The refugees arrived at Portland International Airport holding their few possessions in plastic bags. Their home countries—South Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos—were falling to Communist forces, and those lucky enough to get out flooded into the U.S., the nation that had helped unravel their world.
Often, Ed Ferguson greeted them as they got off the plane. "They looked exhausted, cold and stunned," he says.
Ferguson worked for Lutheran Family Services, helping the church create a resettlement program for the refugees. He had no experience in this kind of work. Lutheran officials at the group's New York headquarters had heard Ferguson once worked as a church volunteer in Japan. The new refugees came from Asia. "So I seemed viable for the job," he says.
The sheer number of refugees overwhelmed the services offered by other denominations, which pulled together behind Ferguson and put up $25,000. On April 21, 1976, Ferguson bought an old house in the Hollywood neighborhood formerly used by the Church of Scientology, and opened the Indochinese Cultural and Service Center.
The center soon provided job placement, counseling services, women's and children's programs, health classes and child care. Ferguson quickly learned that Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian immigrants all had different cultural needs and old grudges.
"Diplomacy was a high priority," he says. "All of our clients were refugees, but political rivalries came with them. We made sure that desks were the same size for all."
He landed government grants and leveraged donations. When Ferguson left in 1983, the center had an annual budget of $1.1 million.
Before the arrival of Southeast Asian refugees in the 1970s, only one in 20 people who lived in Portland was foreign-born. Today it's one in seven. In East Portland, where many immigrants have settled, nearly a quarter of residents were born in another country, and they have come from all over the world.
Ferguson's legacy is now at the center of Portland's international heart. The organization he started is now called the Immigrant and Refugee Community Center. Located at Northeast 103rd Avenue and Glisan Street, IRCO last year served more than 24,000 immigrants. The organization's staff comes from 43 different countries and speaks 60 different languages.