By Anna Gronewold
Free chips and salsa are being offered today, on a long table in the middle of the cafeteria next to a poster advertising 3D mammograms.
Hawa Mohamed, 58, swirls a corn chip in her Tupperware of lentil soup from home.
“What are these for?” she asks Niabiey Riek, 43, who is sitting next to her.
Niabiey and the two other women at the table, wearing identical maroon collared uniforms, are unsure.
“Peace and love! Peace and love!” Yanira Reyes, 47, swoops in late. Usually she is first to arrive, first to unfold four or five paper napkins as makeshift placemats for her friends.
“Do not talk to me,” Zymrite Memeti, 44, mumbles, chewing spinach pita she made on her day off yesterday. “I am very busy today.”
“Zuma, why do you always eat that?” Guadalupe Alvarado, 49, asks, using the nickname they have adopted for Zymrite at the hospital.
“It’s, like, a national dish, they eat every day in her country,” Hawa explains.
It’s been like this every day for at least five years, mingled sounds, languages and smells wafting from the 11:30 a.m. lunch group in the back of the Bryan Health hospital cafeteria. In the past two decades, Hawa and Niabiey escaped Sudan, Yanira left El Salvador, Zymrite fled Kosovo and Guadalupe immigrated from Mexico. Bryan Health employs more than 60 refugees and immigrants from 21 countries in the environmental services department at the hospital’s East Campus on 48th Street.
The hospital doesn’t specifically market housekeeping jobs to refugees, environmental services supervisor Mike Hanigan said, but openings spread throughout Lincoln refugee communities like wildfire. Many new employees start on second shift, cleaning Bryan’s administrative offices in the afternoons and evenings. Second shift requires minimal patient interaction; often second-shift workers speak little to no English.
“Oh, it was so bad,” Zymrite said, remembering her arrival in Lincoln from Kosovo with nothing and no way to communicate. She would point and nod in the grocery store – Clorox, salt, sugar, flour – but she had no way to know if the products were what she wanted.
They all started there. But through jobs like housekeeping at Bryan, they were forced to learn English. Language became the common denominator.
On Saturday Niabeiy brings a Styrofoam cup full of dried fruit she offers around the table.
“Would you like some …?” she trails off, and glances at Hawa for the English word. Hawa doesn’t know. Together the group brainstorms, their mouths forming around hard English consonants, searching for a word they know but can’t place.
They remember I’m there. Five faces turn.
“Cranberries,” I say.
“Cranberries! Yes,” Guadalupe confirms. “Very good for your urinary tract.”
Now they are all fluent in English and work first shift. They talk with hospital staff and patients – “Hello, my name is Yanira, and I’ll be cleaning your room and bathroom.” The 30-minute lunch break has become an international marketplace of food and new words.
“It’s called conserva,” Yanira says, handing a cube of pink frosted candy to Hawa.
“We make it in my country.”
Hawa chews politely on the block of sugar and coconut. She doesn’t love it, but she’s content with the idea of learning something new. She and Zymrite test out Spanish phrases they’ve picked up from Yanira and Guadalupe.
“I know manana, mucho trabajo and poquito dinero,” Zymrite says, accompanied by her signature husky laugh.
Group members vary throughout the week, depending on who has a day off and who is skipping lunch to save money. Bedrie Ademi, 38, sits with them only when Zymrite is gone. Bedrie and Zymrite share similar stories – Serbian soldiers invading their homes in Kosovo and crowded refugee camps in Macedonia. They arrived in the United States only a year apart in the late ’90s and bring the same stuffed pita bread to lunch. But linked by their country, their rivalry focuses on perceived differences in treatment from supervisors and staff, Hanigan said.
Hanigan makes it a point to be intimately aware of his employees’ struggles, exacerbated by cultural differences – fears of law enforcement, abusive husbands, family members wrapped up in the drug trade and children’s difficulty assimilating to American schools. It’s important to be aware of the forces that lead people to where they are today, he said. But that doesn’t mean he holds them to different standards than a native-born employee.
“We’re not a family,” Hanigan said. “We’re a community.”
Refugees often stick to the pockets of communities formed by other immigrants in the city who share a common birthplace. Family ties determine where they are resettled, and language shapes the interactions. Workplaces like Bryan are unique, said Karen Parde, Nebraska Department of Health & Human Services refugee coordinator.
“Where you have group of employees that are working together, those barriers are broken,” Parde said. “They do become friends and communicate. That’s not just refugees, that’s people like you and me. If our work environment puts us in a setting where we are surrounded by people different from us, we do form those friendships.”
Hawa is not the oldest, but she calmly and quietly cares for the other women. Before moving to Lincoln, she taught English at the University of Khartoum and later in Egypt and Oman. Though her degrees didn’t transfer to the United States, she remains an educator. She helps new refugees to fill out their electronic time cards. Her eyes, hidden behind a soft headscarf and pink eyeglasses, carefully scan employee announcements in order to explain current hospital events to her lunch table.
It’s not the same as Sudan or the Middle East, Hawa said. There are challenges in working long, hard days with people from so many different backgrounds. But she won’t spend her lunch break anywhere else.
“They are good people,” Hawa said. “We are all the same.”