The Newest Portlanders

Meet the refugees from the most violent places on the planet.

Francis Khampi finally has a place to call his own.

It's a desk cluttered with case files at Portland's Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization in East Portland's Hazelwood neighborhood, not far from I-205.

Khampi works in "The Pit": the buzzing, beating heart of the refugee service center that is filled with the multilingual conversation of job coaches and just-arrived migrants.

Khampi helps refugees find work, just four months after the 35-year-old himself arrived from Myanmar.

Khampi_ThomasTeal-3 HELP DESK: Francis Khampi arrived in the U.S. four months ago. Now he helps newly settled refugees find jobs. (Thomas Teal/WW)

The sight of 11 million Syrian migrants fleeing the country—many making dangerous, often fatal, raft expeditions across the Mediterranean Sea—has filled front pages and gripped the world. It has yet to touch Portland directly: Local service agencies say they probably won't see any Syrian refugees for at least six months.

But plenty of people are already arriving from places just as bombed and bloody.

Syria is just one part of the worst refugee crisis in recorded history. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates the world's refugee population at 59.6 million—a 15 percent spike in a year.

While more than half of the world's refugees come from Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia—the majority of them are children—Oregon's refugee population has been primarily coming from Iraq, Somalia, Burma, Cuba and Bhutan in the past five years.

Oregon's resettlement rate of more than 2,500 refugees per year ranks right in the middle among U.S. states—in 25th place.

Who goes where is up to the federal government. If refugees don't have family or a sponsor in America, they're placed wherever the government decides. Several local agencies say if refugees are sent to Oregon, that usually means they'll live in Portland, where they have the best access to services.

The problems facing many impoverished Portlanders are even more difficult for those with language barriers and suffering from cultural shock.

Khampi says the rewards outweigh the risks.

He fled Myanmar—a Southeast Asian nation previously known as Burma—several years ago because he is Christian. In Myanmar, a Buddhist regime has been slowly cleansing the country—often violently—of other religions.

Khampi fled to Malaysia. He was deported to Thailand and says he was sold to human traffickers for about $93. Benefactors from a Christian church paid a nearly $500 ransom to get Khampi back to Malaysia.

This May—seven years after fleeing his homeland—Khampi and his family came to America.

In the following pages, you'll meet people like Khampi who've arrived in the Portland area from some of the most dangerous and devastated places in the world.

The Iraqi parents who dodged bombs and bullets. The Congolese woman who can barely feed her children. The aging Bhutanese couple who still revel at the availability of running water and electricity. The family who escaped persecution in Myanmar for their Muslim faith.

But they all have one thing in common: gratitude.

In a city that fears an invasion of Californians and rages over the fate of sequoia trees, the newest arrivals are grateful the government or a gun-toting militia isn't trying to kill them. They're relieved their homes won't be raided, their lives threatened, their children kidnapped. They're just happy to be alive.

And now they call Portland home.

"Portlanders, they are very good to us," Khampi says. "A lot of people in Portland, they don't know where is Burma exactly. But the U.S. is a second heaven."

The Al-Zubidi Family

AhmedFamily_ThomasTeal-15 BETWEEN TWO WORLDS: Ahmed Al-Zubidi (far right) brought his family to Oregon from Iraq a year ago. (Thomas Teal/WW)

Every morning, Ahmed Al-Zubidi said his last goodbye.

A radio producer and journalist in Baghdad, Al-Zubidi knew he was a marked man. You can only survive so many death threats, and every terrorist in Baghdad saw journalists as a trophy kill. Four of his colleagues were murdered, one kidnapped. Al Qaeda went after him twice.

"They want to be famous," he says. "They want to kill anyone to make it breaking news. For that, they go to the journalists."

Before Al-Zubidi would leave the spacious house he shared with his family—his wife, Rasha Almanni, his children, Mustaffa and Al Mas, and his elderly parents—his wife would crawl through his car, searching for explosives.

"When I leave, I tell her goodbye because maybe this is the last time I see my family," he says. "Or maybe this is the last time they saw me."

Well before the United States dropped bombs on Baghdad in 2003, violence and corruption caused Iraqis to flee their home country. But the war caused that number to surge.

Ten years after the war that toppled Saddam Hussein, the number of Iraqi refugees resettled in America reached nearly 85,000. Iraqis are the highest refugee population in Oregon, too: Since 2009, 1,190 Iraqis have resettled here.

