From: Biniam Tekle (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Date: Thu Aug 20 2009 - 09:51:34 EDT
August 19, 2009 Between Two Worlds
via: Street Roots, Portland, Ore. ©Street News Service:
Overcrowded homes mark Africans’ transition to American living
On a toasty Tuesday afternoon, Suleqa Ismail wears the trademarks of two
different continents: Her dark, shoulder-length headscarf reflects the
tradition of her native Somalia, while the purse she carries — white with a
sequined Minnie Mouse appliqué — is classic American.
The split runs through her family, too: The oldest of Ismail’s four
children, 9-year-old daughter, Fartun, was born in Africa, but her
17-month-old son, Fuad, is a stateside native.
There’s even some ambivalence to Ismail’s experience in the United States.
Although she and her husband, Saleman Adan, are infinitely grateful that
they were able to leave war-plagued Somalia and come here as refugees four
years ago, the challenges they’ve faced since have made their transition
less than smooth. They’re one of many African families in Portland who’ve
run across serious housing hurdles since arriving in the U.S.
Since January of 2007, Ismail and Adan have lived with their children at the
New Columbia, the Housing Authority of Portland’s sprawling low-income
housing complex in North Portland. They pay a third of their income for
rent, which was adjusted down when Adan was laid off from his job with a
rental car company last February.
This spring, they received a letter stating that the clutter in their yard
was in violation of their lease, but because they can’t read English and
speak only a Somali dialect called Maay Maay, they didn’t realize the notice
was important, and it was forgotten.
In July, to their surprise, Ismail and Adan received a final eviction
notice. The couple was baffled.
“We just never understood what the problem was,” Adan explained through a
translator. “When I got the eviction notice on my door, I didn’t know what
it was — I thought maybe I didn’t pay a ticket.”
As it turned out, the couple had already missed court dates, and they were
on the verge of being thrown out of their four-bedroom home. They were able
to stave off eviction only with the mediation of the Center for
Intercultural Organizing, or CIO, which isn’t usually involved in housing
CIO Executive Director Kayse Jama, who also came as a refugee from Somalia,
worked frantically with HAP to keep the family in their home. She said the
situation demonstrates a distinct communication failure.
The cluttered yard was “an issue, but not an issue that should have gone to
that level,” Jama said. “It has to be worked out — more culturally
appropriate ways of communicating and explaining the rights and
responsibilities of the families.”
Now Adan and Ismail are having trouble determining how much money they owe
New Columbia, since their bills were put on hold during the eviction process
they weren’t aware of. At one point, as he showed Jama a flurry of
English-language documents that he didn’t understand, Adan raised his palms
“We came from a war-torn country, and we tried to work hard and get jobs and
help ourselves and our family and our children,” Ismail said, also through
translation. When they discovered that they faced eviction, she said, she
briefly thought, “Why not send me back to Africa? I don’t have anywhere to
live. Please send me back to the war-torn country that I came from.”
According to Portland’s Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization, Oregon
is home to about 20,000 African immigrants and their families. Many came as
agency-sponsored refugees from conflict-ridden nations like Somalia,
Eritrea, Burundi and Liberia, and their numbers keep growing. In 1990, one
in 30 black Oregonians was born outside the U.S.; now it’s one in 10,
according to the recently released State of Black Oregon report.
Yet the African population’s increasing prominence is not necessarily
reflected in Portland’s services or its public consciousness, says Evelyne
Ello-Hart of the African Women’s Coalition.
An impassioned advocate originally from the Ivory Coast, Ello-Hart says the
African immigrant and refugee community is too often lumped in with the
African American community, when in reality the two groups’ needs can be
very different. She says the city does little specific outreach to the
African community, so that even when there is assistance available to
struggling African families, no one knows it’s there.
“We are so many times left out because people assume we are African
American,” Ello-Hart says. “I feel like someone just dumped us in the
Pacific Ocean when we got to Portland.”
