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Hearing Voices from the Margins

On the evening of September 14, we made meaningful cross-cultural connections at “Voices from the Margins” at Spirit of Grace Church in Beaverton. Thanks to a grant from the City of Beaverton Welcoming Week, the Lutheran-Catholic church hosted over a hundred people to hear from immigrant women and discuss the meaning of welcome. Fertile Ground Communications co-organized the evening, recruited volunteers, found the speakers, and managed advertising and social media.

As attendees listened to Brazilian jazz pianist Jasnam Daya Singh and food and beverages, they perused tables hosted by Adelante Mujeres, the Metropolitan Alliance for Common Good, the Interfaith Movement for Immigrant Justice, and the Cultivating Nonviolence series. We offered an opportunity to sign up for a three-month Voices from the Margins Book Group, which will be facilitated by Fertile Ground Communications. We used some of the grant money to purchase and offer books on a sliding scale.

We heard a welcome from Pr. Brian Brandt of Spirit of Grace and Cate Arnold and Alexis Ball from the City of Beaverton. Brian introduced our warm and dynamic emcee, Nura Elmagbari.

Stories from Women Immigrants

Nura Elmagbari

Nura uses her brilliance and passion to help immigrants each day, from teaching middle schoolers to founding organizations like the Daughters of Eve and the Portland Refugee Support Group. Born in Libya, she came to the U.S. at age four. Thirty-four years later, she returned to Libya after the revolution. The trip was emotionally devastating, seeing her Libyan roots destroyed after 42 years of devastation and conflict. The trip gave her a newfound perspective on life, though, realizing that God placed us here to make the world a better place. Nura shared her hopes that every person in the room would spend their time doing good so our roots can become stronger and we can become a more beautiful community.

Nura introduced each of our speakers and facilitated the small group activities with grace and ease, a true master emcee! Our speakers wove a web of heroic stories about the importance of education, welcoming and unwelcoming, resilience, and perseverance.

Monica Salazar

Monica Salazar is a writer and activist interested in culture, immigration, intersectionality, and technology. Monica’s father grew up in rural Mexico. After crossing the border at age 17 for a better life, he took any jobs that would hire undocumented immigrants—flipping burgers, picking lettuce, or butchering meat. His break came when he landed a job as a janitor at a medical manufacturing plant. His manager saw potential in him and encouraged him to take ESL classes. Thanks to this manager’s encouragement and the support of his wife, he went to technical school and is now a facilities manager in Silicon Valley. By all surface measures, he’s an American success story.

But Monica pointed out that when we celebrate the tangible gains, we often forget to focus on the losses. Her father didn’t teach her Spanish or share any of his history. Monica’s only childhood exposure to her roots was occasionally going to Mexican grocery stores or family weddings and Quinceaneras. With a white mom, Monica didn’t feel like she fit in either traditional American or Mexican cultures.

Feeling disjointed and like she didn’t belong anywhere, her interest piqued when she interviewed her dad for a college essay. She realized she’d never asked him about his memories about Mexico and immigrating. His voice became animated in a way she’d never heard...unless he was talking about actor Eva Longoria.

This unraveling of her father's history made Monica realize how important stories are. Stories are at the center of our identities as individuals, as communities, and as nations. Yet dominant narratives in our society can make people living on the margins feel unwelcome.

Monica took a few key steps to embrace her family’s stories. First she decided to teach herself Spanish. And second, she found an internship at The Immigrant Story. Now she interviews immigrants and writes their stories.

She knows that storytelling alone cannot solve all our institutional problems. But she firmly believes that putting those in the margins in the center of our attention to hear their stories can reduce cultural shame and promote cultural pride, while fostering empathy in the listeners.

“Storytelling might seem like a small thing to do,” says Monica. “When you give someone you don’t know the time and space to share their experiences—someone who is born in a city you might not be able to pronounce, goes to a different place of worship, or has a narrative imposed on them—when you give them the chance to talk and to just be acknowledged, you’re giving them a chance to create their own story…and to have it be heard. This is no way small.
I wish my dad had been given that space. I wish he’d been given more opportunities to feel proud of his heritage.”

