'It Makes Us Feel Like Home': Reaching Out to Nebraska's Immigrant and Refugee Communities

Trinity Memorial Episcopal Church in Crete, Neb. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)
Arturo Ornelas, Sr., stands with his son, Arturo Ornelas, Jr., in front of the community garden where they both have plots. Ornelas, Jr. said being able to work the earth reminded him of his home in Guadalajara, Mexico. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)
The Latino congregation at Trinity Memorial includes Guatemalans, Peruvians, Mexicans and El Salvadorians. They plant a variety of food in their community garden, including jalapenos, cilantro and tomatoes. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)
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June 13, 2013 - 6:30am

The foreign-born population of Nebraska has tripled since 1990, and almost 10 percent of working age Nebraskans are now foreign-born. But despite all the attention given to the state’s changing demographics, integration remains a challenge.

About six percent of Nebraskans are foreign-born, but in the southeastern town of Crete, it jumps to 21 percent, mostly because of available jobs at a local food processing plant.

Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause,
NET News

Arturo Ornelas, Jr. said the garden allows Latino congregants to grow foods native to their homelands that might be too expensive to buy in the stores.

The town was founded by German immigrants in 1870; Trinity Memorial Episcopal Church was established soon after. Flash forward 141 years, and the white church with the red door is a symbol of how the town has changed.

Trinity is a small church – it seats maybe 50 people – but several years ago, it effectively doubled when a Latino congregation also began to hold services in the building.

 “We realized that we had this extra space next to our church, and it was just grass,” said Betty Talley, Trinity Memorial’s church warden. “And we decided, just as a good community outreach, that we would make it a community garden, and we initially offered it to our Hispanic friends and neighbors.”

Changing demographics often cause tension, as when Muslim Somali workers in Grand Island went on strike because of religious concerns, or when Latino and Sudanese factor workers in Lexington compete for jobs. Across the state, there are major governmental and non-profit programs designed to ease integration for immigrants and refugees, but sometimes, even small projects can make a difference.

Take that garden, for example.

“They grow jalapenos, cilantro, tomatoes …”

Arturo Ornelas, Jr., the priest of the Latino congregation that calls Trinity home, shows me around the garden, which typically holds 10 to 12 plots. Ornelas moved to the U.S. 27 years ago, and he’s been in Nebraska for 14.

I ask Ornelas in Spanish if members of his congregation used to be farmers; “,” he says, telling me that the garden makes them feel like they’re back in their native countries.

Ornelas used to live in Los Angeles, but said he felt trapped. Here in Crete, with the open air, and the farms outside the town, he said he feels free … like he’s back home in Guadalajara, Mexico.

Talley said the longtime Crete residents benefit, as well.

“I think the best thing has been less fear, less questions in our minds,” she said. “I think more respect for each other, and more appreciating each other.”

That’s the goal of an ongoing quilt project in Grand Island.  

“The whole premise of this quilt was to make a memory of their homeland, a block that represents what they remember from Sudan, and then a block of what they hope for from America,” said Ruth Campbell, one of the original project members.

Documentary on Grand Island quilt project to premiere on NET Television

The hour-long documentary "Quilted Conscience" follows the original group of quilters and students as they create their storytelling quilt. Directed by John Sorenson and featuring Ruth Campbell and Nyakim Wal, it premieres on NET Television's NET-1/HD on Friday, June 14 at 7 p.m. CT. 

Courtesy photo

One of Tracy Morrow's classes at Grand Island Public Schools shows off its finished quilt.

Back in 2010, and she and other local white quilters in Grand Island, under the guidance of famed South Carolina quilter Peggie Hartwell, taught 16 Sudanese-American girls how to sew, one stitch at a time. Campbell recalls one memory block in particular, where a girl had sewn a figure riding an elephant, representing her grandmother fetching water.

“I went around, helped some other kids, came back, and I said, ‘Who is this? Now there’s someone in front of your grandmother.’ She said, ‘That’s me. I would ride with her to get the water.’”

Campbell told the girl she understood what that was like; growing up in rural Appalachia, she had to walk to a well every night to fetch water.

“I remember her staring at me: ‘YOU carried water?’” Campbell recalled with a chuckle. “We all had something that linked us together. You know, I haven’t lived in a hut like they did, but I told her – I said, ‘Do you know what a log house looks like?’”

The quilt project was so successful that Grand Island Public School teacher Tracy Morrow adapted it for her 4th and 5th grade English Language Acquisition class, which now makes its own quilt each year. People in the community are eager to help, she said, whether it’s donating fabric scraps or volunteering their time.

“The older ladies talk about how they came from situations of poverty, and how they came from being farmers and raising cattle,” she said. “That’s something that (the students) can identify with and see that they’re not so different.”

And the cultural exchange goes both ways.

“(The adults) want to be mentors to them, but also they find out that … they learn a lot from the students and the families that they work with.”

19-year-old Nyakim Wal, one of the students who worked on that first quilt in 2010, agreed.

“I think it gave them more of an understanding of where we come from and who we are,” she said. “We were just ourselves. Everybody, even the teachers. We were all friends, coming together for one project.”

But it’s not always smooth sailing. The Grand Island quilters said that in traditional Sudanese culture, the father is the “absolute authority.” He has total control.

“And especially girls and women had to obey,” Campbell said. “Then they come to school and things are equal.  And so it was a little hard to adjust, I think.”

Some fathers didn’t react well to the attention the project received. One in particular felt threatened, she said, and pulled his daughters out of the project midway through. But others grew to be proud of their daughters’ accomplishments and supported their dreams, including becoming doctors and lawyers.

For the Crete garden, last year’s drought was tough. The church charges $20 per plot per summer; it provides the water and tills the ground at the beginning and end of the season.

“Some of our congregants were concerned about the cost – the water and the usage, and that type of thing. But it’s actually been a wonderful thing,” Talley with Trinity Memorial church said. “We’re not in it to make money, so it was just a much more beneficial thing to continue the garden.”

As for Ornelas, the priest of the Latino congregation?

“Siento que es una bienvenida para nosotros.”

It’s welcoming for us, he said.

This year, Ornelas is trying to grow something very Nebraskan, albeit with a cultural twist: Mexican corn. If he succeeds, perhaps they’ll all eat some at the joint picnic the two congregations are planning.



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