Djimet Dogo arrived in Portland more than seven years ago from Chad, where the government threatened him for publishing a critical report about the Central African nation's practice of killing alleged criminals, such as petty thieves, without trials.
While on a three-month U.S. visa to talk about his experiences running the human rights group Chad Nonviolence, Dogo applied for—and received—political asylum. He moved to Oregon because he had become friends here with another man from Chad. Dogo's family followed him two years later.
Now, Dogo is program coordinator for Africa House, a new community center for African refugees that's unique in the state (Dogo announced Monday that Africa House will open its permanent home in February at 8523 SE Stark St.).
Dogo, 40, will draw upon his skills as a human-rights activist in Africa to seek assistance for Portland's growing African refugee population. And, he says, despite divisions in Africa among certain ethnic groups, Africa House will welcome all African refugees, assisting them as they acclimate to American culture.
WW: What is Africa House's main purpose?
Djimet Dogo: To be a pan-African umbrella organization that provides services to all Africans. This is a long dream for the African community, especially the African refugee community. The purpose is to be a one-stop service center, especially for newly arrived African families. We want to help them help themselves.
What's hardest for African refugees in Portland?
The most difficult barrier is language...and most African refugees [in Oregon] are coming from areas where they don't have experience with urban living. So when they come here, they face many barriers. The country is too big, too complex. There are too many laws and too much choice. People who were warehoused in refugee camps, where they didn't even have telephones, are suddenly sent to very advanced countries like the United States. When they come here they have to learn everything, even simple things like setting up an answering machine or turning on the oven. Somebody needs to be there to help them.
Do African refugees in Portland experience racism in the same way as African-Americans?
In 2000, I was with clients showing them how to take the MAX, and a man came up to us and said, "Where are you from?" I said, "Personally, I'm from Chad and my friends are from Togo." He said [laughing], "This is a white country." And I said, "So? We have Americans in Africa." He just walked away and said, "I just want to remind you that this is a white country." We were just shocked.
African refugees from other U.S. cities are moving to Portland. What cities are they leaving and why?
Minneapolis, Chicago. Two days ago, we had people coming from Phoenix. The thing pushing people to move here is access: access to jobs, access to public services. Also, they want to be with their community, where their community has organized themselves. When America brings refugees here, it doesn't care about relationships. It can send some to Utah, some to Oregon. So after one or two years, those refugees decide to move to where they have a majority of their ethnic group. [Many of the refugees moving to Portland from other American cities are Somali, Dogo says.]
Do you expect the recent Ethiopian invasion of Somalia will cause more refugees to seek homes here?
Any place there is a war generates refugees, because people have to flee for their lives. We still have refugees [from Sierra Leone, Congo and Rwanda] in Tanzania and Kenya. Every year, Congress allocates some number of refugees to come to the United States. So this year we're expecting about 20,000 refugees from Burundi in the United States; we may expect a few in Portland.
How will you handle conflicts that arise between different ethnic groups at Africa House?
I don't think there will be conflicts, because Africa House is for the entire community. That's why we try to unite here, to be one voice and to leave all of the problems back at home. If we don't unite, we won't get help, and our voice won't be heard. We're educating our community to set aside all the problems and come together for the greater good of our community here, because we're not going home. This is our home now.
Africa House, sponsored by the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization, received a three-year, $600,000 federal grant. Dogo says the grant is seed money while Africa House seeks long-term funding.
Portland's estimated 12,000 African refugees make up about 2 percent of its population.