OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - Six Monroe Middle School boys stop talking about basketball, homework and what they’re having for lunch so they can listen to Galat Toang.
Sitting in a conference room, the tall 26-year-old reads them a letter he wrote to the rapper T.I. after hearing his new album.
“It made me think about life and being an African American,” Toang said, reading the letter. “I’ve always enjoyed your music since coming to America in 2004 while learning English.”
One of the boys in the group looks like Toang, who is from South Sudan. The boy doesn’t say much during the 30-minute discussion, but he laughs at jokes and soaks up Toang’s words.
The boy and others like him are why Toang has his job.
The Omaha World-Herald reports Toang was hired in December by the Omaha Police Department as a gang prevention specialist. His goal is to help Sudanese and other immigrant groups with struggles they may be facing.
Like the department’s other three gang specialists, Toang acts as a role model to all youths and works to encourage kids to take a positive path in life.
The Police Department has noted a rise in Sudanese gang members over the past two decades as thousands of Sudanese refugees have resettled in the Omaha metro area. The two largest Sudanese gangs in the area are Trip Set and African Pride, but gang members of Sudanese descent also are in other neighborhood gangs.
Gang involvement has a direct link to poverty, said Omaha Police Capt. Thomas Shaffer of the gang unit. Youths are attracted by the promise of quick money while their parents work two jobs to get by.
The gang members are a tiny percentage of the otherwise thriving 10,000-plus Sudanese refugees who now live in Omaha, which is thought to have the largest Sudanese refugee community in the nation.
Police leaders wanted to have someone in their corner who could speak directly to young immigrants about adjusting to the stark cultural changes that Sudanese people experience - and to do so without turning to criminal activity.
“Living in America is not easy. There are ups and downs,” Toang said. “Coming to America, being able to follow a decent lifestyle, not follow the crowd and be able to make something out of myself - that shows a lot, and hopefully other kids can follow the example that I’m trying to lead them to.”
Police had a difficult time filling the gang prevention specialist position, which was publicly announced in April 2019, Shaffer said. Toang was ready to join the U.S. military until “the job found him” and he was asked to interview.
Since starting the work, Toang has been “like a sponge,” Shaffer said. Toang speaks to kids at Monroe, McMillan Magnet Middle School, Indian Hills Elementary School and at Boys and Girls Clubs of the Midlands, which helps pay the gang specialists. He also talks with kids at the Douglas County Youth Center, conducts home visits for at-risk kids and meets with other refugee groups. Two weeks ago, for example, he spoke with about 20 Karen refugees.
“We all came through that same struggle, and to be able to have someone who went through that same experience as you, it makes a difference,” he said. “They can see that you’ve walked it.”
Toang and his family arrived in the United States on March 24, 2004, when Toang was 10 years old. They settled in Des Moines, where he graduated from high school. He then attended a junior college in Illinois for a year on a basketball scholarship. He returned home because he needed surgery for a groin injury. He then played for three years at Grace University in Omaha. When the college closed, he transferred to Bellevue University, where he graduated.
He didn’t know English when he arrived, but now speaks it perfectly, with no accent. Like most of the Omaha Sudanese population, Toang is from the Nuer Tribe, and he still speaks the Nuer language fluently.
South Sudan has roughly 64 tribes, Toang said, but tribal differences don’t matter to him in Omaha.
“I’m not just helping a tribe, I’m helping a community,” he said.
Toang attended a discussion among Sudanese leaders and residents in mid-February that addressed youth violence. Several Omaha police officers took part in the talk, which was hosted by New Life Family Alliance, an organization started by Sudanese people that helps other refugees from South Sudan adapt to American life.
Sudanese leaders expressed frustration and questioned why some youths looked up to gang members and disobeyed their parents.
Officer Dave Ullery, an Omaha police gang intelligence detective, has been studying refugee gangs for about five years. He explained that the African gangs started out of a need for protection against other gangs who lived in South Omaha public housing.
Most of the gang members are Americanized and don’t know or remember much about their South Sudanese culture, Ullery said.
“They do not respect their families, they do not respect their elders,” Ullery said. “There’s tension in the family and cultural differences within their own family.”
Some of the gang members are stealing cars from Sarpy and Washington Counties, maxing out stolen credit cards, getting access to guns and dealing drugs such as Xanax, fentanyl and marijuana, Ullery said. A group of Trip Set members who live in Washington, where marijuana is legal, ships weed to Omaha, where it then is distributed to cities across Nebraska and Iowa, he said.
Officials hope violence among Sudanese gangs and the public doesn’t worsen. In June, 24-year-old Jal Dak Kun was fatally shot, and 23-year-old Bol Kueth is awaiting trial on a first-degree murder charge. Ullery said the motive for the shooting was tribal conflicts between groups in Des Moines and Omaha.
In April, 11 Trip Set gang members were arrested in connection with gun and drug charges. The U.S. Attorney’s Office said the Trip Set gang had become more active in Omaha over the past three years, with about 150 gang members and associates.
But gang life has plagued several other ethnic groups - it’s not a problem unique to the Sudanese, said gang unit Officer Tony Espejo.
“These problems that we’re talking about … it doesn’t just happen to South Sudanese kids,” he told the Sudanese group. “It’s happened to Latino kids, African American kids, white kids, Polish, Irish, any immigrant group that’s ever come to the United States of America.”
Espejo, who runs the Police Athletics for Community Engagement free sports league coached by officers, hopes to start up basketball leagues with help from the Sudanese community. Membership in PACE has skyrocketed in the past few years and is an indicator that prevention and outreach programs are working, despite gang membership staying relatively steady in the past few years.
The efforts are hard to quantify, but Shaffer said it’s the individual successes that matter. For as much as gang unit officers enforce laws and make arrests, they’re also working hard to interact with the community in order to keep youths away from a life of crime.
Officers work to engage with late elementary school or middle school students who may be at risk for gang membership - the youths could have an older sibling who is a part of a gang or come from a family that has been involved in criminal activity. The department also is helping older former gang members get driver’s licenses and pay court fees - barriers that can prevent them from gaining employment.
“We’re not trying to limit the gang population by incarceration,” Shaffer said. “Obviously, that takes people out of society, but it doesn’t stop new membership. That’s where prevention comes in.”
The majority of the Sudanese refugees who resettle in Omaha find stable employment, said Jmaleldinn Adame, the senior manager of programs at Omaha’s Refugee Empowerment Center. The organization helps refugees with a long to-do list of items, such as doctor’s appointments, housing, language classes and employment, then follows up with families about six months to a year after they arrive.
“They’re doing the best they can,” Adame said.
“Galat brings a unique perspective to kids,” said Sgt. Jon Waller. “He’s definitely a motivated, dedicated person that wants to give back to the community. We’re lucky to have him.”
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