By Juli Oberlander
When Jacob Idra was at Creighton University, only two percent of the student population looked like him.
When he attended Mount Michael Benedictine School, he was one of six African students. Idra, who was born in South Sudan, may have experienced a lack of diversity in his student life, but that hasn’t stopped him from accomplishing his dreams.
During his years at Mount Michael, Idra says there were so few African American students enrolled there, despite the school’s long history in the Omaha area. Eventually, Idra became a residential dean at the school, where he was the first Black employee on staff who wasn’t working in the kitchen. In his two years on staff, Mount Michael had a total of 15 Black students.
“When I went to Mount Michael, it was just a whole different world,” Idra says. “I thought, ‘Why can’t more of us be here?’ Why don’t kids in our community have access to this?”
When he was young, Idra immigrated to the United States with his family, settling in North Omaha. Growing up, Idra played with several North and East Omaha-based basketball youth development programs that have produced multiple college athletes over the years. While there, Idra benefited from various mentors who provided him with academic, leadership, and growth opportunities.
Through academic merit, Idra received a full-ride Father Markoe scholarship to attend Creighton University. At the same time, he was mentoring Black youth in Omaha, laying the foundation for ROSS Leaders, a holistic program that provides mentorship, academic support, and guidance to South Sudanese children.
As Founder and Executive Director, Idra is one of various mentors (many of whom are South Sudanese) who help youth of all ages reach their potential, connecting them with academic opportunities, life experiences, and basketball camps to help them grow in their athletic abilities. However, Idra says ROSS Leaders is not merely a basketball program or just an after-school program. It’s a community development organization providing a platform for youth to connect and obtain opportunities they more than likely wouldn’t receive if not for ROSS Leaders.
“We started off with sports, but it’s grown to so much more,” Idra says. “Through sports, we create spaces where our youth can open to us. We focus on supporting them through all the different obstacles they may face. A lot of our youth are not able to openly express all the different traumas that they go through, and they do go through a lot of traumas, whether that’s generational trauma or challenges they’re experiencing in their neighborhood or their schools.”
A holistic program
Overall health and wellness are another part of the mission, along with cultural engagement. At one time, Idra says American-born South Sudanese youth were not connected to their homeland.
At ROSS Leaders, the team works hard to help children feel proud of their South Sudanese identity, and even return home to help build their country.
“There was a very long time in Omaha where you weren’t proud to be South Sudanese,” Idra says. “Outsiders in the community were either talking down on you or you were going through different challenges just getting accustomed as an immigrant, but now a lot of our kids who are South Sudanese walk around with their chins up. They’re proud to be South Sudanese because of the different programs that we’re providing, but also nationally, what has taken place. I think the most special thing is that different leaders who are South Sudanese from across the country have risen.”
Currently, ROSS Leaders has chapters in cities such as Omaha, Lincoln, Minneapolis, Dallas, Manchester, New Hampshire, and Greensboro, North Carolina. In the summer of 2020, David Ebert, a mentor to several South Sudanese leaders with ROSS Leaders, connected mentees Idra and Majak Wenyin, a ROSS mentor and founder of the SO Elite basketball partnering with the program. ROSS Leaders grew nationally from there.
“We were able to connect basically Omaha, Mankato, Minnesota, and Manchester, New Hampshire all in one place during the pandemic,” Ebert says. “That’s where the young leaders came in and filled that void of all these very talented young leaders doing amazing things for the community. They need to be acknowledged for it, and it’s really special what ended up occurring. It’s just the beginning of what we know is going to be something very, very special for many years to come.”
One big family
In the 1990s, many South Sudanese began immigrating to America, coming to cities with resettlement programs like Omaha, Lincoln, and Minneapolis where housing was affordable, and jobs were plentiful. To provide for their families, parents must work long hours at various blue-collar jobs, particularly in areas like meat packing.
Ebert says the parents care very much about their children, but their work schedules often don’t allow them to be present. For South Sudanese youth, self-sufficiency is a necessary skill, as many learn to take care of themselves at a young age. Consequently, they don’t always receive the emotional and academic support they need, which is where the mentors at ROSS Leaders come in.
“That’s the same lifestyle we grew up in,” Idra says. “We just try to be there as big siblings for a lot of those kids and try to get them connected with the right people so that they can have better opportunities moving forward.”
