In 2009, artist Wendy Bantam sought to bridge cultures through an art project in a Lincoln neighborhood. With help from members of the Asian community, she created a colorful mural at 27th and T streets that was inspired by their native lands.
With its lotus flowers, bamboo and elephants, the mural remains a testament to Asian immigrants and refugees and a reminder of home.
“Art is a reflection of a culture,” Bantam said.
Lincoln brims with cultural diversity as immigrants and refugees make their homes here. With these new cultures come a vibrant array of art and expression. Lincoln has a growing community of New Americans who have a passion for art and take pride in the work they do.
In the stories that follow, you’ll read about some of those New Americans. For some, pursuing art is therapeutic; for others, creating or performing is a way to keep culture alive. For others still, art becomes a guiding bridge from one culture to another. Regardless the reason, art motivates and inspires them.
Bantam is among those who are trying to encourage and showcase the art of talented immigrants and refugees in the Lincoln so everyone in the community can appreciate its diversity and beauty.
Bantam said she believes art is a form of communication and a way to portray individual ideas. Immigrants and refugees, just as anyone else, have their own ideas to express.
“Art is quite personal and can be expressed and viewed in a number of ways depending on the artists’ background or culture,” she said.
Helping immigrants and refugees find the time and place to express themselves is important, according to Brittany Steigner, an outreach specialist at Lutheran Family Services.
“Most artists have been doing the art form since they were in their country,” she said. “We want the artists to be able to pass down their ancient traditions, preserve their culture and give them the time and space to do so. It gives them a sense of pride culturally.”
Steigner works directly with artists and helps put on events that showcase their work. Lutheran Family Services sees such events as an important part of its community services program for refugees and immigrants.
Steigner helps organize the New American Art Festival — a daylong celebration in Benson, Nebraska, that features multiple food and craft vendors, performers and exhibits. She is now working on a Lincoln art exhibit at the Midwestern African Museum of Art on May 4 that will feature artists from Sudan, Nepal, Afghanistan and Myanmar (Burma).
At the Nebraska History Museum, efforts are being made to give immigrants and refugees a voice in the community and to take pride in where they come from. The museum has been home recently to various exhibits about immigrants and refugees, including “What We Carried” by photographer Jim Lommasson and the “Looking Past Skin” exhibit, which shows the cultural progressions throughout Lincoln’s history.
The opportunity to meet and learn from refugee artists in Lincoln has been a rewarding part of helping organize the exhibits, said Sharon Kennedy, curator of education at the museum.
Kennedy, a former director of education at the Sheldon Museum of Art, said art is a reflection of our experiences, and refugees have individual experiences, including traumatic ones. Their trauma affects — and even inspires — the art they produce, she said.
The amazing power art holds — for students in particular — is something Gerardo Meza has experienced as an artist and teacher in the Arts and Humanities program at Lincoln Public Schools. The program is geared toward students interested in art, writing, music or cultural differences.
Meza said he understands how culture can influence art. As the son of two Mexican immigrants, he finds inspiration for his artwork in his own heritage and upbringing.
“There is so much diversity in our schools which represent our demographics as a city,” he said. “Our teachers are dedicated to understanding the needs of this community.”
Like Bantam, artist Leorra Platte has helped create public murals in Lincoln. One of those, the Clinton Community Mural, at 27th and Holdrege streets, was based on a compilation of drawings done by students and represented the pride in their families, home and neighborhood. Another, La Ilucion, at 13th and E Streets, illustrates the city’s growing Latin culture.
For Platte, art is not confined to certain countries or cultures but is appreciated by all.
“I don’t think the meaning of art, or what art is, changes across cultural lines because it is a human thing,” she said. “All humanity shares that innate creativity.”
A Sudanese rapper. A Syrian embroiderer. A Karen folk dancer. They are among many New Americans in Nebraska who are driven to create and express themselves in their new country, while incorporating the influences and memories of their homelands.
Here are their stories:
By Jessica Levtsenyuk
Outside the two-story, white building on the corner of 22nd and Y streets, a blue and red sign that reads “Komi Auto Service & Sale” is painted above a door leading into the office where 53-year-old Sudanese refugee Asaad Komi runs his business.
The auto shop Komi opened in 2013 was done so out of passion — not necessarily a passion for cars but a passion for the arts and, more specifically, culture.
“When I moved to America I went to learn about cars, and now I have my own space to do whatever I want to do,” Komi said. “I opened this because, to do art, I need a space of mind and I need a physical space to do this.”
Komi was born and raised in Nuba, Sudan, a village that divides North Sudan from the South. He became interested in art when he was 6-years-old.
“We lived in a small village with no electricity, no TV and no toys,” Komi said. “My father entertained us by letting us draw.”
After years of learning he was accepted into the Sudan University of Science and Technology and graduated in 1989 with a Fine Arts degree that emphasized sculpting and drawing. The program only accepted 50 students a year.
In 1999, Sudan was in the midst of a second civil war. During a political uprising in Nuba, Komi decided to leave his home in search of a better life.
“I didn’t have any means, any way or any connections,” he said. “I had 50 dollars in my pocket and a one-way ticket to a foreign country.”
Komi landed in Egypt and headed straight to the United Nations office in Cairo. After a year and a half of paperwork, interviews and waiting for a response, he was granted refugee status and given three choices for a new home: Australia, Canada or the United States.
Komi chose the U.S.
“The U.S. is the most exciting place you’d hear about,” he said.
Komi spent four years in Charlottesville, Virginia, and then another four in Washington D.C. After a few more years of traveling, he moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, in 2013 to be closer to children who moved to the United States years after he did.
