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Project welcomes Sudanese to Omaha

By Lisa Schulte
The Catholic Voice

Since 1995, a large number of Sudanese families have come to Omaha to escape war with the hopes of starting new lives. Unfortunately, they come from a tribal culture, and the transition to America has been very difficult. Arriving in this nation unable to read, write or tell time, they face many challenges in adjusting to Western society.

After meeting their need for food, clothing and shelter, a program was developed by the Archdiocese of Omaha to minister to Catholic Sudanese families.

Project Welcome began in 2002 as an emergency response and has grown into a program that provides education and other services for the growing Catholic Sudanese population.

The program was started by Sister Joan Mueller, OSF, a theology professor at Creighton University. Sister Christine Stevenson, OSF, is now providing support for social services.

"Basic managing of everyday life is a challenge for these families," Sister Mueller said. "Without people to help them, people from the Catholic community who they can trust, these families might not be able to function."

Many families assisted

During the past two years, Project Welcome has helped Sudanese families find appropriate housing and jobs and has made sure that children are educated at the proper levels. Currently they work with nine schools in the Omaha area – All Saints, Pinewood, Liberty, Jackson, St. Matthew and King elementary and middle schools, and Bellevue West, Central and South high schools. They cooperate with ESL programs in the Omaha Public Schools and send paraprofessionals to All Saints.

The program offers summer school and two summer camps for children, as well as in-home family tutors who provide one-on-one tutoring once a week. Summer school is held at All Saints School and the summer camps take place in the basement of Immaculate Conception Church. In addition, the program runs a children's fund for children who are at risk of losing housing or who don't have clothing for school or who need special services like glasses, dental services or surgery.

A school supply project for the 50 school-aged children registered in the Project Welcome program helps gather supplies for each student according to the list made by their teacher. Area parishes such as St. Robert Bellarmine and St. Leo have helped in this regard.

Another issue facing Sudanese children is naturalization. It costs $240 to naturalize a child and a child can only be naturalized after one of the parents is naturalized. Many families are too poor to go through the process, Sister Mueller said. The Welcome a Child to America Program was developed to help with the finances, but money is still needed, she said, noting that this year there are 12 children going through the naturalization process.

"We have to get to this first generation immediately. We don't have the luxury of putting up our hands and saying we don't know what to do," she said. "We just have to do something."

Funded by donors

Project Welcome is funded by donations from corporate and private donors, and all who work in the project, including Sister Mueller, are volunteers.

In addition to helping Sudanese children, Project Welcome assists parents in finding employment by working with area employers and skilled laborers. It also works to empower Sudanese women, who, in the Sudan, have no rights and are not protected. Many of these women are illiterate.

"The conditions that these women have survived are horrific and the things they have survived are horrific," Sister Mueller said. "Project Welcome's philosophy is if any woman deserves a shopping trip to Target to buy some low-cost dishes and a decent set of silverware, it's these women. We're committed to making sure these women can set the table for their family, they can live like human beings and that they aren't eating off of somebody else's junk."

Help needed

Although the exact number of Sudanese refugees living in Omaha is unknown, Sister Mueller said it continues to grow each year. Families arrive in Omaha with as many as eight children, and that means more help is needed to sustain their lives in America.

"We're just getting swamped," she said. "This is where most of the Sudanese community has come and they bring their families, which are huge. Project Welcome is growing so big so fast that we cannot even keep up with the registration of people."

The program is in desperate need of emergency funds and skilled laborers with home improvement skills, Sister Mueller said. They also need someone to plant a yard, someone to sponsor a child for naturalization and retired teachers who can come to school two to three days a week to help the children with reading. To offer assistance, call 280-5816.

Once the children are helped, she said, "then we will have a group of leaders in this community with real skills, with real education, with real American papers. On that level, we'll be able to see this culture shine. It is a very cool culture."

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