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How Immigrants and Refugees Have Made the Best of Portland Even Better

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Everyone is from somewhere else.

That's the first thing to remember. And even though we're a nation of immigrants, foreign-born people are often met with fear, suspicion, and sometimes outright animosity by those on the red side of the political spectrum. [See Amy Ruiz's story on immigration raids for further details, pg. 55.] But for the most part? Portland is different. Since most of us—regardless of ethnicity—are from somewhere else, Portland is a city that not only respects diversity, but actively promotes it. That's probably much of the reason why so many foreign-born citizens alight in this city—we have numerous immigrant/refugee support organizations, and bustling communities of immigrants ready to lend a helping hand to newcomers.

So if you're still thinking that Portland is a town comprised mostly of whiteys—you're not looking hard enough. While immigration statistics are always questionable—due to the government's difficulty in locating and distinguishing ethnic communities—rough estimates indicate a 108 percent increase in Portland's foreign-born population from 1990-2000, and the American Community Survey reports that 68,880 immigrant/refugees reside here, making up 13 percent of the city's population. The majority of immigrants are Latin American (36 percent) followed by Asian (35 percent), Europeans at 20 percent, and African and "other" rounding out the remaining five percent.

Refugees are a different story altogether.

Refugees make up the majority of clients for local nonprofit IRCO (Immigration and Refugee Community Organization), an outfit that serves as a literal lifeline to people fleeing their oppressive countries or regimes. Take this story for example: One IRCO client was originally living in Somalia, pregnant and taking care of three kids when her husband's dead body was dumped on their doorstep—another victim of the country's vicious ethnic cleansing. Realizing she had to get her remaining children to safety, she walked for three days and nights without food to a refugee camp, where she was then left waiting for five years. Eventually she was transported and dropped into the middle of Portland—where she had no money, zero English, no schooling of any kind, and had never seen traffic, television, or running water. The question is obvious: In this situation, what would you do?

Luckily there are organizations like IRCO whose mission is to provide desperately needed services (housing, food, employment) to foreign-born transplants, ultimately guiding them to self-sufficiency. Besides English literacy and job training classes, IRCO also teaches the things the rest of us take for granted, like riding the bus; how to read the map at the bus mall, when to pull the string to make the bus stop. This attention to detail makes IRCO one of the largest and most successful refugee assistance nonprofits in the country, serving clients who speak over 35 different languages, and representing 40 different ethnicities.

(By the way, IRCO is always looking for volunteers. No special training or experience is needed, just a willingness to work with people who need your help, and a time commitment of once a week for at least six months. Call 234-1541, or go to irco.org for details!)

Eventually, immigrants and refugees are placed in jobs where many not only excel, but then go on to build their own businesses—creating new opportunities for countrymen who follow, and providing the rest of us with experiences that are hard to find in less diverse areas of the country.

And that's what this edition of the Mercury's annual "Best of" issue is all about: The people who immigrated to Portland, hoping for a better life for themselves, and ending up making life better for everyone. Not only will we share some of their personal stories [See "In Their Own Words," starting on pg. 15], we'll be highlighting the vast array of businesses, restaurants, and products that started at the far reaches of the earth—and happily, came to Portland to nest. As we mentioned earlier, everyone is from somewhere else. So let's stop fighting the inevitable, and this time, enjoy it.

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