Sosan Amiri

Born in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sosan has been speaking English for three years and is mom to two small boys.

“As we say in Afghanistan, everyone has a moon shining in our life," Sosan began. "The moon has a bright side and a dark side. My dark side started when the Taliban took power when I was five years old.”

When all girls’ schools were shut down, Sosan's parents and neighbors opened a secret school, risking their lives to make sure she received an education. Later when Sosan got married, she and her husband moved to Russia because it was the only country that would give them a visa. Unfortunately Russia proved even more difficult for them than Afghanistan because they were unable to work or go to college. Finally they received visas to come to the United States.

Initially excited about being here, she had an unpleasant interaction when she arrived for a pregnancy ultrasound appointment. Feeling vulnerable and frightened by a large dog in the clinic's parking lot, she asked the owner to keep her dog away. Sosan wasn’t able to understand much of the woman’s angry words, but she did understand this: “Why did you come to my country? Go back to your country. What are you doing here?” Unable to get those hurtful words out of her head, Sosan wondered why she had left Afghanistan, even though life was harder there.

She returned to Afghanistan in 2016 to visit her parents and was distressed to find her mother suffering from a bad toothache and unable to get dental care. Seeing her mother's suffering confirmed her resolve to do and become something. When she returned to the states, she enrolled to study English and soon earned her A.S. degree. She wants to become a dentist.

Sosan shared the words of Persian poet Saadi Shirazi:

“Human beings are members of a whole

In creation of one essence and soul

If one member is afflicted with pain

Other members uneasy will remain

If you have no sympathy for human pain

The name of human you cannot retain”

― Saadi Shirazi

“I grew up in a strong community,” said Sosan. “I want to teach my kids to treat everyone with the same respect.” She is walking her talk by helping other immigrant families with financial assistance. “We are all human beings. Being human is more important than where you come from. We all want the same good for our families.”

Sarah Tabannaj

Mother to two little boys, Sarah hopes to become an x-ray technician. She left Syria with her husband with just a few weeks’ notice. Living in Turkey for two years, they found it difficult to work, so they applied through Catholic Charities to come to the United States.

Sarah arrived in Oregon three years ago, knowing only two people here, when she was seven months pregnant. A family from Egypt let them stay in their home and helped them find housing and apply for insurance. After two months here, Sarah delivered her first child, Qais. Unfortunately, she suffered from depression because she didn’t have family or a support system to help her...a cultural adjustment after growing up in a country where families lived together and supported each other. Her husband worked all day beginning at 5 a.m., so Sarah was on her own.

“In Syria we live together but some can take a separate home when they get married,” said Sarah. “I hope my boys live with me until they are married. I hope they study medicine because I would love them to help people.”

Sarah has found Americans to be welcoming and kind, but she faced many initial difficulties learning a new language and adjusting to a new country without a community.

She has now found a community, and she goes to the mosque with her friends. Quoting the Prophet Mohammad, who said, “Whoever does not express their gratitude to people will never be grateful to God,” Sarah expressed appreciation for the welcome she’s received from Americans. She also thanked the best woman she’s ever met, Nura Elmagbari, who helped them find a doctor and a home. “If I need anything, I just call Nura,” Sarah said.

When Sarah apologized to the packed audience for her English, Nura reminded her, “You speak multiple languages, and many of us in this room speak only one. Sarah’s story is inspirational; she’s a person who never gives up. Sheer grit and will made her adjust and become a part of this society.”

Olive Bukuru

Our final speaker was Olive Bukuru, who was born in Burundi and grew up in a refugee camp in Tanzania. She recently graduated from college and now works for a local nonprofit, Imagine Possibilities.

When Olive first moved to Oregon, she felt insecure about her African identity, accent, and African attire. She desperately tried to fit in at public spaces. Becoming a US citizen in 2015, she still wasn’t sure what it meant to be an American.