While the program is South Sudanese-based and promotes South Sudanese culture, ROSS Leaders accepts all youth who come in the door. Ebert says he equates the program to a family atmosphere that helps kids realize their dreams.
“You’re just part of a big family, and it really doesn’t matter what your cultural heritage and race is,” Ebert says. “It’s more like you are accepted into something that’s very special. Most of the kids who are outside of the South Sudanese community feel that way. It transcends the actual culture because you’re part of a big family. I credit Jacob and his team for establishing that culture. They’re really changing lives, and it’s fun. They do a lot of cool things.”
Fighting for change
Idra says ROSS Leaders allows students at a young age to visualize their hopes and aspirations at a much higher level. The program also helps them see the opportunities in front of them, and not just in Omaha. ROSS Leaders provides students with access to networking events and basketball training camps taking place across the country.
For many South Sudanese youth, travel is not realistic due to financial and logistical constraints, something Idra says he knows from experience. When the students travel to ROSS Leaders events, it’s often their first time leaving the city, or state, or boarding an airplane.
“When you’re coming from a place like we come from, you don’t take monthly or summer vacations,” Idra says. “We have these national events where young people can network. Now we’re connecting our community across the country. That’s how ROSS has made itself national, and the impact that we have. This is a community organization, a holistic program that focuses on not only youth development but also community development.”
“ROSS Leaders currently has over 50 mentors and students who are in college and making an impact at their universities”
Through ROSS Leaders, Idra and his team have helped youth gain admission to elite preparatory schools such as Mount Michael, along with earning full-ride academic and athletic scholarships to prestigious universities. Ebert says many students commit to playing Division I basketball at colleges such as Michigan State, Monmouth, Columbia, Rutgers, Tennessee, academically the University of Houston and are recruited by the University of Louisville, the University of South Carolina, which have top men’s and women’s programs.
Idra says others stay at home, attending UNO and UNL on the Buffett scholarship. ROSS Leaders currently has over 50 mentors and students who are in college and making an impact at their universities.
“Just seeing that for all of our students is amazing,” Idra says. “That was not a reality 10, 15 years ago for the South Sudanese community.”
One success story close to Idra’s and Ebert’s hearts is that of Jacob Dar. Ebert met Dar at the Bryant Center in North Omaha a few years ago when Dar and his friends were playing on the outdoor basketball courts. After introducing himself, Ebert joined Dar, his friends, and a few other players for a pickup game.
As they played, Ebert says Dar was scoring every point for his team. Following the game, Ebert gave Dar his phone number, and they kept in contact. Dar went on to play for Omaha Central, but he always got cut when he tried out for the AAU independent teams in Omaha.
Frustrated, Dar contacted Ebert, who connected him with Idra and ROSS Leaders. During COVID, Dar and the ROSS players worked on their game in their garages and on outdoor courts. As a result of his hard work, Dar eventually earned the opportunity to play at Freedom Christian Academy and make All-State in basketball-rich North Carolina, which led him to receive a full-ride basketball scholarship from Emory & Henry University.
“I do have a soft place in my heart [for him], so I have to admit my bias here, but he’s what ROSS represents: the kid who everybody gives up on, the kid who nobody believes in, the kid who gets turned away at every corner, but there’s a group there that accepts him,” Ebert says. “It wasn’t because he was a good basketball player. He was OK. When I met him as a 9th grader, he was probably below average for his age group, but he just stuck with it. Now, he’s created a great opportunity. When you hear the name ‘Jacob Dar,’ he is the standard, people light up, and one of the young men our youth look up to. We want to make sure guys like Jacob Dar don’t fall through the cracks, whether it’s being consumed by the streets, not getting opportunities, or being turned down every step of the way. We want to make sure there’s never another Jacob Dar that gets pulled away. I think that’s why it’s so important.”
Let us in
Idra says the ROSS team understands what it’s like to not attain certain opportunities because they were once those kids themselves. When people tell him he’s achieved in life because he’s “different,” Idra uses that as further motivation to help youth succeed.
He says the students he works with are not any different from him or the other leaders at ROSS. They deserve to receive the same opportunities he secured with the help of mentors in his life.
“So many of our students have been denied access to either different resources or different opportunities, whether that’s attending a school they want to go to or getting into a basketball team,” Idra says. “When they are with us and we’re able to put them in a position to succeed, we see them blossom. Never giving up on a hard-working student is really a part of who we are.”
