One organization provides support, services, and hope for African refugee families who have relocated to Portland’s growing African community.
When Idy Maigari arrived in Portland three years ago with his wife and nine children, it was the first time he had seen tall city buildings, paved roads, or traffic jams. The city was a complex maze of moving cars, people talking on their cell phones, and sleek towers embedded with rows of windows. Because no one in Maigari’s family could read or speak English, communication was nearly impossible. The Maigaris had suddenly entered what seemed like another planet with no one to turn to but each other.
“We were shocked to see how advanced the country is … everything is so sophisticated and new,” Maigari says of the experience.
Maigari is half a world away from the cardboard walls of his shelter at the refugee camp in Chad where families still live under plastic-bag roofs. Like many families living in Central Africa, Maigari’s was transported to the camp in 2006 for protection from the violence of the civil war occurring in the Central African Republic.
The Maigaris spent three years living in squalid conditions while they waited for the Office of Refugee Resettlement to relocate them to the United States. They arrived in Portland in September of 2009, where an African community had been growing since the 1970s when the first wave of refugees arrived. The community encourages resettlement agencies to place people in Portland because a supportive network and cultural base has already been established, says Joseph Smith-Buani, a University of Portland professor of African Studies.
Refugees are eligible to receive financial support from the state’s Refugee Cash Assistance and Refugee Medical Assistance programs for up to eight months after arriving in Oregon. During this time, refugees are expected to learn English and find a job so they can become self-sufficient.
“There are so many choices and it is very complex,” Maigari says, communicating through a translator. Although he is trying to learn, Maigari has yet to master English. “We were frightened because there are so many things you have to learn in order to survive.”
To cope with the language barrier and other cultural differences, refugees often rely on outside support to help them assimilate into America’s fast-paced culture while still maintaining their own cultural values and traditions.
Africa House, a branch of the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization in Portland, is one place for Africans to find the assistance they need to adjust to this new life. Located in Northeast Portland, the facility was originally a large home before it was converted into several offices and meeting spaces.
Africa House was established five years ago and now offers services to more than 200 African refugees and immigrants annually. In the offices, large African maps hang on the walls and a spicy smell wafts from the small kitchen where employees prepare lunch. Every chair in the small waiting area is usually occupied. The majority of the organization’s clients are refugees rather than immigrants or American-born Africans. Whereas immigrants choose to leave their country in order to have access to better jobs or education, refugees are forced to leave their home country for a safer environment because the threat to their lives is too great.
Establishing a community setting is an important part of Africa House because it reflects the value of relationships between friends and family, a prominent aspect in most African cultures. “There is tremendous solidarity between the community,” says Gloria Ngezaho, a youth program coordinator at Africa House.
The facility offers refugees a place to meet with other people from their continent to socialize and practice English in a comfortable environment. The organization also offers assistance with green card and housing applications, help with paying bills, and literacy classes. At Africa House, people learn to become part of a new culture without losing pieces of their own.
For Maigari, Africa House has become a second home.
“When I wake up in the morning, there is no other place to go than Africa House,” he says.
Every day Maigari rides the bus to meet Djimet Dogo, the organization’s manager. Maigari brings a plastic bag filled with his mail because he is unable to read it himself. He cannot run simple errands, make appointments, or talk with his landlord or his children’s teachers without assistance from one of the employees, most of whom are immigrants or refugees from Africa themselves.
Until he met Dogo, another former Chadian, Maigari could not communicate with anyone outside of his own family. Dogo taught him how to use public transportation and purchase groceries from the store using his food stamps.
At Africa House, Maigari and his children learned how to write their names in English for the first time.
“Thank God we came to the United States,” Maigari says. “I never expected that in my life I would be able to write my name. I never believed that one day my children could write and read.”
Three years after their arrival in Portland, all nine of the Maigari children are attending school and speaking English. Maigari says he is too old to grasp the language as quickly as his children, but he continues to take lessons.
Kamar Haji-Mohamed, the community services coordinator for Africa House, wears a bright yellow head wrap with a floor length black dress. When she was eleven, she moved with her family to Oregon from Kenya, where her family found refuge after fleeing their home in Somalia to escape a violent civil war. Working at Africa House has allowed her to better understand some of the challenges her parents and family faced when they arrived.
She says the language barrier is one of the toughest challenges to overcome. Without the ability to read or speak English in the U.S., understanding something as simple as an electricity bill becomes an arduous process.
“If you speak the language, it’s much easier to access basic resources,” Haji-Mohamed says. “The main thing we do and we want is for [refugees] to be self-sufficient and not to depend on programs or resources always.”
For Maigari, the language barrier has hindered his attempts to find a job. Currently, his family is living entirely on welfare support—something Maigari is anxious to change.
