For Sudanese Refugees in Omaha, Basketball is a Beacon for Change
Omaha is home to the largest Sudanese resettlement population outside of Africa, and assimilating can be especially challenging for kids thrust into the public school system. That's where the Omaha Talons come in.
Courtesy Koang Doluony
It started, in the fall of 2012, with just two boys. Every Tuesday night they would shoot hoops and practice fundamentals: dribbling, jump-shot form, layups, defensive strategy, calisthenics. The casual meet-ups were overseen by Koang Doluony, an affable, gravel-voiced 22-year-old who was finishing up his MBA at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He heard the two boys were in need of guidance and, thinking that basketball would be a positive outlet, he invited them to shoot around.
At first they used the basketball court at Pulaski Park in South Omaha, a rectangle of naked asphalt surrounded by crabgrass and crowned with a single hoop. There used to be two hoops when Doluony played pickup there after school, but neighboring residents, most of them white, complained of the growing crowds, and by 2010 someone removed one of the baskets. That didn't stop more boys from showing up each week, however, venturing from the different neighborhoods surrounding downtown and even as far as North Omaha, over an hour's trek by bus.
When the group numbered more than 30 boys, they moved to the courts at Christ Community Church in South Central Omaha. When there was nearly a hundred boys, they went to North High School. If needed, kids from South Omaha would catch a ride with Doluony, who was fast becoming a mentor as well as a basketball coach. By the end of the year, Doluony's low-key shoot-around turned into the Omaha Talons, a basketball program but also a congregation where everyone, including Doluony, was a refugee from South Sudan.
Doluony, now twenty-five and working as an insurance agent, came to Omaha from South Sudan in 1999. His mother raised him and his six siblings by herself, often working long hours to support them. After school, he and his Sudanese friends gathered at Pulaski Park to play basketball. Standing 6'8'' with long arms and quick feet, Doluony was a force in the local hoops scene and eventually played for Indiana State University. He sees the Omaha Talons as a way to give South Sudanese boys a goal-orientated environment where they can develop skills that translate off the court, and hopefully position themselves for opportunities beyond high school. It is also the most recent effort to build a dialogue with the greater city of Omaha about—and with—its South Sudanese community.
During the Second Sudanese Civil War, which ran from 1983 to 2005, hundreds of thousands of Sudanese citizens emigrated, and since the 1990s, an estimated 15,000 have landed in Omaha, attracted by the area's job opportunities and affordable housing. The city is now home to the largest Sudanese resettlement population outside of Africa.
When a refugee arrives in Omaha, a series of federally funded services help them get on their feet for the first ninety days: residential placement and furnishing, a social security number, enrollment in public school for children, English language classes, and job search assistance. There is a longer, eight-month cash assistance program, as well as free healthcare. Economic self-sufficiency, not cultural assimilation, is the top priority.
"We saw Sudanese families falling through the cracks because they need additional support," Lacey Studnicka, Community Services Program Development Officer at Lutheran Family Services, one of two resettlement agencies in Omaha, said. "Refugees tend to be invisible. They come here quietly and work in jobs that no one really wants anymore, and they have language barriers," as well as other challenges to assimilation.
These issues can be particularly challenging for child refugees as they try to assimilate into the Omaha Public School system. Roughly four percent of students enrolled in ESL classes are from Sudan, for example, but only one of the 143 teachers in the program specializes in the Nuer tribe dialect, the most common Sudanese dialect in Omaha. In 2015, the school system received about $117,000 for refugee education—not quite a quarter of what the state requested from the federal government. Teachers are often left scrambling.
"You have kids walk in, get familiar with their background as much as possible, and go from there," said Joe DiConstanzo, a tenured instructor with seven years experience in the school system. "In reality, sitting in a conference for a day or a week is not going to help the educator fully understand. Sitting in a living room with a family is the only way we can fully understand how culture impacts their learning."
"OPS is trying to systematically improve teaching, which is a human, fluid process," DiConstanzo continued. "If you just gave me more time to just hang out and understand my students better, I would be a better teacher."
"There are boundaries in place into how far teachers can go into a kid's personal life," said Dr. Dorian Crosby, a former assistant professor in the Black Studies Department at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Crosby, a native of Atlanta, had come to Omaha not only to teach but to also build case studies on refugee populations in the city. She worked mainly with Sudanese women, where Sudanese children in the public school system was a common topic of discussion. "It then becomes the community's responsibility to take care of them," Crosby continued. "And that's where the Talons come in—to provide a sense of belonging and familiarity."
