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Living in Fear of the Big One

Portland area immigrants and refugees are spooked by possible earthquake.


TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Ali Swe and his family are concerned with the possibility of an earthquake in the Portland area and have prepared a survival kit in the the event of a natural disaster.Pictured from his left; Shain Be,8, daughter, Nu Jam Be, wife, and his sons, Ozai Ali, 10, Shar Min, 14, and Omal Ali, 15.

Life vests in Beaverton and bottled water on Southeast 122nd Avenue. Portland-area immigrants and refugees are panicking about the Big One and its attendant tsunami.

In the Rose Court apartments on 122nd Avenue near Mill City Park, there’s a family on edge. Ali Swe spent 20 years in refugee camps in Burma and Thailand.

A Burmese muslim, he’s had his share of pain, poverty and rootlessness. Portland was supposed to be a safe haven. But then the rumors started this summer. An earthquake was coming. Friends — and friends of friends — on social media were asking why they didn’t get out. They Skyped, they phoned, they emailed. The Big One was coming to Portland, Oregon. Maybe today, maybe tomorrow. And a tsunami too that would wash away the city.

Now he wants out.

Swe, who works at a fruit processing plant, could not sleep for worry and he could not eat. He spoke through a translator, Francis Khampi, a Zomi (a tribal group not recognized by the Burmese government) who now works as an assistant job coach at the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization (IRCO). In July, Swe fainted on the job and was sent home to recover.

“Mostly we worry about our children. I can’t sleep thinking how can I protect my five children?” says Swe, as his kids line up on the floor at his feet.

His wife, Nu Jam Be, speaks too, with some urgency.

“We are lucky in Burma because we never had earthquakes, just some small shaking. Now a lot of people we know are worried. They are talking about preparation and it’s getting worse. It’s like it’s going to happen tomorrow or the following day.”

Outside the apartment complex sits the 2004 Accura that Swe is trying to sell. He paid $5,500 for it, now he’s looking to sell it for $4,900. They have contacts in Indianapolis, one in Buffalo, New York. He explains they have decided to relocate to Buffalo as soon as the car is sold.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Ali Swe and his family are concerned with the possibility of an earthquake in the Portland area and have prepared a survival kit in the the event of a natural disaster.

“I have a friend in Buffalo who we can stay with. He can get me work in the chicken farm. There is a chocolate factory and a bakery too. There are lots of entry-level jobs, and there is as an Islamic school for the children.” And rent would be half what it is here.

Fear of the Big One

Many refugees have been feeling this earthquake/tsunami fear. It may have been triggered by the article in the July 20 New Yorker magazine, “The Really Big One” by Kathryn Schulz, subtitled “An earthquake will destroy a sizable portion of the coastal Northwest. The question is when.”

It went viral nationally. After a passage on tsunamis, which will only affect the coast, there came the comment from a FEMA expert:

“Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast.”

Maybe that caught the imagination of people texting and emailing their friends and families in Portland. The message in the refugee communities became ‘Get out while you can.’

So, on Aug. 26, IRCO held a meeting to try to quell fears and brought in someone from the City’s Office of Emergency Management.

With five translators present, local communities told how they felt. According to IRCO’s notes, someone from Africa House said they had been fielding panicked calls, and that most of the callers’ knowledge of earthquakes came from disaster movies.

“The Somali community is terrified of the idea of an earthquake....While they are very prepared for human violence, having experienced so much of it in Somalia, they feel entirely unprepared for natural disasters. People have quit their jobs and moved to other states.”

The Bhutanese Community, who have lived for years with fears such as dying from a snake bite in their beds, were being spooked by relatives calling to tell them to leave Portland. In the Burmese Muslim community it was reported that one woman had heard all flights from Portland had been canceled and everyone was trapped in the city.

One Afghan family moved to Seattle for safety, even though it is in the same quake zone, and spread frightening stories though social media.

The meeting largely backfired, as refugees came away with the idea that they should be stockpiling bottled water and dried food for a quake that is certain and imminent, leading to even more scare stories and panicked plans.

Soothing fears

IRCO is not the front line for immigrants and refugees. When refugees walk across the Portland Airport carpet in their flip flops and thin jackets, they are usually greeted by representatives of three nonprofits, Catholic Charities, Ecumenical Ministries and Lutheran Community Services, who have found them housing and basic necessities. But at some point they all find their way to IRCO to look for jobs, help with learning English, using a computer and managing family problems.

Megan Harrington Wilson works in IRCO’s Family Empowerment Program under a federal grant called Healthy Marriages, designed to keep families healthy and intact. She’d rather team be helping a mother-daughter pair who have a hard time communicating because of the cultural/generation gap, or preventing someone getting wrongly swept up into a child abuse investigation because of miscommunication. But a big fear can put that work on hold. Just before the year 2000 when the world was idly pondering the Millennium Bug and the idea that old computers might not recognize the new date, IRCO staff knew of Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants fleeing Portland because they heard total economic collapse was coming. Some came back, but the move was at devastating cost to their families.

“In some cases what they heard (this summer) was we need to hide under tables and buy a lot of bottled water,” says Harrington Wilson. “What we really wanted to be saying was ‘If there is a disaster, here are some things you can do to prepare, and by the way, there will be no tsunami.”

She adds, “The response needs to be specific to their fears, rather than ‘Go to Winco and buy two weeks of water and store it in your tiny apartment.”

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Immigrant & Refugee Community Organization (IRCO) employees Chhabi Koirala, employment counselor, and Megan Harrington Wilson, program coordinator, describe how they help immigrants with their concerns about natural disasters.

Refugees were said to be not letting their children go outside to play or go to school.

“They said they just want their families to be together,” says Harrington Wilson. “IRCO’s concern is that clients do not understand the relatively low probability of an earthquake, or the high quality of infrastructure and institutional disaster preparedness, or the impossibility of tsunami.”

For Khampi, the translator, things aren’t so scary. It’s not like he hasn’t had a hard life. After leaving Burma he spent nine years in a Malaysian refugee camp. He learned English with an NGO, he has three brothers in Portland, and he goes to St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church.

“We met white people there,” he says. “We told them, ‘We worry about earthquakes, what’s your opinion?’ And they say ‘Ah, don’t worry, they’ve been talking about that for years.’”

As for Swe, although the move to Buffalo would be a huge upheaval, he is also considering his return — after the earthquake. Asked in his own language if he would come back for a job in construction he smiles broadly and says, “Yeah!”

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Ali Swe and his wife Nu Jam Be at home in Southeast Portland. They are hoping to move to Buffalo NY to avoid a tsunami and earthquake in Portland.

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