In 2007, Al-Zubidi applied to bring his family to the U.S. Seven years later, when word came that he and his family could come to America, he couldn't bear to tell his parents the truth. He said he'd be home soon. Instead, he came to Oregon with no intention of ever living in Iraq again.

It was the first lie he ever told them.

"I'm afraid. Because when I am old, I need my kids around me, to help me at least," he says.

His parents know their son might not ever come back, but they never ask him to say it. "I couldn't tell them that I just leave," he says. "They raise us to help them when they are old. And we just run away."

He stays up late, talking to his mother and father on the phone. Telling them he loves them. They talk for hours.

"Even sometimes, when I tell him, 'I miss you, Dad,' he says, 'Don't tell me that. If you miss me, come back,'" Al-Zubidi says. "I tell him, 'The life here is better, Dad.'"

AhmedFamily_ThomasTeal-9 BY THE BOOK: Mustaffa Al-Zubidi, 9, attends elementary school in Beaverton. He avoids any cafeteria food that is not halal. (Thomas Teal/WW)

Life here is different. His family lives in a modest Beaverton apartment complex, where there are other Iraqi families. He commutes each day to Portland, where he works to help other refugees at IRCO. He prefers Beaverton to Portland—which seems to him a hotbed of permissiveness toward marijuana and gay marriage.

His wife does not check his car for bombs anymore.

Here his children can be both Iraqi and American. They will see Iraq in their mother's veil. In their faith. In the Iraqi flag that hangs in their home.

But tomorrow Al-Zubidi's wife will get her driver's permit. His 9-year-old son will go to a public school and eat tater tots in the cafeteria. He will go to work, crossing the Willamette and thinking of the Tigris, the river that runs through Baghdad.

And his 4-year-old daughter, in pink pants and pigtails, will begin a Head Start program next week. Today she spins pirouettes on the carpet in the living room—My Little Pony cartoons flickering on the flat-screen television, and a plastic Captain America shield fixed to her arm.

Aimerance Ibrahim and Nestor Kaneke

IbrahimKaneke_AdamWickham-54 FREE FALL: Aimerance Ibrahim thought coming to America would solve the family’s health issues, but they’ve incurred $10,000 of debt. (Adam Wickham/WW)

Sometimes Aimerance Ibrahim wonders if she was better off in Africa. The five years in a Tanzanian refugee camp seem better than life in Portland.

Here, the Congolese refugee feels like a beggar. Poor, jobless, unable to speak the language, drowning in overwhelming debt that she does not understand.

Five years ago, Ibrahim and her husband, Nestor Kaneke, brought her elderly mother and their three sons and two daughters to America. They came to get Ibrahim medication for her diabetes. They came in hopes of finding help for their son Dien-Merci Pierre, who was born with developmental disabilities.

Ibrahim knows they are safer here. No one raids their house, stealing what they want, threatening the family. Conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo presents one of the world's most challenging refugee crises. According to a United Nations report, the country "is characterized by ongoing conflict, poor or nonexistent infrastructure," displacing approximately 430,000 refugees to nearby countries.

Just 235 Congolese have resettled in Oregon since 1975, a mere 0.24 percent of the total refugee population here.

"The United States really is better than Tanzania," Ibrahim says, her 18-year-old son Espoir Mbiriz translating in Swahili.

But the family traded that for new stress that Mbiriz says makes his mother sob "from morning until evening."

IbrahimKaneke_AdamWickham-78 FAMILY TIES: Aimerance Ibrahim stands outside her North Portland house with grandson Israel and daughter Florence. (Adam Wickham/WW)

Ibrahim's diabetes means she can't work. Kaneke works in a food-processing warehouse, catching a bus at 4 am to get there. They can't afford food. Their rent in North Portland's Portsmouth neighborhood keeps rising, now at $1,327 a month.

"People would talk, 'You can go to a place on earth that is like heaven," she says. "'You can go live the American dream life.' I thought all of my problems would be solved."

Ibrahim's case manager, Megan Wilson of IRCO, says it took three years for Ibrahim to receive Social Security benefits and Medicare to cover her insulin and hospital stays. For a period of time, she had no insurance, no Social Security and no Medicare.

Then Ibrahim received a notice: Social Security had overpaid her. Instead of receiving aid, now she owes money. Her debts are over $10,000.

