The Mayor’s Corner: Mayor Jim Suttle, Omaha, NE

Nebraska: “Welcome to the Good Life”
by Mayor Jim Suttle, City of Omaha

On April 3, 2012, I welcomed some of the city’s newest residents… eleven Bhutanese refugees arriving from a camp in Nepal.  I welcomed them to Omaha, told them that I am glad they were here, and that I wanted to follow up with them in one year to see how they’ve progressed. 
The airport reception was coordinated through Lutheran Family Services’ Refugee Services, to emphasize not only that we welcome diversity, but that refugees bolster the city’s economy.

“Welcome to the Good Life” is a billboard sign you see as you drive into Omaha via interstate I-80, and it is no wonder why many refugees have decided to make Nebraska home.  Omaha has become a destination of choice for many immigrants and secondary migrant refugees due to its low cost of living, relatively low unemployment, strong job market, and good schools.  Omaha, founded in 1854, has a rich history of immigrants, first linked to European immigration; but in more recent decades we have seen a surge in Latino immigrants and refugees from Somalia, Burma, Bhutan, and others.  Nebraska’s foreign-born population increased 31 percent from 2000 to 2008.  In addition, Omaha is home to the largest Sudanese population in the country.

We recognize that refugees in Omaha have faced extreme challenges in obtaining economic self-sufficiency.  As a city, we often struggle with language and cultural barriers, finding affordable and decent housing, and often times employment for refugees.

However, we choose to focus on what we can do, stay positive, and work together to make Omaha a place where refugees can prosper and contribute their unique experiences to our community. 

My office, other city departments, and community partners have worked closely with Omaha’s two refugee resettlement organizations: Lutheran Family Services and Southern Sudan Community Association. Through collaborative approaches and inclusive practices, Omaha has accomplished many great things that improve the quality of life of Omaha residents.

The Refugee Task Force is a collaborative effort among city and state representatives as well as service providers to address the refugee and resettlement issues in Omaha. The objectives are to share information and resources and to strengthen existing linkages among local service providers that serve refugees.  The task force consists of subcommittees to address education, housing and health, employment and transportation, and their meetings provide a space to discuss the new arrivals into Omaha.

One of the successes to come from the Refugee Task Force was the birth of the Refugee Leadership Academy.  The Academy teaches leadership skills to refugees from Bhutan, Burma, Somalia, and Sudan on various topics such as landlord rights, medical resources, and employee rights and responsibilities.  The leaders then disseminate information to their respective communities and empower them to be engaged. 

In May, the Refugee Task Force and the city of Omaha Human Rights and Relations Department, along with other community partners, hosted a Refugee Forum in order to bring together various members of the refugee community to interact with city officials.  The forum primarily consisted of education for city officials on the refugee process, and the struggles refugees face in order to create further dialogue and partnerships. 

Due to our large Sudanese population, Omaha served as one of few cities to host as a polling site in January 2011, for Sudanese natives to vote in a critical referendum to stop the bloody civil war in Sudan and decide if Southern Sudan would split from North and form its own independent country. 

This June, Omaha celebrated World Refugee Day in conjunction with International World Refugee Day.  The event featured a parade of flags, singing of national anthems, dance performances, a Naturalization ceremony, children’s carnival and health fair, education panelists, and a fashion show.

As Mayor of Omaha, I am proud of the efforts that we have made collectively to integrate refugees to Omaha and welcome them to “the Good Life”.