By Charlotte Finn
Unlike so many newcomers who set their sights on living in our hip city, Yasmine’s family arrived by a more arduous, traumatic, and lengthy process.
They are Burmese refugees who had been living as stateless, displaced persons for years without a country to call their own who came to SE Portland less than a year ago.
Yasmine is 21, and her parents and three younger brothers arrived in Portland with no idea what to expect. Her first impression when stepping out of the airport was that this must be a very rich country to use air conditioning outside.
She had never felt such coolness outdoors on her skin having lived her entire life in Malaysia where temperatures are intensely hot and humid all year long.
Yasmine’s ancestors, members of the minority Muslim Rohingya group, migrated from Bangladesh to Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) generations ago. They settled in the Rakhine state of Myanmar, and made their lives in a Buddhist-majority country suffering discrimination and persecution.
Hundreds of thousands fled to neighboring countries to avoid brutal attacks and abject poverty, but they were not welcomed in those countries either.
Rather than live in squalid temporary refugee camps on their borders, many Rohingya made the grueling journey by boat, bus, and foot finally arriving in Malaysia where they at least had opportunities to work, although not legally.
Yasmine’s young parents made the dangerous trip to Malaysia before she was born, working mostly in restaurants and doing odd jobs to earn money, satisfied that at least they had safety.
The family had 5 children and coped as well as they could on a meager income in a country where they could never legally settle and obtain rights to schools and regular employment or other benefits of being a citizen.
They began the application process with the UNHRC (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) in Malaysia knowing the wait was long and uncertain.
Each phase of the vetting process took years of interviews and screening and, with each nerve-wracking phase, they could have been denied or disqualified and be taken from the pool small pool of fortunate refugees who would hve their case transferred to a particular countryfor yet another vetting process.
After four years of waiting and hoping, their case was transferred to the US authorities who did more screening and determined the family could come to the US and settle in Portland.
They felt fortunate and were thrilled, but also nervous about how their lives in Portland would take shape. Yasmine had spent her whole life in Malaysia hiding as a displaced person.
Fortunately, she had attended a UNHCR school in Malaysia where she learned to speak English well.
Her parents didn’t have this advantage and still struggle to understand the most basic English. Yasmine is their interpreter for culture and language, changing her role significantly in her family.
The family lives in an apartment in SE Portland where they grapple with the everyday tasks of living. The learning curve has been steep, the challenges many, and adapting has been a ragged process where one day the family feels confident and comfortable with their new lives and the next like strangers in a place that baffles them.
The small community of Rohingya refugees in Portland help each other adapt to the many different customs and practices of life here, in celebrating their own culture and religion.
Yasmine’s family agree that despite some of the difficulties of life in the US, the expense of living, the chilly climate, and the recent news that refugees, especially Muslim refugees, are unwelcomed by some, life in Portland is safe and pleasant compared to what they experienced in either Myanmar or Malaysia.
Yasmine’s father has a job as a hotel housekeeper, and the children all go to school, Yasmine attends PCC and works as an English/Rohingya interpreter helping other refugees, and her mother has learned where to shop, how to ride the bus, and can understand more and more English, although speaking is still challenging for her.
What would they want their SE Portland neighbors to know about them? “We are like you,” says Yasmine.
“We want to be safe, have opportunities to work and go to school, and we will work hard to follow your customs and our own so that we can live peacefully at last and unafraid to walk in the streets of our new neighborhood.”
Let’s give a hardy welcome to families like Yasmine’s and respect and cherish what they bring to our communities.