When Olive was born, Burundi was plagued by ethnic violence, much like Rwanda. Her parents grew up in a time of violence, chaos, loss, hunger, and hopelessness, witnessing their own families being burnt and murdered in front of their eyes.

Six months after Olive was born, her family fled to a refugee camp in Tanzania. She realizes now that things weren’t all bad in the camp. She had both of her parents while other kids were not so lucky. Many of their parents had been murdered or died from hunger, untreated HIV/AIDS, or other preventable ailments. Everyone in the camp helped each other, in spite of not having much. The kids made up their own games and fetched water, berries, firewood for cooking. She grew accustomed to seeing people die, because occasionally the camp would be hit with diseases like typhoid fever.

Olive didn’t have a lot of educational opportunities in Tanzania. The primary school she attended from kindergarten to fifth grade was an hour-long run from the camp, and they had one teacher for 60-100 students. “Our parents always encouraged us to study and go after all possible opportunities,” said Olive. “If no opportunities were available, they’d tell us to go create them.”

When her family arrived in Oregon, they were grateful to have a helpful host family. Olive shared one vivid memory with her host family, when they went to a fireworks display on the 4th of July. Her entire family panicked and asked her host family, “Are we going to die?” The host family reassured them that the sound was from fireworks and not gunfire.

Olive shared a few tips to welcome immigrants:

  • Remember they are probably experiencing trauma.

  • Reach out to lend a hand. Invite them into your community.

  • Teach them English.

  • Be their advocate, and remind others what they’ve gone through.

  • Help create welcoming spaces.

Olive has worked hard since she arrived in the United States, being the first person in her family to graduate from high school and college. Until she arrived at Portland State University, though, she felt a bit lost because she didn’t have a strong sense of who she was.

At Portland State, she joined the Pan-African Commons, a space celebrating African, Black American, Caribbean, and Central/South American identity. She loved the warm welcome and ability to show up in her country’s attire, feeling celebrated for her African identity.

Then “Black Panther” came out. Imagine showing all the African cultures and languages in an American movie! "It was the first movie to make me feel proud about being African. Seeing different African cultures and languages be celebrated made me feel like I was at home."

Now Olive proudly wears her country’s attire, and she understands what it is to be an American because she is one.

Nura closed this portion of our evening by complimenting our strong beautiful women speakers who fought for an education and for their freedom, and she thanked them for bravely sharing their stories.

Small Group Sharing About Welcome and Unwelcome

Earlier in the evening we invited attendees to write how they felt welcome and unwelcome on large sheets of paper on the wall. During the last segment, we broke into small groups and shared our own stories. Each group consisted a variety of colors, ages, faiths, and cultural backgrounds. Although we purposefully centered female immigrants at our event, the small discussion groups allowed everyone to be included in the conversation. Every person had an opportunity to speak, and such lively and vulnerable conversation occurred that people did not want to stop talking when our time ended. Many people shared later how meaningful they had found the conversations.

We also forged a new relationship with Sankar Raman at The Immigrant Story, which helped us find some of our speakers and also facilitated their own incredible storytelling event as part of Welcoming Week. We also send our warmest congratulations to The Immigrant Story, which has just been named Best New Nonprofit in 2019 by Portland Monthly! Our community partners, Adelante Mujeres, MACG, and IMIrJ, appreciated an opportunity to share their work with the wider community.

Thanks to the City of Beaverton for making this powerful event happen. Their grant allowed us to pay all of our speakers, none of whom had been paid before to speak (or emcee). See more photos of this evening. We were honored to be able to shine the spotlight on the voices of women in our community.

Our first book group meeting is next Wednesday, discussing I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika Sanchez, where we'll continue our discussions.

Our wonderful speakers with the event organizers, from left to right: Monica, Olive, Sarah, Nura, Sarah (co-organizer), Sosan, and Marie Gettel-Gilmartin from Fertile Ground Communications

Fertile Ground Communications LLC inspires people through story and turns dry language into compelling communications. We specialize in supporting purpose-driven organizations that are working to make the world a better place and helping clients create a healthy, vibrant future for generations to come. Contact me for a free 30-minute consultation.

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