The processes of submitting applications and attending interviews are just some examples of cultural adjustments refugees must adapt to. Maigari, who is a member of the Fulani people, a nomadic and herding culture in Africa, says before he came to America it was possible to wake up and find a different job to do for the day without filing any paperwork.
“Here it is not this way,” Maigari says. “I have to take classes and I take employment training and all of kinds of things to prepare me to get a job.”
Africa House works to help families understand cultural differences that can make everyday routines seem complex. Ngezaho says new laws, social customs, and even relationships take time to adapt to. In Africa, for instance, it is common for a twenty-one-year-old man to be with a sixteen- or seventeen-year-old woman, but here that is illegal. “There are a lot of rules and laws in America that have an impact on how people view life here,” Ngezaho says.
Despite the challenges, both Ngezaho and Haji-Mohamed agree that most refugees are happy to be in Portland and anxious to establish a new life here. “There is a lot of issues [refugees] face, but there is a lot advantages they see,” Ngezaho says. “They always have hope because they have been at their bottom, so this is doable.”
Families are also excited at the opportunity to provide a better life for their children with new opportunities.
“America is a safe haven,” Smith-Buani says. “[Refugees] find this to be a good place—a safe place—to raise a child and live their life to its fullest.”
In Portland, Maigari’s children are experiencing a life of freedom and comfort for the first time. In the Chadian refugee camp, the family of eleven lived inside a cardboard structure. The Maigaris received rations every twenty days from the United Nations. Desperate for food, Maigari says people often fought to make it to the front of the line on distribution days and some stole from other families. Anyone who was seen causing disorder was beaten with iron bars the soldiers carried. It was unsafe for children to leave their cardboard shelter. Maigari and his wife chose not to send their kids to the camp’s school because the teachers were known for beating students.
The children feared the teachers would beat them because they could not speak English on their first day of school in Portland. Now the children wish classes were held on weekends. “When the children get home from school they are happy,” Maigari says. “They are not hungry. They make friends and the children are friendly with the teacher. It’s not like at the refugee camp.”
The family’s townhome is in a safe neighborhood with a park. Maigari’s children spend their free time using the computer, playing basketball, and riding their bikes with friends.
Maigari is amazed he can go to the grocery store and buy food whenever he wants.
“Here, I don’t have to worry about somebody coming home and attacking my family to take that food away,” he says. “For the first time I have peace of mind.”
Maigari is overjoyed that his children can experience the once-foreign luxury of making their own choices. He wants to incorporate pieces of American culture into his family’s lifestyle to help his kids feel at home here.
Africa House encourages all of its clients to maintain a balance between acculturating to American life and maintaining African values and traditions. Haji-Mohamed says that most adults make it a priority to keep African tradition and values in their homes and to raise their children in that environment. For youth, however, attending school and making friends with Americans proposes an interesting dichotomy that can be challenging for those trying to maintain two identities.
The African Immigrant Mentoring project, one of the multiple youth programs offered at Africa House, connects children with mentors who teach them about their heritage and offer support with balancing their American school life with traditional expectations their families uphold at home.
For Ngezaho, who moved to Portland from Burundi as a refugee when he was eighteen, the combination of cultures is a valuable asset. “I’m an American, but I feel like I have a culture that I came here with,” he says. “You have to take from both sides, and they do shape you.”
Maigari says he will maintain his native language and religion in his home, but is happy to see his children speaking English and “behaving like American kids” outside of the house. The children are also introducing their parents to some new cuisine—burgers are a common request in the Maigari household.
The preservation of African culture in America is evident in Northeast Portland, where many African-owned restaurants and stores are eager to share traditional food or clothing with others in the community.
“It is our way of contributing to American culture,” Ngezaho says. “It brings pride.”
Smith-Buani, the University of Portland professor, says these reminders of home don’t only help immigrants and refugees with the acculturation process, but also allow them to contribute to America’s melting-pot society.
“When people go places, they change the places they go, but they are also changed by those places,” Smith-Buani says.
For refugees, assimilating means creating a new home with the knowledge that returning to a life in their war-torn nation will be difficult or impossible.
But Maigari doesn’t hesitate to call Portland home. He still hopes he and his wife can find a job and become self-sufficient. To Maigari, Portland has provided a secure life for his family with a bright future.
“I have hope and optimism that one day I will make it,” Maigari says. “At one point, I will get a job. This is my home. I am not going back.”
Maigari thinks that in one or two years, his children will know English well enough to help him with basic tasks like reading bills so he doesn’t have to ride the bus to Africa House before starting his day.
But for now, he will stick to his morning routine.
Tomorrow, Maigari will ride the bus to Africa House with his stack of mail. Before he meets Dojo, he will stop at the registration desk where there will be a clipboard holding a sign-in sheet. On the next open line, he will write his own name.