While many artists’ goal is to make a living off their art, Komi wants to develop a clear mission through his work, so owning an auto shop keeps him financially stable while being able to make his art stress-free.
The mission Komi wants to achieve is sharing who he is and where he comes from.
“Culture is telling stories, and art is a global language to sharing culture,” Komi said.
A common theme in some of Komi’s work is the portrayal of mothers from his culture. In Sudan, it’s normal for a mother to oversee everything from cooking to cleaning to teaching the children and making sure all gaps of daily life are filled.
“When you talk about human life, a mother is the center of it,” Komi said. “She’s been trusted to give birth; she’s been trusted to take care of the young; she’s the one that creates culture.”
Komi works with several art mediums, such as clay or plaster for sculpting and pens for drawing. His drawings are made on sheets of sheepskin leather and are tied to handmade wooden frames.
“I’m doing what you’d call a visual culture documentary,” he said.
By that, Komi means the materials and the subjects in his artwork are representative of where he came from.
Komi has shown his work in several Lincoln galleries, including the Midwestern African Museum of Art and plans on showing some of his work at the Husker Lawn and Leisure Show, an event at the Lancaster Event Center that displays a variety of exhibits, in March.
Events like this allow Komi to enlighten strangers from one culture to the world of another, all while building a community in the place he currently calls home.
“Me and you are from a different race, different background, different culture and different way of life, but we are in the one place that we are supposed to find a way to deal with each other: to communicate, to contribute and to build,” he said. “Your city is my city. Your store is my store; your street is my street. The school your kids go to, my kids go.”
By Zach Henke
For Tin Htay, dancing is more than a form of exercise or entertainment — it is an art form and a way to learn about her culture while spreading it to others.
The 19-year-old Karen refugee is a member of the Karen Youth Traditional Dance group in Lincoln. She was one of the first to join the group when it was created in 2013.
The group performs a traditional dance called the don, native to the Karen ethnic group of Thailand and Myanmar, also known as Burma. Performers play traditional Karen instruments to accompany the intricate dance, which developed as a way to reinforce Karen community values and showcase culture and patriotism.
Today, the group has a little more than 20 members, ranging from middle schoolers to college students. In addition to performing locally, the group has also competed in competitions in states like Texas, Minnesota and South Dakota.
“It’s fun to go to other places because you’re kind of spreading out your culture and community around those states,” said Tin Htay, a freshman at Southeast Community College who is studying secondary education.
She believes dancing is an art form, with its mediums being the collaboration of body movements, music and clothing.
“When you imagine art you may think of a still image, but with dance it’s the movement that spreads out the message about your background and culture. It’s the moving vision instead of something still like a painting,” she said.
According to Tin Htay, dancing is also a way for her to learn about her background.
Tin Htay and her family lived in Mae La, a refugee camp on the border between Thailand and Myanmar. The camp, established in 1984, is one of the largest refugee camps in its area, currently housing around 50,000 refugees. Many Karen, like Tin Htay’s family, sought refuge there to escape an ongoing war in Myanmar.
In 2007, Tin Htay, then 8-years-old, immigrated to the United States with her parents and two sisters. They came to America in hopes of better opportunities, education and freedom.
Her family arrived in Portland, Oregon, and lived there for a couple of years before they came to Lincoln in 2009.
When Tin Htay first came to America, the only words she knew were “yes” and “no.” With the help of English Language Learner programs at the schools she attended, movies she watched and a love for reading, she learned the language.
While life in college can prove busy, Tin Htay hopes she will be able to remain a member of the group, even past her years of dancing. She also hopes to be a leader and pass down the opportunity to younger dancers.
“I want to keep being involved and be one of the background people, that way the new generation people can have a chance to take my place and learn to dance,” said Tin Htay.
“You’re not just listening to music and dancing, you’re also learning about your background. Without this dancing, I don’t think I would truly understand where I come from.”
By Jessica Levtsenyuk
Farah Alsebaie had no interest in creating art until she moved to America nearly two years ago. Now the 20-year-old from Syria relies on art to get through the ups and downs of life.
“It’s like my home,” Alsebaie said. “When I feel very sad or bad I go to art, and it feels like another world.”
When drawing for fun one day, a friend pointed out that Alsebaie had a knack for art. Since then, she has experimented with drawing, painting and eventually taught herself embroidery, which is now her focus. She uses thread and canvas to design flowers, cityscapes and even quotes in her native language, Arabic.
Practicing art has helped her transition to life in a country far from home.
A year into the war in Syria, Alsebaie and her family were no longer safe in their neighborhood and for two months, she and her family didn’t leave the house.
“If you went out of the home, maybe you weren’t going to come back,” she said. “One of the neighbors on our street brought food to all of us with his car, and we gave him money.”
She and her family fled to Egypt — living there for four years and going to school — before receiving refugee status and moving to Omaha, Nebraska.
“We didn’t choose the U.S.,” Alsebaie said. “We didn’t know anything about Omaha. But we read about it, and it sounded good.”
She lives with her mother and 19-year-old brother but has four other siblings who have gotten married and live in different places.
Alsebaie is taking classes for the GED while working almost full-time at eCreamery Ice Cream Parlor. Because her mother doesn’t speak much English, Alsebaie and her brother are the sole providers of their family.
“For my mom, it’s hard, and when it’s hard for her, it’s hard for all of us,” she said.
When she isn’t working or going to classes, Alsebaie spends her time making art. She has shown her work at events such as Hutchfest, an annual event in Omaha that features more than 170 vendors from the Midwest.
“I saw ads for an art fair and told my brother about it, and he applied for me,” she said.
Alsebaie plans on going to school for interior design to continue her passion for the arts once she passes her GED, but in the meantime, art is a way she expresses herself and takes a break from life’s stresses.
