Omaha celebrates cultural collaborations with sister cities at UNO


By Emily Johnson

Over 200 people, including 60-some high school and college students, crowded into the Milo Bail Student Center’s Ballroom on March 21 to celebrate an international exchange of ideas, traditions and hopes for the future. The Omaha Sister Cities Association’s 2010 Global Gala honored the relationships between Omaha and its five sister cities. Over the past 45 years, Omaha has maintained professional and personal ties with Skizuoka, Japan; Braunschweig, Germany; Siauliai, Lithuania; Naas, Ireland; and Xalapa, Mexico.

Many groups and organizations came together to host and entertain the evening’s event, including the Boy Scouts of America, the UNO concert choir and the Omaha North High Magnet School jazz band. For the first time since its inception, the event also featured silent auction gift baskets for participants.

Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle, introduced by WOWT’s John Knicely, opened the night with a few words about recent calls for changes in the Omaha Police Department’s contracts. He jokingly held up a Christmas list for the year, the negotiation first and only optimistically checked-off item on the paper.

Suttle said Omaha is looking to welcome a sixth sister city, Yantai, China. He will continue to visit Yantai and the other cities to further build goodwill and spend time with international delegates.

“It’s important that as we get gifts coming to us, we show the honor and respect and thanks for having such wonderful gifts here, and we need to reciprocate and put a great deal of thought into what we’re going to give back to those sister cities, one by one,” he said. “We are a city of many cultures, even though we may have forgotten a lot of those cultures over the generations, so if we’re going to be a first-class city and a city of the future, we have to build on the cultures and we need to add new cultures into our mix as a city. I want to make sure we have our beat foot forward every time.”

Suttle said a lot of work remains to be done to strengthen ties. In particular, he’s looking to expand the Steering Committee and establish a “broader base of thinking.”

“If you look at our city right now, we speak over 80 languages in our public schools that have English as a second language as we educate our kids,” he said. “If we look at how we’re growing, we’re going to be the largest Sudanese population city in the nation. Burma is sending the Karen here, we’re going to get another couple thousand [refugees], and we certainly have the positive impact that we see from the Hispanic cultures throughout Latin America. As we become a blend of people, I think it’s very important that we blend our cultures so we have respect for one another and have the ability to share each other’s cultures as well.”

Sue Mehaffy, chair of the coordinating council and corporate board member for the OSCA, said the event’s activities included a presentation of Emeritus Awards to honor the people who first built the bridge between Omaha and Skizuoka.

“Forty-five years ago, Omaha Sister Cities twinned with Skizuoka, Japan, so tonight we though it’s be a wonderful idea to make sure we honored the people who started it all,” she said. “These people started this a long time ago and we want to make sure that everybody knows who they are.”

She said two Makeno scholars are being honored as who came over from Skizuoka to study at UNO for four years. One of the students has completed her studies and received a Key to the City at the gala. The other student just began her studies and received a proclamation award. When she graduates, Mehaffey said, she too will be presented with a key.

“I went to Skizuoka in 2001 and my life changed,” Mehaffy said. “I realized face-to-face that friendships could develop with people who are so totally different from us, yet still like to smile, like to play games, like to have fun, like to get to know you and participate in educational and cultural activities, so to me, things like this are the answer, really, to peace in the world. It sounds really trite and boring, maybe, but personal relationships are really what make the whole program work.”

Dozens of UNO international students attended the event, socializing, networking and sharing their stories.

UNO graduate Naoko Masuda transferred to UNO after studying in Iowa because she wanted to pursue her dream of social work at a bigger school.

“UNO had a very good program for social work and my passion for social work is what drew me here,” she said. “We have a very long history of a sister city relationship, and it’s really good to keep that going, and I’m really glad to be a part of that.”

UNO graduate student Maya Yosida first came to Omaha in 2007 and later returned to study elementary education at UNO.

“I really like the people and atmosphere of Omaha,” she said. “I think it’s very important because with the programs we can exchange students and learn different cultures and other differences. There’s always opportunities for us to get to know more people.


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