It is Nebraska’s 30,000+ refugees that remind us the importance of the City providing safe and abundant transportation options for everyone. If the lack of clear communication on our roads and transit systems are confusing for Omahans with English as their first language, imagine experiencing Omaha’s public transportation as a newly arrived refugee.
One of Mode Shift Omaha’s strategic goals is to connect with local organizations and neighborhood associations that serve or consist of different races and ethnicities; especially low-income populations. This effort coincides with Mode Shift’s vision of a city with transportation options for all.
Our Coffee Chat guest in March was Scott Larsen, Education & Outreach Coordinator at the Refugee Empowerment Center, formerly known as Southern Sudan Community Association. Scott introduced the Refugee Empowerment Center to Mode Shift members and talked about the populations it serves and struggles refugees face due to lack of reliable, user-centered transportation options in Omaha.
A refugee is an individual who has fled their home country due to evident fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.
The Omaha-based Refugee Empowerment Center (REC) is one of more than 300 local resettlement agencies in the U.S. (learn more here) and one of two federally-affiliated refugee resettlement agencies in Nebraska. Since 1997, the REC, a nonprofit organization, has served refugees mostly from Burma, Bhutan, Sudan, and Somalia, and some from Iraq and Afghanistan on Special Immigrant Visas. The REC will start resettling Syrians this summer. The agency resettles about 300 refugees per year, not including secondary migrants.
Resettlement agencies provide core social services to every refugee within the first 90 days of their arrival in the U.S., including housing, food assistance, health assessments, social security enrollment, school enrollment, and more. Every refugee in the U.S. is allotted $1,125 to be used during the three-month resettlement period. At the REC, about 80-90% of employment-aged individuals secure a job within the first 90 days of arrival, a very successful rate compared to other resettlement agencies across the U.S. The agency’s main objective beyond resettlement and placement is to help refugees achieve economic self-sufficiency.
The average time a refugee spends in a camp is 17 years. When refugees finally arrive to Omaha, many feel anxious to start their new lives in a safe, welcoming environment in a new country known for its boundless opportunities. The REC offers several in-house capacity building programs, such as English classes, arts and textiles classes, computer literacy training, entrepreneurship skills training, community gardens, and women’s programs. They offer three main transportation training programs:
- Driving class – The driving class prepares refugees for the visual electronic driving test. Classes meet at the REC twice per week. It is the only training of its kind in Nebraska.
- Bus training – The bus training class attempts to fill the gaps in the bus education provided by Omaha Metro, such as language barriers and inconsistencies in signage and instructions and explaining the entry, payment, and exit processes.
- Other bus transit improvement efforts: The REC hopes to influence Metro to prioritize creating bus shelters in popular refugee neighborhoods, such as Prospect Village and Gifford Park.
- The New American Bike Project – This program started in 2014 in partnership with Live Well Omaha and the Community Bike Project. The two community organizations have provided bikes, helmets, bike lights, and locks for the three-week training sessions which take place during the summer. The program is designed for refugees who want to learn how to ride bikes safely and how to comply with the rules of the road. Participants get to keep the bikes. Volunteers are needed to help expand the project. Details on the goals of The New American Bike Project are in the meeting notes.
During the Coffee Chat discussion, we talked about ways Mode Shift might help connect the REC and Omaha’s refugee communities’ transportation-related concerns to the appropriate agencies. Scott and an audience member from the refugee community mentioned there are many refugee youth volunteers who would be interested in assisting with Mode Shift’s public transportation advocacy in Omaha. The best groups to contact would be seniors in high schools (who need volunteer hours for graduation requirements), the Karen Student Association at UNO, and Omaha Public School’s Thrive Club, an after-school youth program for about 500 refugee teens.
If you’d like to get involved, check out the Refugee Empowerment Center’s upcoming events & engagement opportunities:
- ‘Like’ the Facebook page and sign up for their newsletter to be the first to hear about their upcoming events.
- REC’s First Friends program is a mentorship program requiring a 3-6 month commitment of one meeting per week with a newly-arrived refugee family or individual. Being a “First Friend” involves connecting with the refugee(s) and being a cultural broker: assisting with ESL studying and practice, taking families on adventures around Omaha, and finding ways to introduce them to American culture.
- REC needs volunteers for:
- bus training setup and facilitation,
- New American Bike Project training setup and facilitation,
- designing and conducting a study on bike and bus training effectiveness with past participants, including studying regular usage, correct usage, challenges, confusion, etc., and exploring ways to inspire or enable more refugees to bike or take the bus to work.
Contact Scott at slarsen@RefugeeEmpowerment.org if you’re interested in volunteering.
Mode Shift Omaha looks forward to working with the Refugee Empowerment Center and similar groups to focus our transportation advocacy on the needs of diverse low-income populations.