The Mekong grocery store bustled Saturday with a steady stream of customers.
Lam Pham, who owns the store with his wife, Lieu Vo, fielded customers' questions and filled special orders. Their 20-year-old daughter ran the cash register. Their 9-year-old girl, ready to help people find things, walked through aisles that are jam-packed with everything from Buddhist shrines and 50-pound bags of rice to dried radishes and lotus root starch.
"It's a family business," Pham said. "Everybody helps out here."
And seemingly everybody shops there too. The store, at 3068 Q St., is a window into a world most Omahans see little of, because the city's Asian population is so small.
Pham's fellow Vietnamese buy groceries at Mekong, named for a river in Vietnam. So do others of various ethnicity and national origin - Chinese, Filipino, Laotian, Korean, Cambodian, Hmong and Thai, among others.
Normally, the presence of Asian-Americans in Omaha rarely draws a second thought. But they were on the city's mind recently. Authorities took 10 children from two Asian immigrant families after teachers reported bruising on some children. Teachers and police suspected child abuse.
Authorities initially rejected the families' explanation that the marks resulted from a traditional Southeast Asian folk-medicine practice called coining. It involves rubbing ointment into the skin with such objects as coins or spoons.
The children were in foster care for three days and nights before being returned to their parents. Six of the children, ages 8, 7, 4, 23 months, 14 months and 4 months, are from a Vietnamese family. Four, ages 8, 7, 4 and 2, are from a Hmong family.
If the name Mekong sounds familiar to Americans not from Asia, it's probably because of the Vietnam War. That conflict also is why most Vietnamese and Hmong people in the United States are here.
The Hmong and Vietnamese immigration to Nebraska is a small part of an influx of refugees to the United States from the Vietnam War. Mainly, they came from 1975 until the early 1990s, fleeing from the region after the conflict.
Nationwide, about 1.1million Vietnamese and 170,000 Hmong were counted in the 2000 U.S. Census. The actual numbers may be twice that, said Mark Pfeifer, of the Hmong Cultural Center in St. Paul, Minn. The census counted 101 Hmong in Nebraska, the vast majority in Omaha. But former Omaha City Councilman Lormong Lo, who is Hmong, puts the number at more than 200, perhaps as high as 300.
Most came from an area of Laos near northern Vietnam. There, many, including Lo, aided U.S. troops in the Vietnam War. Many are relatives of Lo, who said he was the first Hmong to come to Omaha when he arrived in 1976. He came, he said, because a Lutheran church in Ralston offered to sponsor him.
Mostly, the immigrants themselves hold manufacturing jobs while working to advance their children further up the economic ladder.
Kaying Lor, the father of the Hmong children taken from the home, makes credit cards for First Data Resources. Seng Chang, his wife, repairs metal gloves worn by meatpackers. Lormong Lo owns a mortgage business.
Hmong immigrants in the United States "started really low on the socio-economic pole, probably lower than any other Asian population," Pfeifer said. "They really have made a lot of progress in the last decade."
In the Twin Cities, for example, only 10 percent of Hmongs owned homes in 1990. By 2000, that number grew to 60 percent, Pfeifer said.
One of the four main annual Hmong social functions in Omaha is a spring celebration for all Hmong graduates. Students at all levels who have good grades receive awards.
Beyond being a social event, it stresses the importance of education and encourages children to study hard, said Hue Lo, a Hmong man who has lived in Omaha for 22 years.
Hue Lo said the Hmong are trying to hold on to their culture, teaching their U.S.-born children the Hmong language and retaining some traditional practices such as coining.
Vietnamese are more numerous in Nebraska - 6,364 by official census count, though still a small minority. The population is centered in Lincoln, where many live near a stretch of North 27th Street that is peppered with Asian-owned businesses.
The Vietnamese community in Omaha - 1,095 by Census count - is more scattered than in Lincoln, said Binh Ly, a University of Nebraska at Omaha student whose family owns a business, Huong Que, at 39th and Q Streets.
The store, a block from the Vietnamese Alliance Church, is one of a handful of Omaha businesses that rents Vietnamese videos. It also sells some medicines, as well as Asian and Western clothing. Fliers on the wall tout Vietnamese fingernail shops. Another advertises the real estate agent services of Ly's mother, Linda Tran.
She is working on creating a Vietnamese Buddhist temple in Omaha, Ly said.
Down the street, Lam Pham and Lieu Vo work within sight of the public housing development where they first lived in Omaha. They and their son, who is now 26, came to Omaha from the Philippines as refugees.
They had been rescued by the Philippine navy after escaping from Vietnam by boat in 1979, shortly after Pham was released from a four-year stint at a detention camp.
He worked in factories and she was a waitress when they first arrived, settled by the U.S. government as refugees. They worked, saved and brought several more family members here to join them. That, Pham said, is a common story among Vietnamese. Asian census numbers PRE
IOWANEBRASKA Total35,95121,585 Asian Indian
5,6413,273 Bangladeshi8024 Cambodian656107 Chinese 5,8362,996 Filipino2,2722,101 Hmong
280101 Indonesian297104 Japanese1,4741,582 Korean
5,0632,423 Laotian 4,079902 Malaysian13443 Pakistani311166 Sri Lankan7655 Taiwanese32597 Thai1,162445 Vietnamese7,1296,364 Other Asian1,136802 /PRE
Source: U.S. Census 2000