“I can explain how I’m feeling on the inside through art,” she said. “I think it’s very important for me, even just 10 minutes of making art helps.”
By Bree Samani
After months of feeling lost about what to do with his life, Tut Kailech discovered making music was the answer.
Kailech, a 25-year-old South Sudanese refugee, found his love for making music when he decided to give it a try in 2016. Kailech’s friend and local rhythm and blues artist, Timothy Curtis Beard, had introduced him to a local music studio, and Kailech was filling in as a music engineer to helping test vocal levels for Beard.
“I was just warming up the mic, and my buddy is like, ‘Yo, why don’t you just rap?’” said Kailech, who now is known by his artist name, K1ng T or K1ng Tut.
He realized he had been frightened away from trying because of what people would think of him.
“Then there was a point when I said, ‘Forget that; I’m just going to do whatever I want to do,’” he said.
Kailech studies international relations at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and works two part-time jobs, but always finds time to make music.
He says his music is different from the modern day “recycled garbage” heard in hip-hop.
“We all have a desire to get these possessions, which is like clothes, cars and the big ol’ homes you know,” he said. “But the things that really matter are like your loved ones, your relationships with people and how you treat people.”
His music doesn’t fit into one genre as he strives to create a variety of sounds.
“The music that I make is uplifting, kind of upbeat happy music and also self-reflecting music,” he said.
Kailech pushes himself to make his music “outside the box.”
“I sing about more meaningful stuff, like see it from the bigger picture,” he said.
Kailech’s goal is to connect with his people with their native land while helping them transition into a Western lifestyle. His music also advocates for improved infrastructure and access to clean water in South Sudan.
His musical process starts at his friend’s house with a microphone and laptop. Once he feels it’s ready, he records his music in a local studio in Lincoln.
Kailech started his music journey featuring on a song called “Reflection” by Dey-Jean, a local artist who creates melodic rap music and wanted to team up with Kailech.
“This song is about how we see ourselves, family and society,” he said.
His own single, “Problems,” soon followed, addressing those who blame others for their mistakes.
The New American’s latest song, “Dream,” was released in February and featured his first music video, which shows him him holding the South Sudanese flag while dancing with a group of people.
Kailech’s parents are from Nasir, South Sudan, and were forced to leave the country in 1991 when a civil war broke out.
His mother gave birth to him in the Walda refugee camp in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1992. After two years in the application process, Kailech’s family finally moved to United States.
“My parents didn’t know what a refrigerator was or what AC was,” Kailech said. “My mom didn’t understand why there was clean water in the toilet.”
After moving from state to state, his family ended up in Lincoln.
Kailech uses his music to help himself through the trauma he went through in the refugee camp.
“It’s just like I want to heal that,” Kailech said. “I don’t know how I am going to, but I think music can lead me that way.”
As the oldest of 15 children, Kailech hopes to use his music to inspire his siblings.
“I have to pave the way, I can’t steer them off on the wrong path,” he said.
Kailech has yet to perform live but hopes to do this summer. He also plans to graduate from college in May 2019 and release new music this year.
Ultimately, the South Sudanese refugee feels lucky to be where he is today and to be able to make music.
“It’s the least I can do for my country that is trying to become a well-developed nation,” Kailech said. “And it’s through us that it’s going to happen.”
By Bree Samani
Letura Idigima came across a passion for photography by accident.
“It was super random,” said the 21-year-old Nigerian refugee.
The nonprofit where Idigima worked was unable to find a photographer for an event, so she volunteer. She’s been behind the lens ever since.
“I do it because I love creating art,” she said. “To think about something in your mind and to be able to recreate it out in reality is a thrill.”
In May 2016, Idigima started a photography business in Lincoln, Nebraska, photographing family portraits, engagements and weddings. She even created her own website to showcase her work and to connect with clients.
In December, Idigima found herself gravitating toward fashion photography. A photography professor had encouraged her to give it a try.
Now Idigima shoots mainly fashion photography when she’s not working as a special education paraprofessional at Lincoln High School.
“It allows more freedom for me to be creative,” she said.
Idigima has worked with local models and make-up artists to create the photos she envisions. One of her latest fashion projects was a photoshoot for Stella Collective, a local boutique.
While Idigima has spent much of her life in the United States, her story started in Rivers State, Nigeria, where her parents lived. But soon, life in Nigeria turned dangerous.
When Shell Oil expanded its oil drilling operations in the 1990s Nigeria, tensions flared. Idigima’s parents believed the company had been stealing land from Nigerians, and her father began to protest against them. Her father was then arrested and faced the death penalty but was bailed out by Idigima’s mother with the little money she had saved.
In 1996, with Idigima’s mother pregnant with her, the family fled by foot in the night to neighboring Benin. Idigima was later born in a refugee camp.
The family applied to go to the United States and left the refugee camp in 1998, arriving in Lincoln that year.
“I was young,” she said. “I didn’t really understand why we fled the country until my junior year of high school.
Her photography work is influenced by her experience as a refugee.
“I work with a lot of African models,” she said. “There aren’t enough images of black women on social media and in the photography world.”
That’s why Idigima loves to share the natural beauty of African women.
“I’m all for black power and showing the excellence of black women in everything,” she said.
A lack of black female photographers is another motivation.
“That alone pushes me to strive for success, so I am at the top along with white male photographers because they are everywhere,” she said.
Idigima is taking a break from college but has completed three years of course work at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, where she majors in criminal justice with a concentration in juvenile delinquencies. She plans to get her degree and hopes to move to Atlanta, Georgia, which she described as a “black Hollywood.”
Her life goal is to create an art-based prevention program for at-risk youth.
