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Refugee families meet Santa Claus

Program helps immigrant families make their way
by: Merry MacKinnon, Hundreds of children of recently arrived refugees met Santa Claus for the first time at Outer Northeast Portland’s Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization on Thursday, Dec. 20. As their parents watch, children line up to greet Santa and to receive their gifts, which range from soccer balls to Silly Putty.

Before 9/11, Portland took in close to 2,000 refugees yearly, until the U.S. State Department implemented lengthier background checks following the attacks. Now, about 1,200 refugees arrive in Portland each year.

It may be less than the pre-9/11 peak, but that number still keeps Outer Northeast Portland's Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization's (IRCO) employees, most of them former refugees themselves, scrambling to get their clients acclimated to Portland's sometimes bewildering environment.

The refugees come from Eastern Europe and from countries like Burundi, Ethiopia, Somalia and Myanmar, said Rowanne Haley, manager of community and donor relationships.

'Some of them have never seen traffic, television or even running water,' she said.

And, certainly, many of the children of those refugees have never before been personally introduced to Santa Claus - until Thursday, Dec. 20, that is when IRCO invited Santa to its gymnasium at 10301 N.E. Glisan St. While the jolly old fellow held little ones on his lap, elves distributed gifts and tried to keep throngs of eager children from surging onto the stage.

'Some of them are the children of Burundian parents who have been living in refugee camps for 30 years,' Haley said.

For many refugees, Santa and his bountiful sack of toys symbolize the advantages the United States has to offer, like free education, abundant food and freedom from persecution.

And, for the adults, Santa's main helper is the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization.

Wherever they flee from, initially, every adult refugee in Portland gets assessed at Outer Northeast Portland's IRCO, where they are taught the ways of American culture and get help learning English and finding employment. While the parents learn tasks like how to take a bus, ride MAX and read signs, their children are already enrolled in local public schools.

Often, the first workshop a refugee takes at IRCO is on basic English language survival skills.

'Someone coming in from Cuba, that's an easier client for us to deal with because they have great education and literacy,' Haley said. 'But for a Somali Bantu, their language doesn't even have a written form.'

Nevertheless, the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization, a nonprofit, does find jobs for the refugees, Haley said, even if it means some are hired to gut fish or slaughter chickens.

'The goal is self sufficiency,' she said.

At first, refugees earn about $8 to $10 an hour at their new jobs, but they tend to advance quickly, she said.

'They are willing to work. They will have two or three jobs each,' Haley said. 'They see enormous opportunity here.'