On a Sunday afternoon, Ibrahim is weeping, tissue in hand. She sits on her living-room couch with her son Dien-Merci, who's lying motionless across her lap, save for a few eye movements and the occasional moan.

There are photographs of the family covering the walls. Proof sheets from yearbook photos never ordered. A portrait of Barack Obama with the words "America. This Is Our Moment, This Is Our Time" is above the television. A painting of American fighter jets hangs in the corner.

Ibrahim grows a garden to make up for the food she can't afford. She holds back a flood of tomatoes from pouring out of her freezer. The kitchen drawers are filled with them. "Organic," she says, proudly.

IbrahimKaneke_AdamWickham-64 HEARTSTRINGS: Nestor Kaneke (right) holds his son Dien-Merci as his other son Espoir Mbiriz tries to coax a smile. (Adam Wickham/WW)

Her son Espoir Mbiriz moved to Corvallis last month to start college at Oregon State University. He talks about a research paper he wrote while he attended Roosevelt High School about the American dream—something his family talks a lot about.

"I started asking people, 'This American dream—do people believe it? Or is it just a name?'" he says. "Most people, these are Americans, they say, 'Nobody lives that kind of life. There is no such thing as the American dream.'"

The way Mbiriz sees it, it's up to him to fix his family. But for now, his mother is miserable. "She just feels like she's being treated unfair," he says. "Like she was brought here to suffer."

Moti and Kausila Rizal

Rizal_AdamWickham-35 SAFE HAVEN: Moti Rizal (left) and his wife, Kausila, share a small Beaverton apartment with four of their children. (Adam Wickham/WW)

Moti Rizal had a bounty on his head for writing poetry.

He and his wife, Kausila, are Lhotshampa—Nepali-Bhutanese people with roots in Bhutan that date to the early 19th century. Though the Bhutanese government granted citizenship to the group in the 1950s, it then revoked the Lhotshampa's legal status in the 1970s and '80s.

It was the government's slow way of assimilating the people there. According to Human Rights Watch, by 1989, Bhutan ran a "one people, one nation" policy. There was a strict dress code. People could not gather on the street. "Four people could not meet up and talk," Moti Rizal recalls through an interpreter.

This in Bhutan—the country known worldwide for its "gross national happiness" scale. (Former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber and first lady Cylvia Hayes traveled to Bhutan in 2013 to study the concept.)

Soon the Nepali language was outlawed, too. "They collected all the books written in Nepali and burned them," Moti says. "Any writer, any of those intellect groups from the Nepalese ethnic group, had a bounty on their head." Moti was a poet, but he made his money farming, growing rice and raising cattle.

Bhutanese soldiers showed up at Moti and Kausila's home with guns and told them to leave the country. The couple gathered their children. They let their cattle and goats free. They fled through forests, crossing rivers, crowding onto trains where Moti says sick children were tossed like rag dolls from the moving cars.

Rizal_AdamWickham-39 FREE SPEECH: Moti Rizal continues to write poetry in Nepali. (Adam Wickham/WW)

Moti Rizal and his family were among 107,000 Bhutanese forced from the country. For the next 17 years, they lived in a thatch-roofed hut in a Nepalese refugee camp. Water poured through the straw during rainstorms. They were often starving. A handful of corn flour mixed with water was rationed to last the family 20 days.

In the middle of the last decade, countries around the world offered refuge to the Bhutanese. In 2008, Moti, Kausila and their children came to America. According to IRCO, 756 Bhutanese have settled in Oregon since 2008—one of the largest refugee populations to come here in recent years.

And now here they are: Moti, 68, and Kausila, 67. America looks nothing like the world they knew for so long. They learned about lights and light switches. How the stove worked. That water was available from the tap whenever they wanted it.

Their mouths dropped open when they saw the piles of oranges and apples at the grocery store. Fruit, back home, was only something you ate when you were sick; now they buy it every week with Social Security checks.

Rizal_AdamWickham-41 LAND OF PLENTY: Kausila Rizal cooks beans with spices in her kitchen. She says she’s never had more access to food since coming to the U.S. (Adam Wickham/WW)

For years, Moti's body would tremble in fear each time he put a telephone to his ear. Now he has a Galaxy tablet. A smartphone. A flat-screen television. His own YouTube channel, where he reads poetry in Nepali. "Bhutanese are now here in America," he writes. "This is the soothing light at the end of tunnel."