“So (I’m) really combining my love of working with students and art into one,” she said.
But if Idigima doesn’t succeed in that goal, she will pursue being a fashion photographer for top magazines.
She’s now working on a project that celebrates people — a magazine that focuses on special-needs students. She was inspired to create the project by her work as a paraprofessional.
“If you have it in your heart to do something, don’t let anything else in the world stop you.”
By Bree Samani
Despite years of religious persecution and being forced to leave behind his furniture business, Koosha Mooghen, a Bahá’í Iranian refugee hasn’t lost his passion for furniture making.
Mooghen, 28, works as a utility operator trainer at metal finishing company, Lincoln Industries, and also attends Southeast Community College, where he is studying to be an ultrasound tech.
But he saves his free time for what he loves: building and repairing furniture. Mooghen sees furniture making as an art form. He makes a variety of pieces including bed sets, couches, ottomans and more. He also enjoys repairing old furniture.
“I can design different things that I love, and that’s what I am passionate about,” he said.
Seeing his finished work gives him the drive to continue making.
“It makes me so happy, and I think ‘I did this,’” he said.
Mooghen thinks his expertise is in designing one-of-a-kind furniture and focusing on the details.
“In Iran. they are very passionate about the details in the furniture or any kind of things that they make,” he said. “I think that has an effect on me.”
Mooghen was born and raised in Isfahan, Iran, where he was first introduced to furniture making in 2009.
As a Bahá’í, Mooghen faced many challenges in trying to be successful because Bahá’ís have been widely persecuted in Iran. Among other things, Bahá’ís believe in the oneness of God and all religions and the unity and equality of all people.
“So many people have been killed or imprisoned just because of their beliefs,” he said.
When Mooghen graduated from high school, he tried to go to the University of Iran, but was denied because of his religion.
“I felt angry, and I couldn’t do anything about it,” he said.
Mooghen attended technical school and learned how to make jewelry. But once he received his degree in 2008, he was unable to find any businesses that would hire him because of his faith.
“Because my hands are dirty to touch the jewelry and people can’t wear it, that was the reason,” Mooghen said.
In desperation, Mooghen found a place to learn carpentry. He worked for seven months with a man who owned a furniture-making business.
“I learned everything very quick,” he said.
Through that experience Mooghen started his own furniture business.
“I made many different designs, which were very unique because nobody has it,” he said. “It brought me a lot of customers.”
But Mooghen continued to struggle; he often was kicked out of building he rented once the landlords discovered his religion.
“People would say, ‘Here’s the Bahá’í guy, and you need to let him go as soon as possible.'”
His business suffered because he was unable to stay in the same place.
“Why should someone not be able to do the things that he or she loves just because their beliefs are different?” he said. “I was hopeless and beyond stressed about the future.”
After two years of struggle, Mooghen decided it was time to leave the country.
“I was like, you know, what I am tired of it,” he said.
Mooghen said he illegally left Iran in 2012 for Turkey, a trip that was “risky and hard.” He lived in a refugee camp, where he was unable to work legally. He applied to move to the United States and waited two years before he was able to leave.
Mooghen settled in Lincoln, Nebraska, where his brother lives.
But he soon found himself missing furniture making so he started using his father-in-law’s garage to make and repair furniture.
Mooghen searched for a place to rent to sell his work but found that the rent was too high.
One of Mooghen’s friends then introduced him to the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Innovation Campus, a place where he could easily build his furniture pieces.
After he toured the workshop, he began to create furniture there.
“They really liked my first set,” Mooghen said.
He then made two more sofa sets and sold them online. Mooghen uses Facebook and Craigslist to advertise his work.
As a part-time student and full-time employee, it can be difficult to find the time and motivation.
“I am really tired when I go to make furniture, but as soon I start I don’t feel tired anymore,” he said. “Because I am doing something that I love.”
Mooghen said he will continue to make and repair furniture as a hobby, but hopes one day to have a business.
“I am not going to stop trying,” he said. “It won’t make me stop for now.”
By Danny Burke
The man had been stabbed 30 times and left to die in some trees on a cold December night in 2017 on the Pine Ridge reservation.
The story shocked photographer Wesaam Al-Badry, a 34-year-old former Iraqi refugee and Lincoln native who has made a career of documenting difficult stories.
But this story was different. The Native American man who shared his harrowing experience with Al-Badry was targeted because he was gay.
“I can’t do anything to help him,” Al-Badry said. “Most of the time I’m able to do something. This story is bigger because you’re trying to change a mindset of how a person should be treated.”
A former high school dropout who didn’t get serious about photography until he was 25, Al-Badry has attracted national attention for the stories he tells as a documentary photographer and contemporary artist. His work has been featured in museums and art galleries and in campaigns for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and the American Civil Liberties Union.
His subjects are people who are resilient in the face of violence or social injustice, such as refugees, immigrants and Native Americans. He said he uses photography as means of communication to highlight his subjects’ stories, and he tries to offer various perspectives.
Al-Badry studies at the San Francisco Art Institute, where he expects to graduate in May, with plans to attend graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley.
“For me, I am really happy where my career is at,” he said. “It is beyond what I was expecting it to be.”
Al-Badry was born in 1984 in Nasiriyah, Iraq. When he was seven, he and his family fled to Saudi Arabia to escape the dangers of the Gulf War.
For four years, Al-Badry and his family moved from camp to camp, living in tents in the desert. People were assigned a number and put into a system resembling a computer circuit grid for population control.
“Saudi Arabia was not part of the United Nations, so they technically did not take in refugees,” he said. “So we were considered prisoners of war instead.”
The immigration process itself was daunting and included a lottery.
