County Chair Kafoury meets with AYCO

(from MultCo Global)

Chair Deborah Kafoury sat down for dinner and a conversation with Somali-American members of the African Youth and Community Organization (AYCO) Thursday night. It was the first in a series of meetings with immigrant and refugee communities as Multnomah County prepares its 2017 budget.

“My job is make sure we’re providing services that are culturally specific,” she said. “I want to learn from you how we can best serve you.”

Jamal Dar, a production supervisor at Nike, launched AYCO to give new refugees the support he lacked as a teen.

Kafoury gathered with a dozen community leaders and their families in the nonprofit’s snug, sparsely-furnished office on 122nd Ave.

“We’re very happy to have you here,” said Jamal Dar, executive director of AYCO (link is external).

Dar, a production supervisor at Nike and one-time track star, was born in Somalia and raised in Kenya’s DaDaab, the world’s largest refugee camp. He came alone to the U.S. when he was 15. He fell in with the wrong crowd, then he passed up an athletic scholarship to UCLA. He finally landed an internship at Nike and went to Portland State University.

Seven years ago Dar launched AYCO to give refugee teens the support he had missed. The nonprofit provides social services, English classes, homework help and disability services to about 7,000 families. Nearly 700 children participate in their sports program.

Dar said they hope to secure public funding to support paid positions for youth and crime prevention, a cultural navigator and a community health worker. But for now the nonprofit does all this without any paid employees or government support. Instead families – most of whom qualify for public assistance – donate small sums each month to pay the nonprofit’s rent. Volunteers staff the office and lead programs.

Amal Ahmed, the program manager for community engagement (and the night’s defacto interpreter), said they try to help families bridge the cultural communication divide.

“It’s difficult for us to talk about ourselves,” she said. “In Somalia, you say you’re fine. You wake up, you’re not dead, so you’re fine.”

Amal Ahmed is AYCO’s community engagement program manager. Like all AYCO staff, she’s a volunteer.

Even if you don’t have money to pay your rent, you’re “fine.” But here, when a social worker asked how things are going, they really want to know, she tells families. The program helps refugees learn to ask for help with housing, health and education, with an emphasis on empowering girls.

Abubakar “Askina” Sharif leads the nonprofit’s youth programs. Like executive director Dar, Sharif came alone to the U.S. as a teen, and floundered without support.

“I want the kids to have everything I didn’t have,” he told Kafoury. “I want them to get the opportunities I never had, the guidance.”

Saara Hirsi leads the AYCO disability services.

“For most refugees, if you’re disabled, there’s no hope,” she said. That’s what people thought of her at first.

Hirsi is legally blind.

“Everyone thought I should stay home,” she said. “But I said, ‘I need some education.’” Hirsi, a quietly powerful woman, found out about the Oregon Commission for the Blind, where she learned English. Then she earned a GED. Then she went to Portland State University, where she earned a degree in psychology.

When she graduated, she began volunteering at AYCO and launched the disabilities program. Most refugees when they arrive are told about social security benefits. They sign up and receive a monthly check. And that’s it.

At AYCO, that’s only the beginning.

“We can contribute; We can pay our taxes,” she said. She began training caregivers to advocate for services. Today AYCO offers English and art classes for disabled refugees.

“If they don’t come here, people would stay home, like in Africa,” she said. But “I come here, I see how much people change.”

Some of her students came Thursday night with their families.

Chair Deborah Kafoury hears from members of the African Youth and Community Organization.

Mariam Mohammed came with her daughter Nasra who has a developmental disability. They take English classes together. Ali Matan came with his son, who has a disability. Ali has four children with disabilities, and he walks with a cane himself.

“But I was put in a home with three flights of stairs,” he said. He asked Kafoury if she could help refugees with physical disabilities obtain single-level homes.

Others raised concerns about housing; Falhado Ali is an elderly woman who came alone to Oregon from the DaDaap refugee camp. Like all single refugees, she was provided $300 a month for rent.

AYCO’s Amal Ahmed took her in, charging $200 a month. Ali’s monthly stipend ran out three months ago. Now she stays with Ahmed for free.

Salat Ahmed said his biggest struggles have been academic.

He has six kids attending high, middle and elementary schools in the Reynolds’ school district. They came last year from a refugee camp, where school is an afterthought. Despite his teenage son having had just a few years formal education, he was put in a high school class. And he gets bullied by other kids because he can’t speak English yet.

Ahmed said he doesn’t know how to help his son, who has begun refusing to go to school.

“If there is anything that can be done about that,” he said.  “We feel we are underserved. The child is trying his best.”

“Thank you for sharing your personal stories,” Kafoury said. She gestured to the county outreach staff and health department executives who stood nearby taking notes. AYCO’s team could expect to hear from them again, she said.

“I hope this will be the first of many conversations.”

The next day her staff began calling departments to discuss the community concerns, Kafoury remained in awe of what AYCO had been able to do on its own.

“I came away more convinced than ever that we have to find ways to better connect families to our resources,” she said,” and support our immigrant and refugee communities so they get what they need to be healthy, stable and successful.”