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The Lincoln High School parking lot overflowed Saturday morning, the auditorium filled with one of Nebraska’s fastest-growing refugee communities gathering to celebrate its new year.

For the eighth year, the Karen New Year Celebration unfolded with traditional dances, food, clothes and other entertainment — but for the first time, it happened in Lincoln rather than Omaha.

“It is important to me to welcome you to this place as your new home,” Mayor Chris Beutler said through an interpreter.

The city is lucky people from many different cultures have decided to make their homes in Lincoln, he said.

“We encourage you to share your culture with the entire community, like the event you’ve planned today,” Beutler said. “It’s important we all continue working to build bridges with people who come from old and rich traditions.”

Saw Ner Clay of Omaha, secretary of the Karen Society of Nebraska, said the Karen population in Nebraska has grown to more than 5,000, many living in Omaha, Lincoln and Crete.

They come to Nebraska primarily from Thailand refugee camps after fleeing Burma’s civil war, which began in 1979.

Karen refugees began coming to Omaha in 2005, and to Lincoln and surrounding communities in 2007, Clay said. The Lincoln population has grown to about 700, he said, big enough that they decided to hold their annual New Year’s celebration here this year.

Lisa Polliver, multicultural student advocate at Lincoln High, which many Karen students attend, said she has loved getting to know the families.

“On behalf of Lincoln Public Schools, Lincoln High administrators and staff, thanks for being a valuable part of our community, for keeping your diverse cultural heritage alive and for being so welcoming and kind-hearted.”

The Karen year is 2753 — a year on a calendar that began when the Karen people moved into Burma, the first native people to live there, Clay said.

Those dancing and singing on the Lincoln High stage wore traditional, brightly-woven garments of their native country. They danced over large sticks of bamboo. They hit a drum — a traditional symbol of their country, like the Eagle in America. Lincoln High's students put on a fashion show.

And the audience applauded, recording the performances on their phones and cameras, because the annual celebration is important to the Karen community, Clay said.

“We feel this is the only event that will hold our people together,” he said.

​Reach Margaret Reist at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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