It’s hard to get a handle on how many Africans are struggling with housing
issues, but everybody has an anecdote. Ello-Hart tells of a family of eight
crammed into a three-bedroom apartment with air quality so bad “I couldn’t
breathe.” Dana Wedel, who teaches English to African women and youth, knows
a Sudanese woman who left an apartment in another state without notice — she
didn’t understand that it would mar her rental history — and now has trouble
finding somewhere new to live. Jama is aware of at least two other New
Columbia families in danger of eviction because they couldn’t read bills or
“It’s the same pattern,” Jama said. “I don’t know how many else are facing
Advocates stress that the primary obstacle for the African community is the
same as for other low-income Portlanders: The town has a serious shortage of
affordable, quality rental housing. The waiting lists for HAP’s public
housing and subsidized rent programs are both closed, with more than 3,000
people on each.
But there are cultural factors for African immigrants and refugees that can
make the situation even more precarious, and the language barrier is just
the beginning. African families are frequently larger than the average
American family, for example, and occupancy standards can dictate that they
must rent larger apartments — which can be even more of a stretch to afford.
“A lot of families I’ve seen, that’s one of the barriers: they have so many
kids,” said Susi Steinmann, who coordinates the African Women’s Coalition’s
With nowhere else to go, households with family or homeland connections
often end up moving in together.
“There’s a very strong sense of community in the African community,”
Steinmann said. “People are not going to be on the street before they’re
absorbed into another household.”
Ello-Hart agrees, and she stresses that over-packed households represent a
real but difficult-to-trace manifestation of homelessness in the African
“You won’t see Africans under the bridge,” Ello-Hart said. “But you will see
households over capacity.”
But while home-sharing may make sense to a family that has lived through a
crowded refugee camp, it often violates leases. HAP clients, for instance,
can lose their public assistance entirely if they are found to have extra
people in the household.
Meera Batra, who manages a parenting program within the New Columbia, says
she’s seen it happen.
“Somebody knows somebody from their village who lives in a different town,
and they invite them over to come look for a job and stay with them ... and
it’s not looked upon very kindly,” she said. “That’s a cultural issue.”
At the Plaza Townhomes, a HAP subsidized housing property in North Portland,
manager Chris Connell estimates that about 80 percent of his tenants are of
African origin. Connell pulls out a three-ringed binder overstuffed with
applications for the complex. Many of the names seem to be of African
The waiting list for the townhomes is closed, with 145 people hoping for one
of the 34 two-bedroom units. That’s about a two-year wait if the apartments
have a regular turnover rate, Connell says — but with the economy in the
tank, no tenants have moved out for six months.
“I think we were doing a disservice to people by taking applications and
giving them hope,” Connell said.
Concentrated African communities have emerged over time in several parts of
Portland, including the Plaza Townhomes and a particular cul-de-sac at the
New Columbia. That can be a great thing, Steinmann of the African Women’s
Coalition explained, because families who understand each other will trade
things like childcare or grocery shopping and have an easier time settling
“It creates a social space that really helps women be able to get out and be
in the community,” Steinmann said.
The benefits are so stark, in fact, that when the New Columbia held a focus
group for African families in the complex, many asked if management could
intentionally house African immigrants and refugees next to one another.
“Many of the families said, ‘Could all the African families be placed in one
section of New Columbia?’” explained John Keating, HAP’s assistant director
for community building. “I can see why folks would want that, but of course,
from a fair-housing North American culture, you could never do that. That
would be seen as segregation and prejudice.” Instead, Keating said, HAP
tries to sponsor events for the mini-communities that emerge.
HAP is also trying to determine the best way to communicate with residents
so problems like Adan and Ismail’s are less frequent, though no definite
solution has yet emerged.
“How can you meet them halfway?” Batra said. “It’s going to be hard to
bridge that gap ... Managers and everyone need to be open to more trainings
and talks, and getting the community in to talk to them about what works for
There’s still a long way to go, advocates say. According to Jama, the
African immigrant and refugee population is still considered one of the most
underserved in Portland. The Center for Intercultural Organizing works to
help immigrant communities advocate for themselves, but Jama says there’s
also an onus on the city to take care of those it takes in. “We have an
obligation to make sure that they’re supported,” he said.
Ismail and Adan say they will do everything they can to follow the rules and
keep their home. Adan is training to work as a truck driver — he was about
to take his licensing test when the eviction came up — and though their
experience of late has been frustrating, they keep it in perspective.
“There’s no war here,” Ismail said. “The issues that we dealt with here are
nothing compared to (Somalia), so we’re absolutely grateful that we’re safe
and we’re here.”
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