A Proper Oregon Welcome

Portland, OR | June 2016 | By Kate Willson

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Elected officials and community leaders gathered a few weeks ago in a warm spring rain to celebrate Oregon’s immigrant cultures and welcome new refugee families. “Can you imagine what it means to leave your homes, schools, jobs, pets and loved lands without your fault?” asked Som Nath Subedi, Program coordinator for Parks for New Portlanders, which hosted the event at Bloomington Park.

From the stage, Subedi introduced a family of six that settled in Portland two weeks ago. The family fled Syria four years ago and had been living in Jordan until they could immigrate to the U.S. The family is staying with a host family until they can secure housing.

They came, Subedi said, “hoping for same life I dreamed, you dreamed, our grandparents and grand uncles dreamed. They need the same support to be part of this welcoming and compassionate society.”

Native Mexican dancers with the group Mexica Tiahui opened the celebration with an offering and performance, followed by a dance troupe of Zomi refugee teens from Burma. Teens played soccer nearby and the City of Portland gave away 100 pairs of cleats. Staff from local government programs set up information booths and tents, enticing visitors seeking cover from the steady drizzle.

“This reinforces our collective value, of opening new spaces; parks are for everyone,” said Charlene McGee, Multnomah County’s refugee health coordinator. “This is about community health.” Shani Osman, gang outreach and prevention mentor at Africa House, said events like these were crucial for teens. If they are playing soccer and volunteering, they’re staying out of trouble, he said.

Elected officials came out to show their support, including Portland Mayor Charlie Hales, Portland Commissioner Steve Novick, Multnomah County Commissioner Jules Bailey and Chair Deborah Kafoury. “So often we focus on what’s broken, on the struggles,” Kafoury said. “I’m grateful for events like these when we have a chance to celebrate the differences that make us great.”

The county is increasing the number and size of culturally-specific programming to meet the needs of immigrants and refugees, she said. By focusing on social engagement and leadership, the county can help propel the region’s newest residents into positions of power.

“If we can share our power and diffuse our privilege,” Kafoury said, “then maybe we can get to a place where we’re spending less time focusing on the problems that divide us and more time celebrating the differences that make us strong.”