South Sudanese woman worked to end isolation

By Shelby Wade of Mosaic of Lincoln
From the moment she steps up to the podium in her traditional royal blue South Sudanese lawo, Christine Ross is all smiles. Then, for a moment, the smile disappears as Ross begins her introductory remarks for Omaha’s International Women’s Day event. “When refugees came here, they did not hear nor see any celebration for Women’s Day,” Ross said. “They requested to organize a celebration on Women’s Day, but they did not want to do it alone. And here we are.”

The smile reappears as Ross passes the microphone to Omaha’s first female mayor, Jean Stothert. Throughout the rest of the event, Ross never pauses to sit down. She is continuously on the move, weaving through the crowd, talking to everyone she meets. A smile never leaves her face as she continues to shake hands and give hugs to everyone she meets. Ross thought up the idea for an International Women’s Day event in Omaha, Neb. She is a passionate supporter of women’s rights and wanted to bring the idea of International Women’s Day to Nebraska.  “There’s so many international women in Omaha,” Ross said. “We want to tell them to come out of their house to learn more.”

Ross’s passion for women’s rights may stem from her background. Originally from South Sudan, she came to the United States in 1995, during the Second Sudanese Civil War. Historically, in South Sudan, women are not viewed as equal to men, but rather mainly as caregivers and mothers.
After spending three years in a refugee camp in Kenya, Ross came to the U.S. with her 9-month-old daughter. Language wasn’t a barrier for Ross, who started learning English in elementary school. Her problem was isolation.

Ross is quick to say her story cannot be compared to other refugees who “really had it rough.”
“I was lucky enough to have people checking in on me, and doing other things such as giving me rides to get groceries. They would drop everything to come and get me. I thought it was amazing what they did for me. “Today I feel like I don’t have to bother them, but it’s just the thought that I have someone there who would come to my aid if needed.” Ross’s journey eventually led her to the University of Nebraska Medical Center, where she earned her master’s degree in public health.

She currently works at Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska’s Omaha office, as a refugee health care liaison, a position she has held for three years. Ross provides health education to refugees who have resettled in the Omaha area, as well as assistance with any problems they may have. Another huge part of Ross’s life is her work with the Refugee Women Organization of Nebraska. Ross started the organization in February 2013.

“There’s so many issues going on with refugee women, but if you look who is talking on behalf of the refugees, it’s all men.” Ross said. “The women’s issues are not represented. We thought there has to be a way for women to feel comfortable and to express their problems.” The organization hosts a refugee cultural night every year in Omaha. The group has also made hats to give to children receiving various treatments at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. “We thought, as women, we need to touch other mothers,” Ross said. “We wanted them to know we are with them in the hardships they are going through.”

Included with the hats were greeting cards the group wrote in various languages, encouraging the families, and showing support. Ross said the cards received a positive reaction due to the range of patients at the hospital. “Obviously there’s a range of patients from all different states at UNMC,” Ross said. “It was really surprising to some of them to get a card from someone they don’t know speaking their language.”

Christa Yoakum, program coordinator of Nebraska Is Home, first worked with Ross during Omaha’s South Sudan out of country registration and voting drive in 2010. Since then, Yoakum has worked with Ross on various activities in the refugee community.
“The one thing that’s been the most interesting is how she’s organized these women,” Yoakum said. “One of the things she has told me several times, and kind of schooled me on, is that all of these women have something to provide to the community; they all have some skills and knowledge and expertise to offer, even those who have no formal schooling. I think that piece is so important for people to recognize.”

Ross hopes to continue her work with women in the refugee community. By bringing refugee women together, she hopes to help others combat the isolation she faced upon her arrival in the U.S.
“Women need that interaction; they need that sharing of experiences,” Ross said. “We don’t want people thinking that the problems they’re going through, they are going through alone. It kind of gives you comfort, that at least you’re not alone.”