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Fight for survival doesn't end in America for refugees

One organization works to help a growing population of East African immigrants assimilate in American culture


Photo Credit: OUTLOOK PHOTO: LAURA KNUDSON - After waiting seven years to come to America, Sahra Mohamed arrived in 2012 with her eight children. Faced with new challenges in the United States, Mohameds family is one of hundreds seeking help from the African Youth and Community Organization (AYCO).

Small dust-covered feet pound through the shadeless terrain of East Africa to join those in line seeking food at refugee camps.

Meanwhile, an ocean away, American children sit down for breakfast.

Conditions in places like Somalia are the motivation for refugee parents looking to bring their children to a land of opportunity.

Fleeing refugee camps is sometimes the only means of survival for East Africans integrating into American culture, says Jamal Dar, executive director of African Youths and Community Organization (AYCO), a nonprofit group of African natives who aid in the assimilation of Oregon refugees. But it brings a whole new set of challenges.

Overcoming language and cultural barriers is why Dar launched AYCO four years ago.

“There is no other center that educates and empowers them, giving them resources so they can become independent,” Dar said. “And the demand here is huge.”

AYCO opened its office Wednesday, Aug. 6, to meet the need of an increasing number of families immigrating to East Multnomah County.

The organization directly impacts 300 local families, faced with grim prospects in housing, employment and education. Most come from Somalia refugee camps, but 15 families arrived from Kenya two weeks ago.

“Knowing how to get resources is the most painful,” Dar said. “We have to be the bridge.”

AYCO's office, at 1390 S.E. 122nd Ave. in Portland, makes assisting families with paperwork for job training and finance education much easier, he said.

But despite efforts to improve the lives of refugee families, he acknowledges many ongoing problems immigrants deal with on a daily basis.

The struggle for financial footing

Because standard housing in refugee camps consists of a plastic roof with bushes for walls, without electricity and running water, “Mom and children have never seen a toilet, stove, washer, dryer and dishwasher, but we expect them to use it,” Dar said.

Once in America, refugees don’t know the difference between free school buses and paying for public transportation, or what red, yellow and green means on stop lights.

“Where we come from, we don’t have these modernized things,” said Sahra Mohamed, an Ethiopian refugee. “Sometimes we don’t even know how to switch on and off the light.”

However, “The biggest war is how to pay their rent,” Dar said. “The government’s expectation is to help only eight months, then they are on their own.”

And because many women leave their husbands behind in order to avoid a lengthy resettlement process, Dar said 90 percent of families consist of a single mom with seven to eight children.

“I spent seven years thinking I was coming to America,” Mohamed said.

She arrived in 2012, with her eight children.

Unemployed and unable to drive or speak English, Mohamed said her biggest struggle is affording her $1,200 monthly rent.

“A family of seven will receive $970 in cash assistance and an $800 food stamp when the rent of three bedrooms is an average of $1,300,” Dar said.

Mohamed's first residence in the United States was a three-bedroom apartment.

When she moved out, the landlord withheld the deposit and charged an additional $4,500 in upgrades, including a $200 cabinet replacement.

The paperwork was in English.

AYCO stepped in and straightened things out so she didn’t have to pay.

Language barriers a threat

Another reality of culture and language barriers are run-ins with child protection laws.

A refugee mother's worst nightmare is being targeted by the Department of Human Services (DHS).

Dar said it’s common to have a child taken away because of cultural misconceptions.

Photo Credit: OUTLOOK PHOTO: LAURA KNUDSON - Because of cultural misconceptions, Amina Abu says the Department of Human Services tried to take her children three times. Abu's 17-year-old daughter is thankful that AYCO stepped in to help.

Amina Abu came to the United States in 2006 and does not understand why she has nearly lost custody of her three children multiple times.

“My brother fell off a bike and scratched his face,” said Abu’s 17-year-old daughter, Safiya Mohamed. “So they went ahead and thought she hurt him.”

The problem is, “She doesn’t speak English, she doesn’t understand,” Safiya said. “They take advantage of that.”

In situations like these, AYCO provides counseling and translating services.

Integrating in the schools

Children also face their own set of problems when it comes to integrating in American culture.

Dar tells of one refugee girl who had taken a friend’s cell phone home with her over the weekend. The friend’s dad was a police officer, and the refugee student showed up at school Monday having to face police.

“We come from a place where there’s no law, there’s no procedure, there’s nothing to follow,” Dar said. “Back home it's borrowing, but here it’s stealing.”

For this reason, AYCO holds workshops for teachers and American students to build cross-cultural understanding.

“Educating the educators,” Dar said. “We assist the youth we work with in preparing cultural sensitivity trainings for non-immigrant classmates, to eliminate bullying based on cultural, racial and religious differences."

It is common to see a refugee child who has never sat in a classroom, Dar said. Most have had no formal education and are placed in American classes according to their age.

Not knowing English can hinder children academically and socially when they don’t know that they need to ask permission for something such as going to the bathroom.

Photo Credit: OUTLOOK PHOTO: LAURA KNUDSON - Isnina Abdullahi speaks of challenges refugee children face in education during the opening of AYCOs new office.

“Unless we get people in our school system who speak the language, we will be unable to find a solution,” said Isnina Abdullahi, who spoke at the opening of AYCO’s office.

English as a second language (ESL) programs have worked to ease refugees into school, but the most effective solution, Dar said, is an incentive for kids.

“The catch is that when you give these kids free space, free uniforms and free sports, all they have to do is get good grades,” Dar said. “What do you think the result will be?”

Ibriham Kasim, a recent David Douglas graduate, said when he came to the United States at age 12, “I’d sit in class probably getting D’s or F’s.” After getting involved with AYCO tutoring and sports programs, Kasim received multiple scholarships and will attend Portland State University in the fall, majoring in community health.

“Our vision is to help these children so they can graduate tomorrow, so they can become our leaders,” Dar said.

Photo Credit: OUTLOOK PHOTO: LAURA KNUDSON - Jamal Dar, executive director of AYCO, invites community members to participate in the ribbon cutting, marking the opening of its new office. The new location will better serve East Multnomah County refugee families.

The office already has seen a number of people lining up to get help. However, funding is the No. 1 concern.

Cash, food, clothing and school supply donations are welcome as well as assistance in website design and media support.

Dar said AYCO also is in need of volunteers.

Despite tackling endless hardship faced by refugees along with the financial challenge of maintaining the office, Dar has not lost hope.

“The love of the community is what drives us forward,” he said. “We just move up one notch at a time.”



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