“You go through an interview process in 110 degree weather in the Saudi Desert in a mobile home with a translator,” Al-Badry said. “We also had to have a sponsor in the United States who could prove that they could support us financially. Originally when we did this we had to be sponsored by Catholic Social Services.”
The family ended up in Lincoln because they told authorities they wanted to live in a farming town with little traffic. They also had a relative in the city.
Al-Badry was 11 when they arrived in Lincoln.
“It was a tremendous adjustment,” he said. “It took me about six months to comprehend and know my way around. And after a few years I got an understanding of what was going on around me and then realizing that this is my home now.”
Although the family was safe, they struggled. To help out the family financially, Al-Badry dropped out of high school to work in a meat packing plant.
“That’s something I’m really proud of doing,” he said. “Part of those years working, and part of those years in a camp and part of me loving photography all came together to create for what I make now.”
“I’m a visual person,” Al-Badry said. “I use photography to convey what I want to say and what’s inside my head or around me. I use art to tell a story.”
Among the stories he’s told: San Francisco Bay area mothers who have lost their sons to gun violence; woman refugees who endured the Iraqi War; and a Lakota family who lived near the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota.
For Al-Badry, his art is not simply about sending a message — it’s about improving lives.
“When I put these stories out, it allows people to help donate to them, put a roof over their heads or get their kids to school,” he said.
And that is also why the story about the gay, Native American man affects Al-Badry so deeply — because he can’t help him in the way he could help others.
Yet despite the discrimination and violence the gay man has suffered, he still seeks out the positive in people, Al-Badry noted.
“He said that he still has faith in humanity and believes that people are good and can change.”
That outlook is the reason the man is an appealing subject for Al-Badry’s current work in progress. The artist searches for the quiet voices that need to be heard.
“I want my art to be a part of the conversation today and 100 years from now,” he said. “I don’t want to be known — I want my art to be known. I’m more interested in the conversation my art can have and will have in the future.”
When Yazidi refugees arrive in Lincoln, they carry few things with them from the Iraqi homeland they fled. But what they are able to bring here hold cherished stories and memories.
Those special pieces of home are what photographer and oral historian Jim Lommasson documented as part of “What We Carried: The Yazidis of Lincoln, Nebraska,” on display until May 25 at the Nebraska History Museum. Lommasson unveiled the exhibit during a presentation on Jan. 26 at the museum.
The Lincoln exhibit is part of Lommasson’s ongoing “What We Carried,” a collaborative photographic storytelling project. It presents the experiences of refugees by focusing on the items they brought with them on their journey to the U.S.
The Portland native began “What We Carried” in 2007 when he was interviewing and photographing American soldiers for his book “Exit Wounds: Soldiers’ Stories — Life after Iraq and Afghanistan.” Searching for Afghan and Iraqi perspectives on the war, he began interviewing refugees and discovered the possessions they chose to bring with them told a powerful story of what they also left behind.
Lommasson began collaborating with refugees by photographing their objects. He would then return the 13-by-19-inch print to the owner and ask them to write their thoughts or experiences directly on the image.
Lommasson first came to Lincoln in 2017 after some images from “What We Carried” were included in a group exhibition, “Conflict and Consequence: Photographing War and its Aftermath,” at the Sheldon Museum of Art. Todd Tubutis, the curator of the Sheldon’s exhibition, told Lommasson about Lincoln’s large Yazidi refugee population, and Lommasson quickly got to work.
After several trips to Lincoln and mailing photographs back and forth, the Lincoln edition of “What We Carried” slowly but surely came together to share the stories of Lincoln’s New Americans.
The project will be on view at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha from June 5-30, overlapping with Omaha World Refugee Day on June 16. In May through September 2019, pieces of Lommasson’s entire “What We Carried” project, including images from Lincoln’s Yazidis, will travel to the Ellis Island Immigration Museum in New York City. The exhibit is expected to draw half a million visitors.
Photo at the top: When Diar Hazim Farhan Albozani migrated to Lincoln, Nebraska, from Iraq, he brought with him a picture to remember his home town. He says he feels safer here in Lincoln, but worries about his family who still live in Iraq.
When Seth Mock was growing up in Kenya’s largest refugee camp, he was surrounded by art.
He saw paintings, sculptures, sketches awash with bright reds, yellows and blues. The African culture was rich and is something that has never left him.
These experiences from Mock’s childhood followed him to the United States and to Nebraska, when he moved to Lincoln. Just a few years later, he would open the first African museum in the Midwest, the first museum founded by refugees in the United States — the Midwestern African Museum of Art (MAMA).
Founded in October 2016, MAMA is a resource center dedicated to displaying rich African art. From elaborate wooden carvings to traditional African dresses, MAMA’s walls are lined with work that gives a Nebraskan who has never left the country an idea of what Africa is like.
“It’s something we see as an opportunity for people to travel to Africa without a passport,” Mock said.
But art isn’t MAMA’s only focus — Mock says the museum uses art to further its other main purposes: community, culture and working with Lincoln’s growing refugee population.
MAMA leases some of its space out to various tenants — Jean-Aimé Shabanza Mbiya Bondo, the executive director of International American Relief Society, rents out space, and another tenant uses his office to help refugees with their taxes at a discounted rate. Sometime this month, an Ethiopian restaurant, Ajora Falls, will open a space on MAMA’s first floor, where it will serve both African coffee and Ethiopian cuisine.
MAMA also hosts reading and parenting classes for the community, and its educational outreach reaches from young school age children to students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
“There is an educational aspect that MAMA brings to the city which is extremely important,” Mock said. “We think the best and fastest way we can give back is to our children and our youth.”
For MAMA, education acts as more than an equalizer — it brings people together.
