For these two Oregon politicians, the resettlement of Afghan refugees is personal
When Kayse Jama arrived in the United States as a refugee 22 years ago, he knew only one person in Portland, Oregon, where he settled after fleeing Somalia. He surfed on the couch, not knowing how to find accommodation and put food on the table. Without transitioning from refugee to US resident, he felt like he was starting from scratch.
Now, as a state senator helping to facilitate the resettlement of Afghan refugees across Oregon, he wants to make sure his experiences do not repeat themselves in a new generation of immigrants.
âIt’s a really personal issue for me,â Jama told NBC Asian America. âI don’t want anyone to experience what I went through coming to this country. Those fleeing war and persecution, I want to make a commitment that we will welcome them all. “
For Jama and State Representative Khanh Pham, welcoming the 1,200 or so Afghans who settle in Oregon is something very touching. Pham herself comes from a refugee family; her parents met in Oklahoma after fleeing Vietnam after the war. They started their life together as one of the few Asian households in the state. Some of Pham’s earliest memories are the stories his parents told of his arrival in the United States. She also remembers hearing stories about vitriol that other Vietnamese families had experienced, such as those persecuted by the Ku Klux Klan in the South.
âMy family’s experience was a mixture of both incredible generosity and the same discrimination and fear of refugees that we see today,â she said.
When Kabul was captured by the Taliban this summer and many rushed to leave the country, Pham said she felt their fear and urgency on a deeper level. Now, with 60,000 refugees looking to move from US military bases to more permanent accommodation in the US, she believes her story and experiences can make an impact.
âI felt viscerally the panic that many Afghan families feel as they tried to escape,â she said. “And I think that allowed us to act quickly and to act in unison.”
Pham and Jama both knew they wanted to do something, so together they coordinated a task force made up of resettlement providers, state agencies and nonprofits to meet the needs of the refugees even before their arrival. The most important needs they identified were housing, meals, legal assistance and schooling for the children.
âThey will need help navigating a new environment to access these services,â Pham said.
His team is also pushing for government rent assistance and guarantees as families move from short-term accommodation in hotels or motels to longer-term apartments.
Jama said much of the infrastructure that once existed for the refugee transition was dismantled during the Trump administration, and rebuilding it as much as possible is difficult, but a necessary challenge.
Jama and Pham have both acknowledged that there is some hostility towards refugees entering the state, but there are also a lot of people who are trying to do what they can to welcome them into the communities.
âI was really touched by the people reaching out to me, even in southern Oregon, and saying, ‘Hey, I have a little bar and I would like to employ Afghans’, or people who say, “I have accommodation, I ‘would like to offer’ or ‘I would like to come to the airport,'” Pham said.
Their knowledge of the refugee experience has made them all the more prepared to welcome incoming immigrants, they said, and it shows how representation in government can have tangible impacts.
âFor me, as the first refugee, the first Muslim to serve in the Oregon State Senate, I don’t want my story to be seen as an exception,â Jama said. âI want my story to become the norm. When refugees and immigrants are given an opportunity and support, they can truly transform their lives and their communities.