Opinion: Refugees bring value to Portland and whole nation
This spring, President Biden renewed our nation's moral leadership and sent the world a much-needed message: Refugees are once again welcome here. We won't come close to the goal of resettling the 62,500 people he had promised this fiscal year, but we are newly committed to helping the persecuted and vulnerable.
As an Iraqi refugee who came to Portland in 1994 at age 8 with my family, I understand what it means to wait. After fleeing dangerous conditions of Saddam's regime after the first Gulf War, we lived in a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia for three long years. Today, tens of thousands more refugees are stuck in lengthy bureaucratic delays. Many have already been cleared by U.S. authorities, but they're in limbo, while governmental and nonprofit agencies rebuild the resettlement infrastructure dismantled by the Trump Administration. Between Oct. 31, 2020, and May 31, the U.S. government admitted only 3,250 refugees — 74 of whom were placed in Oregon.
While we wait, we have a lot of work to do. We must change the national conversation about what it means to be a refugee in America. These new Americans contribute culturally and economically to our communities far more than they take. Especially in Oregon's tight labor market, these are precisely the workers our city needs.
The refugee "state of mind" is simple: From the moment you arrive here, you never stop striving, whether it's to learn English, climb the ladder at work, start a business or study for your citizenship exam. I graduated from Portland State University and now at age 35, I run a small T-shirt printing business for community projects and make regular donations of school supplies to the local charities. This winter, I started a podcast with a grant from PSU to promote empathy towards refugees.
Refugee entrepreneurs start businesses at higher rates than both native-born Americans and other immigrants. We also fill vital roles in the workforce. Here in Oregon, approximately 5,700 refugees — 60% of the refugee labor force — worked in essential jobs in 2018. During the pandemic, nearly 16% of the nation's refugee population work as personal care aides, nurses, nursing assistants and home health aides, according to New American Economy.
That drive pays off over time. After 25 years, refugees have an average household income of $67,000, which is $14,000 higher than the American average.
Still, despite all of this, we still live in a country where reports of hate crimes against immigrants are routine. It's easy to demonize the "other." But when you meet refugees — and learn their stories — you realize they're hard-working families, not so different from your own.
I do believe that Americans, at our core, are welcoming people. I'm lucky to live in a city like Portland that has dedicated resources to help refugees and immigrants. Tolerance and compassion are part of our civic soul. Even some people who supported the former president and his hardline immigration policies have acknowledged the need for refugees in our workforce and their work ethic.
More refugees are coming. When you meet them, take a moment to consider what they've been through. Despite that anguish, they are bringing their refugee state of mind — their resilience — to our city. They will do all they can to prove they belong.
Hussein Al-Baiaty is a Southeast Portland resident.
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