“Having an African museum in Lincoln and also in Nebraska attracts more of a unity, and it also shows that there’s been an acceptance (of immigrants and refugees) here among the community,” said Mock, whose family fled South Sudan.
The museum does a good job of breaking down stereotypes of what Americans tend to picture when they think about Africa, said Chris Bourges, one of MAMA’s board members.
“There’s a lot of misconception about Africa,” he said. “A lot of the messages out there is, there’s hunger, there’s famine, there’s diseases, but there’s more than that. It’s true, there are a lot of those things, but at the same time there are a lot of vibrant cultures and a lot of successful messages.”
Board member Natalie Hahn agrees. Hahn, who founded the Malaika Foundation — an organization that helps enhance global education in Nebraska — spent nearly 40 years working for the United Nations, 14 of which she lived in Africa. During those years, she collected a large amount of African art, primarily from Nigeria, Ethiopia and Malawi. She has donated a significant amount of her collection to MAMA.
When the museum opened in 2016, Hahn helped welcome the first African president — Jane Banda of Malawi — to visit Nebraska.
Hahn said: “When Seth welcomed President Banda, he said, ‘Nebraska has done so much for us, we just wanted to give back. We wanted to give back because you’ve been so good to us. We want to explain to you the beautiful parts of our culture, we want to explain to you our journey.’”
Over the next few years, Seth and the MAMA team hope to see more partnerships with Lincoln schools and nonprofits and to evolve more into an “educational institute” that is open and accessible to the community.
But until then, MAMA will continue to do what Hahn says it does best:
“It shows my beloved Africa in a positive way. I just love the continent so much.”
Photo at the top: Members of the African Children’s Choir entertained Lincoln residents during an August appearance at the Midwestern African Museum of Art. The choir raises money to provide education for impoverished African children. Courtesy photo.
For New Americans, festivals are a way for people to celebrate their art, traditions and customs while also sharing with a larger community.
Two recent cultural events held in Lincoln exemplify this sharing.
By Annie Albin
The Lunar New Year celebration in Lincoln has grown into a a big cultural event that brings together a variety of groups.
Although it’s been happening in Lincoln ever since the Asian Cultural and Community Center was founded in the 1990s, the celebration has grown so large that this year it was moved to the Lancaster County Event Center. More than 700 attended the Feb. 25, 2018, celebration, said Sheila Dorsey Vinton, the center’s executive director.
The event celebrates the Lunar New Year, a Chinese holiday held in honor of the new year and a break from farming. Each year it brings attendees and performers from Lincoln’s Japanese, Vietnamese, Karen and Chinese communities.
“It’s for … people to share their heritage and enjoy their heritage, and for people who are more recently arrived to enjoy and share their heritage too,” Vinton said.
The event began with a take on the traditional Vietnamese lion dance. The dancers wove through the crowd in their giant puppet-like costumes, accepting red envelopes with money inside. By giving the lions the envelopes, the participants were promised good luck in the new year.
The group was formed at the Immaculate Heart of Mary church, a Catholic parish that offers mass in Vietnamese, said team leader and University of Nebraska-Lincoln student Eric Cao. The group is called DNMV (Doan Maria Nu Vuong), which is the name of the church youth group to which the lion dance members belong.
Performing the lion dance allows for students like Cao to connect with their heritage and to keep it alive for the older generations at their church and in their family. Cao said that he takes part in the lion dance to preserve Vietnamese culture, but also to have fun.
“A lot of the first-generation Vietnamese are there and they’re the older people; they run the parish.” Cao said, “And as the kids, our job is to do the lion dance, participate in the culture. So that’s our job — chipping in.”
When attendees weren’t watching the dances, listening to music or eating food, they could also visit with outreach groups. Tables on each side of the event hall provided resources to community services, like the University of Nebraska College of Dentistry, Lincoln City Libraries and Family Health Services, Inc.
Along with the tables offering community resources, there were also cultural centers providing information for new members. One of the cultural centers in attendance was the Lincoln Chinese Cultural Association, which offers a Lincoln Chinese Academy. Haichuan Wang, a member of the board of directors, said the purpose of the academy is to show and share Chinese culture, especially with their children.
“We grow up in this culture,” Wang said. “They don’t know.”
The academy offers Chinese language classes from kindergarten through 7th grade, as well as enrichment classes in martial arts, calligraphy, singing, math and more. According to their website, “The Lincoln Chinese Academy is dedicated to learning the Chinese language, cultivating self-esteem and confidence, and appreciating the Chinese culture and heritage.”
By creating this program, those who recently came to America can continue to share their culture with their children, without needing an expensive plane ticket to fly them there.
The Lunar celebration also allowed for those outside of these communities to partake in and appreciate the cultures.
UNL student Ibraheem Hamzat, who was at the event volunteering with the university’s Minority Pre-Health Association, said the event provided cultural awareness. He said that while at times Nebraska seems like it lacks diversity, the event proved otherwise.
“Your culture can be accepted,” he said, “and celebrated.”
By Anna Dubas
Karen Sotelo’s art expresses her love for the Latino community.
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln sophomore was grateful for the recent opportunity to share that love with the public.
She was one of 13 artists who showcased their work as part of Exploring Our Roots, a weeklong campus event that focused on intersectional cultural issues and perspectives. In addition to an art showcase, the event featured film screenings and professional panels to celebrate the cultures that make up UNL’s collective story, organizers said.
With more than 26,000 students, the UNL campus has a variety of people from different cultures and backgrounds, including some 2,200 international students. Celebrating that diversity and educating people about different cultures and backgrounds is what inspired the Latino Graduate Student Association, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers and Define America to organize Exploring Our Roots.
