By Rita Shelley
Historically Omaha has attracted immigrants from all over the world. For Rajan Bhattarai from Kathmandu, Nepal, and Sneha Shah from the state of Gujarat in India, it was work that brought them here. Dawn Smejkal arrived by a different route, adopted from Korea by a Norfolk, Nebraska family when she was nine months old. The three work at Werner Enterprises where they have organized an Asian and Middle Eastern Associate Resource (AR) Group. As part of the group’s cultural outreach mission, they are hosting one of the rooms in the General Crook House Museum for our From the Globe to Our Home: Douglas County Ethnic Traditions exhibit.
Rajan, Senior Manager of Information Technology at Werner and chairperson of the AR Group, came to the United States as part of the U.S. Department of State’s annual Diversity Immigrant Visa program. The DIV Program makes only 50,000 immigrant visas available annually for the millions who apply, drawn from random selection among all entries from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States. From Nepal alone, 700,000 apply. He estimates there are 2,000 Nepali in Omaha.
Rajan has felt welcomed by how friendly Nebraskans are.
“The wonderful thing about Omaha is that everyone here says hi. You can talk about weather or football and feel like you’ve known that person for a long time.” When the weather conversations turn to snow, Rajan recalls his first winter here: “I never saw snow until I moved here. Kathmandu is sunny and 70 [degrees] all the time. Was January when we moved here. It snowed at 2 a.m. I watched that snow all morning. I cleaned off a friend’s car with my bare hands. Didn’t know how cold snow could be because I had never touched snow before!”
Rajan described two main Nepali holidays. The Dashain Tika Festival symbolizes the triumph of good over evil in 10 days of celebration. Diwali is a five-day festival of lights that celebrates the victory of light over darkness.
Sneha, a solutions architect at Werner, had never heard of Nebraska before coming here. “I was told to put my finger in the middle of the American map and that’s where Nebraska is.” She and her husband thought they would be here for one year; that was 15 years ago.
Sneha’s holidays span Christmas as well as Hindu festivals.
“We celebrated Christmas in India but on a much smaller scale. [Since being in Nebraska] it’s a big thing for us now – tree, presents, and our kids still believe in Santa.”
“But also there is such a large community from India in Omaha, I celebrate Hindu festivals even more than I did in India. Besides Diwali described by Rajan, she also celebrates Navaratri, a festival of nine nights in October during which each night honors a different goddess.
For Dawn, Associate Vice President of Risk Management at Werner, the opportunity to display Asian and Middle Eastern culture at the General Crook House Museum is important as a way to counter the stereotype of Nebraska as solely Caucasian. This dovetails with the mission of the AR group’s commitment to diversity and inclusion.
Dawn was born in Seoul, Korea. Because she was abandoned as a baby and no official record of her birth exists, her birth date was “on or about” February 8, 1971. Dawn was one of 24 babies who were on a flight from Korea to Seattle in November of that year. Adopted into a Caucasian family with Western traditions, Dawn grew up celebrating Christmas. She also has taken advantage of opportunities to learn about Asian holidays, including from Bhutanese and Chinese culture.
“I’ll be celebrating Chinese New Year in February this year,” she said. As far as celebrating uniquely Korean holidays, “I just haven’t had the opportunity,” she added.
With their goal of advancing Asian and Middle Eastern culture in Omaha, the Werner Associate Resource group’s participation in an exhibit that focuses on ethnic diversity was a perfect fit.
The General Crook House Museum’s holiday exhibit runs through Jan. 14, with Chinese New Year decorations remaining on display until Feb. 1.
DCHS would also like to thank Werner Enterprises for being one of our generous Adopt-A-Room sponsors – for the remainder of the From the Globe to Our Home exhibit, Werner employees with a company ID receive free admission to the General Crook House Museum. Click here to see the rest of our sponsors!