"Basketball is just a hook to get them in place to let them learn about themselves and their personal potential," Doluony said. Talons offers a one-on-one environment with coaches and volunteers that can be hard to find in the school system, and allows kids to bring up social and academic issues with someone they trust. Doluony sets aside time for tutoring students if necessary, as well as encourages the more gifted players to pursue varsity ball at their high schools.
Edward Chang, a 6'7'' sophomore at Papillion-La Vista High School, just south of the Omaha-Papillion line, came to Omaha in 2002. Before that, his family lived in Germany for two years after fleeing Sudan. He started playing with the Talons in 2013 on some friends' recommendation. As a freshman, Chang made the varsity basketball team at Papillion-La Vista, the only Sudanese freshman to make the roster. He still makes time to practice with the Talons, and credits his success on the court to the Talons scrimmages and Doluony's emphasis on basketball fundamentals.
"Koang is a good guy," Chang said. "He also gives us extra help on homework and stuff—we get to set goals and that sort of thing. I know if I put my mind to something, that I can do it. He really taught me that."
Akoy Agau, who attends Georgetown on a full athletic scholarship, is the major success story for the Sudanese community of Omaha. He transferred in the spring from Louisville, where he played power forward but didn't get as much playing time as he would have liked.
Agau emigrated from South Sudan in 2003, settling in Omaha in 2005. "Having to learn the customs of America is a big battle," Agau said. "Being the outsider makes it harder to accomplish goals." At the city's public basketball courts, Agau met Doluony, who soon became a mentor figure for him, too. "I started out just like these kids and all it took was for someone to reach out to me," Agau said. "I took it and ran with it."
Agau visits the current crop of kids in the Talons program whenever he is in Omaha. "A lot of the kids are going through what I went through," he said. "I am just being an example, and showing them that it's possible to go to college." Although the Talons do not facilitate college recruiting directly, many in the program hope to play in college. Like many kids in the U.S., some dream about a future in the NBA; the majority just hope that basketball will give them a chance at higher education.
Only a handful of Sudanese players have broken into professional sports in the U.S.—Luol Deng, Manute Bol, and that's about it. Last month, Doluony traveled to Washington D.C. for a conference hosted by Deng's nonprofit organization. The conference included representatives from South Sudanese social work programs across the country. Deng wanted to bring together these grassroots efforts to facilitate broader conversations about life for Sudanese refugees in the United States. "He is in the position to enhance everything we are doing here," said Doluony, "and he thought that Talons and Omaha would be a good place to make a change."
For all the program's success, though, the Talons still have growing pains. The team currently meets on Friday nights at Omaha North High School, but long-term access to facilities is a problem. "It's a daily battle to secure places to play," Doluony said. They approached the local resettlement agencies for funding, but were turned down, and are now trying to coordinate with churches for reliable access to a gym, as well as options for transportation.
The ultimate goal for Doluony is to expand the Talons into a full-service community outreach program for South Sudanese in Omaha, which would offer job training, scholarship programs, community education events, after-school programs for students, and cultural assimilation assistance for adults. In 2013, Doluony brought on Bryan Wilson as president of the Talons to help him run the burgeoning operation. Wilson is not South Sudanese; he was aware of Doluony's efforts because his son is an avid basketball player in the community. "It just felt right when me and him were vibing," said Wilson. "We realized we were this magical couple with putting ideas together. We have something here because there is a big need for these kids."
Just as basketball acts as a hook for the kids, it has also acted as a way for Doluony to find his potential as a community leader. Since 2013, the Talons have hosted a South Sudanese Summer Festival, a weekend-long event in August that draws thousands of South Sudanese from around the country. One of the main attractions is the basketball tournament, and this year's competition included entrants from Kansas City, Des Moines, Denver, and Minneapolis. A team of local boys, the South Omaha Hoopers, won.
Chudier Pelpel, a 21-year-old South Sudanese refugee from San Diego and founder of the African-inspired clothing label ThirdWorld, helped Doluony promote the festival. "The South Sudanese population in San Diego is extremely small," Pelpel said. "That's why I wanted to do something like Summer Fest so I can be around people that I resonate with—migrating towards each other once a year and feel like we are home."
"Sudanese in Omaha are basically growing up on an island," Doluony said. "But basketball has become an instrument to assert ourselves. People are now starting to be interested in what this community is, and how we can fix our problems." Last year, Doluony met with Omaha Public Schools to discuss potential collaborations, including after-school programs and additional tutoring services for Sudanese kids. "They acknowledged that they need help," Doluony said. "But it's pulling a lot of people out of their comfort zone." No official changes have resulted yet.
He plans to keep chipping away at the challenges facing the South Sudanese—the kids involved in the Talons being his first priority. "I'm trying to tell kids that this is our story in America," Doluony said, "that we are here, that it's empowering, and that we shouldn't settle for the bare minimum."