Idra says this lack of access is an ongoing story for the South Sudanese community. The majority of South Sudanese basketball players who play at a Division I level usually have to leave Nebraska to receive scholarships. At that point, Idra saw a trend, even though both original and recent players such as Akoy Agau, Reith Jeich, Doul Mayot, Aguek Arop, Edward Chang, Wanjang Tut, Isaiah Nyiwe, Buay Tut, Jay Pal, and more recently Akol Arop, Lök Wor, Jacob Dar, and the Bashir Twins (Abdi and Abdul) who have put Omaha on the basketball map.
“It just speaks to us being overshadowed, even at something that we excel at,” Idra says. “There’s so much that we bring to the city that sometimes just gets overlooked.”
Along with fighting for scholarships, Idra says many South Sudanese youth in North Omaha are unable to go to certain gyms or participate in tournaments that are moving to suburbs such as Elkhorn and Papillion. Because the tournaments and resources are confined to those areas, the talent is increasing at suburban schools, which is negatively impacting Omaha high schools.
Idra says no OPS metro team other than Central in 2022 has made it to state basketball in the last two years because their youth basketball has moved out of North Omaha, which means many inner-city black students, including ROSS students aren’t able to develop their game in the youth development programs that Idra participated in as a student.
“That has been taken away from North Omaha,” Idra says. “It’s affecting not only our South Sudanese community and the whole North Omaha community but also the school systems.
Now, there’s less of those same youth development programs that people like me came up through that used to be in the inner city. These high schools are also going to be feeling that because they are losing talent from the community.”
Ebert says North Omaha has the facilities, but kids simply can’t get in. Until that changes, ROSS Leaders will continue to hold camps and conferences to help empower the South Sudanese community.
“You have to sometimes wonder why,” Ebert says. “Why is that the case?
This program within the city is doing so many good things, sending kids to school, doing educational activities, cultural awareness, keeping kids off the streets, and providing safe havens for them.
So why is it that we’re constantly being turned down from these facilities?”
At the same time, Ebert says ROSS Leaders is constantly fighting for funding, even though the organization arguably does more impactful work than Nebraska nonprofits that receive better funding yet aren’t serving the South Sudanese community as well as they could.
Idra says many of the ROSS mentors are college students who work tirelessly to provide academic, emotional, and social support for youth and their families, often sacrificing their own aspirations to ensure the students’ success. As ROSS Leaders grows, Idra, his team, and their base of donors and supporters will continue to fight for their students to receive the same opportunities as other youth.
“Let us in,” Idra says. “We need access to different resources to empower our community. The leaders are right here. We’re on the ground. We’re with the kids.”
A need for representation
When Idra was a freshman at Creighton, he brought a group of 30 South Sudanese kids to the campus. While they were touring the university, Idra says the students noticed various people staring at them, which speaks to the problems that still exist within the Omaha community.
Another issue Idra says he seeks to address is Creighton’s inaccessibility to Black and South Sudanese students, despite its location in the heart of North Omaha. For many youths, Creighton is a completely foreign world because they have never been able to step foot on the campus, and that’s why Idra always brings his students with him to campus.
“How can I proudly say that’s the institution I graduated from if my people aren’t represented there?” Idra says. “I think that’s the thing with Omaha as a whole. We need to improve in that area. We have diversity in Omaha. We just don’t have the same access to certain places, which keeps our people down.”
While he was at Creighton, Idra was heavily involved in academics and campus organizations. Many South Sudanese students have that same drive, and Ebert says Creighton and other institutions should recognize that.
“There are many Jacobs Idras in North Omaha, but they’re essentially not given access to that university,” Ebert says. “It’s a Jesuit school with a mission to do good in the world by its mission and values, but all it’s really doing is encroaching on the community, taking up the land, and building more fancy buildings. We need to change that narrative. If we know there are a bunch of Jacob Idras in North Omaha and South Omaha, then we need to nurture that.”
While Omaha still needs to make strides regarding equity, Ebert says the mentors at ROSS Leaders are continuing to support South Sudanese children in the communities they serve.
He says he is proud of the team’s work, and the impact will only grow as the movement spreads across the country.
“I tell the leaders all the time, ‘What you don’t understand is that you guys are performing miracles,’” Ebert says. “‘There’s a critical need that you guys are serving, and for these kids, you’re changing the trajectory of their lives.’ I think it’s time for the world to know that.”