"We have gone through so much," Kausila says. "This is like heaven." She takes free classes at the Beaverton City Library, even if she doesn't understand English. They are U.S. citizens, and yet the couple continue to retake their American citizenship class. "We want to learn new things," she says.

They are free here. They dress as they like. They speak Nepali. They eat their fill.

Each week, when the Hindu couple hear knocks on their red apartment door, they know it's Christian missionaries. "When we say we don't want to convert, they don't force you," Moti says.

But just in case, they hang a drawing of sacred snakes—colored in red and green marker—on their door to keep evil spirits away.

The Sharif Mohibullah Family

Mohibullah_ThomasTeal-5 NEW KIDS: Mohamad (left) and his sister, Jowairah. (Thomas Teal/WW)

Mohamad Sharif Mohibullah is 3 years old. His sister Jowairah is 6.

As a photographer snaps their pictures, their faces are steeled against any emotion: dark brown eyes sharp, as if they are looking right through the camera lens.

They are Rohingya—members of the Muslim ethnic group living in Myanmar (formerly Burma) who are regularly referred to as the "most persecuted minority in the world." Descendants of Muslim traders, the Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for thousands of years—and yet they remain stateless.

According to Human Rights Watch, Rohingya have been subjected to persecution in their home country since shortly after World War II, but the recent rise of a Buddhist regime there has drummed up more anti-Muslim sentiments. The Rohingya are outsiders, and many have been evicted from the country. Last month, The New York Times reported a new blow to the Rohingya: They lost the right to vote.

Because they have nowhere to call home, they live as stowaways in countries that don't want them. In Myanmar, an estimated 140,000 Rohingya are living in prison camps. This year, thousands attempted escape, piling into the rickety boats of human traffickers—risking the threat of starving or drowning in the ocean.

Since 2008, 1,057 Burmese have come to Portland, making them the second-largest refugee group to resettle here (next to Iraqis) in recent years. There are Rohingya, like Mohamad and his family, but also Burmese refugees from many of Myanmar's 135 ethnic groups.

Shahidah Abdul Shukur, Jowairah and Mohamad's mother, says she was 12 when she first dreamt of coming to the United States. Five years ago, after fleeing Myanmar and seeking safety in Malaysia, she and her husband, Mohamad Sharif Mohibullah, applied for refugee status.

This July the family landed in Portland. Abdul Shukur's family was already here; Sharif Mohibullah's is still back in Malaysia.

Their apartment is on a busy section of outer Southeast Stark Street glittering with signs promising the American dream. The Good Neighbor Mercado. Freedom Foursquare Church. The Dream On Saloon strip club. A blue-eyed John Wayne peers out from a nearby billboard: "Don't Much Like Quitters, Son," Wayne says.

Sharif Mohibullah and Abdul Shukur live with their two children in an apartment complex that promises "luxury" units. Their living room is so bare it nearly echoes. There's a love seat, a carpet, a pile of shoes. A pink backpack. A prayer schedule. A clock hangs high on one wall: "All things are possible if you believe," it reads.

Abdul Shukur serves cans of Sprite with straws to guests on a clear plastic tray. She and her family do not speak English. Through an interpreter, Sharif Mohibullah says he hopes to work as a forklift driver. He can't do most manual labor; he rolls back his sleeve to show a scarred left arm, shattered when a crowded, speeding bus he was riding crashed and rolled.

Here in America, they'll know a life free of discrimination, a government that won't kill them for being Muslim, Abdul Shukur says.

"Before I come here, I was kind of afraid," she says. "When I get here, everything was fine. The way I dress, nobody cares. I can dress as I want."

The family is amazed by Portland buses—the way they run on time. And the people who explain things so patiently to them. They found a mosque nearby, but it's "very small for us," Abdul Shukur says. She hopes they can find a larger Muslim community.

Jowairah started school this week. She doesn't like the cafeteria lunch, and so Abdul Shukur packs her rice from home. But she likes learning with other children.

That's why they came here, Abdul Shukur says: "They will have a brighter future."

Mohibullah_ThomasTeal-11 RECENT ARRIVALS: Mohamad Sharif Mohibullah (right) and his family arrived in Oregon in mid-July. (Thomas Teal/WW)

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