The student organizations created Exploring Our Roots with help from Union Bank and Trust Company’s Pitch-a-Program and used the $10,000 they won from their pitch to host the different events.
The art showcase, which took place in the Nebraska Union on Feb. 25, started off the week by exploring the creative ways students express their backgrounds and cultures through art.
“It’s really showcasing culture and is about explaining yourself in an artistic way and how your culture and identity reflect in your art,” said Damien Scovill, one of the organizers and a member of Define America.
Bringing the community together to explore the different ways culture, race, gender and religion intersect was a top goal for Exploring Our Roots, he said.
“Like being a Latino woman, what does that mean to you? How do you express it in an art form?” he asked. “Or being part of the LGBTQ community and being a black man, how does that intersect?”
For Sotelo, culture and art are difficult to separate. She is passionate and proud of Latino culture.
“A lot of my art does focus on the culture of Latinos, especially Mexican people,” she said. “I like to portray the good and the bad of our culture.”
Sotelo was born in South Texas, but grew up in León, Guanajuato, Mexico. When she was 13, her family moved back to Texas, but their ties to Mexican culture remained strong. The engineering major decided to attend UNL to be close to her sister who is a graduate student at the college.
Through her art, Sotelo also expresses the intertwining of her identity and culture.
“As a minority, as a woman, sometimes there are comments and actions that make us feel like we’re trapped,” she said about her piece titled “Atrapada.”
Sotelo uses color to emphasize the feelings she wants to portray within her pieces. Colorful pieces usually show the good sides of the Latino culture, while the neutral colors show the problems she faces.
The 23 pieces exhibited in the show ranged from acrylic paintings to ceramic pieces to graphic novels.
Many of the artists stood by their work and explained inspirations and cultural backgrounds with viewers, which included about 50 people.
“I hope people will be able to understand the culture or identity of a person more through their art — whatever that is — if it’s poetry, dance or paintings, just being able to see what people can create and how they create it,” Scovill said. “Diverse individuals can create beautiful pieces of art.”
For years, the corner of 27th and T streets was an eyesore, with trash piled high in an empty lot and graffiti scrawled across the concrete wall of a nearby building.
Finally, in 2009, the City of Lincoln, which owned the lot, and NeighborWorks, a non-profit organization, decided that something needed to be done. They contacted Wendy Bantam, a public artist who has created murals and large-scale artwork in Lincoln and other cities and countries.
The question put to Bantam was this: “How can we go about giving people in this area a sense of ownership, pride, and camaraderie?” The intention was to create a mural that embodied the Asian community that settled in the area.
“You see, it’s about more than putting a painting on a wall,” Bantam said.
She took a straightforward approach and spoke with Peter and Tommy Le, owners of the building, Le Auto Center. She wanted to create something that was both meaningful for them and reflected the Asian community in Lincoln.
The Le family emigrated from Hue, Vietnam, to Lincoln in 1990. Their father worked for the U.S. government as a spy during the Vietnam War. When the war was over, their family came to America.
Bantam wanted to create a mural that was reflective of their home country and their story.
“Foremost my job as an artist is to listen,” she said. “Secondly, translate what I’ve heard to a universal language. Sometimes the translation is read more clearly through image.”
She solicited volunteers from the area, and after six weeks of painting, the mural ― titled “The Two Elephants and the Kingfisher Near the Lotus Blossom Sea” ― was complete.
The mural depicts what the Le brothers remember most about Vietnam: nature. They recall most the colorful lotus flowers, the elephants that could be seen from their backyard, their old fishing boat and the bamboo that was used as fencing on their family’s farm.
“I think the mural is beautiful,” Tommy said. “It reminds me of home and my memories.”
For NeighborWorks, the mural was a way to give the people of Lincoln ― and more specifically those in the neighborhood ― pride and ownership in where they came from.
“Our goal was to recognize the surrounding area and to honor the residents who live there,” said Pat Anderson-Sifuentez, the community builder for NeighborWorks. “We want to celebrate the large number of refugees who have settled along 27th Street.”
Over the years, Lincoln has become a home to immigrants and refugees from various countries, and NeighborWorks’ goal is to showcase this diversity. The organization plans to do more to display diversity in the community, including a surprise project coming soon to 27th and Vine streets.
The community should recognize what those from other cultures are doing in the city, and when that happens, Lincoln will be unified, Anderson-Sifuentez said.
“We need to be aware of our surroundings,” she said. “There are a lot of things happening right outside your front door that you don’t even know about, so go explore it.”
Almost nine years after the mural was painted, Jenny Tran, one of the 20 volunteers, still feels that connection to both the mural and to the city of Lincoln.
Tran was attending Lincoln High School and was a member of the Asian Caucus club when the mural was done. Members of the club joined together to assist Bantam and found pride in the artwork as it reminded them of their Asian heritage.
“Looking back now, I find pride and I feel honored to have worked on the mural,” she said. “It brings back memories.”
Tran’s family also is from Vietnam, where her grandmother still lives. For her, the mural is a celebration of her background and a reminder of why we should celebrate all of Lincoln’s diversity.
“There is a lot more to Lincoln than people think. There is a lot of diversity and a lot of different types of people,” said Tran, echoing Anderson-Sifuentez. “You just need to explore it.”
Through art and a new coat of paint, what was once an abandoned lot and a graffiti-scarred wall has become an intricate display of culture and a celebration of those who have made their home here.
“Art is the perfect vehicle to develop new ideas,” Bantam said. “It creatively extends our imagination to solve problems and change current circumstances.”
Twice a week, a group of young Yazidi girls gather in a room at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church to express themselves through dance.
One week, they might practice hip hop. Another week, it might be a traditional Mexican dance.
