currently 5,500 Karen living in Omaha today.
Refugees enter the U.S. from all around the globe and bring aspects of their cultures with them. Immigrant and refugee music influences American music at every level, from the sounds we hear in our cities and communities to the music we hear on the national radio stations. The instruments, singing styles, scales and other aspects of music may differ, but even with a language barrier, humans can sense the emotion and intent of music. The history of the Karen people is passed down through sung poetry. Music is essential for, not only the Karen, but also other cultures to maintain their identity and feel a sense of unity within their new communities. A universal way to connect with one another, music provides an avenue for established community members to gain a deeper understanding of the refugee populations. As Omaha continues to welcome refugees, New American sounds will continue to grow and expand in our community.
Bhalla, Nita. U.N. Sounds Alarm on South Sudan as Africa's Biggest Refugee Crisis... Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 1 Feb. 2018.
Grace, Erin. Nebraska's Recent Refugee Resettlement Numbers Are 'as Bad as It Can Get,' Official Says. But Plenty of Work Remains. Omaha.com, 1 Nov. 2017.
Karen Society of Nebraska, Inc. Karen Society of Nebraska.
Nohr, Emily. A Welcoming State': Nebraska Led the Nation in Resettling Most Refugees per Capita in the Last Year. Omaha.com, 9 Dec. 2016.
Refugee Statistics. Refugee Crisis in Yemen: Aid, Statistics and News | USA for UNHCR.
South Sudan Refugee Crisis: Aid, Statistics and News. Refugee Crisis in Yemen: Aid, Statistics and News | USA for UNHCR.
United Nations. Refugees. UNHCR.