The type of dance doesn’t really matter – it’s the self-expression and the empowerment that are important, says instructor Adoul Khalaf, who runs the weekly program called “Dance Away.”
“I try and show these girls women empowerment, and I want them to know that they are strong girls and that they have each other,” Khalaf said.
The girls, ranging in age from five to 12, were born in Lincoln, but their parents came as refugees.
Khalaf knows the struggle of fitting in to a new culture and being different from than those around her. She emigrated from Iraq to the United States 19 years ago, when her family left Iraq because of genocide and war. She’s found it to be a life-long challenge to fit in.
“Although I have been here most of my life, I am still adjusting to life here in the U.S.,” she said.
That’s why she wants to help the young dancers.
“I always loved to dance and wanted to continue dancing, but also be involved with my community,” Khalaf said.
“I love kids, especially girls, and I want to motivate them. I want help them love themselves, love their body, have somewhere to go and basically have somewhere safe to talk and do whatever they want.”
Aside from dance, Khalaf also makes sure the girls are learning new things on the Thursdays and Saturdays when the group meets. They do a variety of activities, such as exercise challenges, puzzles, drawing and painting. Members of Girl Scouts also come to help teach the girls.
During a recent session, the Girl Scouts brought the ingredients to make sushi. The girls giggled and squealed at the touch of raw fish, sticky rice and soy sauce.
Making sure the girls learn something new is important, Khalaf said.
“With this class I try to bring a little bit of everything into it so they understand what’s out there,” she said.
The girls have found a place of comfort and fun with Khalaf during dance class.
“What I really like about Douly (Khalaf) is that her energy is really positive, and when we are going through tough times, she always knows how to make us happy,” said Silva Hasan, one of the young dancers.
Khalaf has dedicated two years to teaching the dance class and said she will continue.
“The things I love and make me want to continue teaching this is when I see the girls come together, laugh and play together, and it makes me happy seeing them happy.”
Under the blazing Ugandan sun, a group of curious children crowded around a young refugee boy who carefully sketched a helicopter in a notebook.
The notebook belonged to Cahner Olson, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln senior journalism student, who visited Uganda for three weeks in May 2017 through UNL’s Global Eyewitness program. The program, led by photojournalism professor Bruce Thorson, takes journalism students to developing countries to create multimedia stories about the culture, people and hardships they encounter.
After many tireless weeks of research and preparation before the trip, Olson found herself among the children of an orphanage, where she met Mary, a 16-year-old orphan and the subject of her story.
Mary lived at St. Bartholomew’s orphanage, which was originally located in South Sudan. But following a 2013 civil war, the children and caretakers fled to the Morobi refugee camp near Moyo, Uganda.
In addition to documenting the orphans’ struggles, Olson also experienced their struggles through intricate drawings the orphans sketched in her notebook.
It wasn’t until Olson returned to Lincoln and went back months later to study the children’s drawings in her notebook that she realized how much of their story is captured in these images.
While American children carelessly scribble and tear paper then go on to the next piece of art, Saint Bartholomew’s orphans drew meticulously and thoughtfully, like they knew paper was a precious material, she said.
While American children draw stick figures of their family standing in front of their home, the refugees drew helicopters and water trucks emblazoned with “UNHCR” ― the United Nations Higher Commissioner for Refugees, which assists in refugee resettlement.
To many of the refugee children, these images are the only ones they’ve known.
“I doubt these young kids understand what UNHCR is, but they see these letters on everything ― on all of the tents, all of the water trucks that drive by ― so it’s what they draw,” Olson said. “I could see the signs of how this conflict is impacting these kids in their drawings.”
These children, from infants to late teenagers, have endured the chaos and brutality that erupted in South Sudan as a result of political tension. An estimated 4 million South Sudanese people have been displaced and over 50,000 killed since December 2013, according to the UN Security Council.
Yet, the kids enthusiastically grasp any opportunity for fun they can find. Olson spent her time at the refugee camp showing the inquisitive children how her camera works, walking hand in hand with them to the refugee camp market and joining in on games of soccer.
With its mud houses and missing street signs, the camp was a bit of shock for the young, white, Midwestern journalism student who is used to being able to do her work freely. In Uganda, Olson was warned to not flaunt her camera because of the culture’s differing views of the media.
“These societies aren’t based on free speech like America is,” Olson said. “Everyone in the U.S. is raised with this free-speech notion that press is good and keeps people in check whereas people in different cultures see a camera and think that we’re are trying to expose them.”
This made it all the more impactful that the refugees Olson talked to were able to move past that hesitation in order to tell their stories. They were very open to sharing the details of their traumatic experiences. At the end of each interview, they would simply ask Olson to do something with what they shared.
“They weren’t excited to share their stories, but they were willing. I think they want people to know the ugly truth because it’s kind of a last resort,” Olson said. “Their government has failed them. Even the people who are trying to help aren’t doing enough, and they all have this idea that the Western world can cure everything. They share their stories because it’s their only option left.”
This multimedia project was produced in the Spring 2018 semester by students in the Nebraska Mosaic course, a capstone for journalism majors in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Journalism and Mass Communications.
Reporters: Annie Albin, Danny Burke, Anna Dubas, Jessica Levtsenyuk, Zach Henke, Katie Knight, Alyssa Olvera, Bree Samani, Sarah Troyer and Lindsey Yoneda
Content editors: Sarah Berger, David Eickholt, Nicole Eisenbraun, Zach Hammack, Bree Samani and Ky Venney
Engagement editors: Bekkah Watkins, Taylor Fischetto, Cahner Olson and Cheyenne Rowe
For more stories about refugees and immigrants in Nebraska, see the Nebraska Mosaic website.