Africa House creates new opportunities

    Over 1,500 refugees come to Oregon each year, and the culture shock and the challenges of navigating government paperwork, public schools and health care can often make the transition difficult.

    African refugees may have a new place to turn to for help – Portland State student Djimet Dogo. He is the program director of the newly created Africa House, an organization intended to assist African refugees upon their arrival in Portland.

    "This is a long-time dream of the African community," he said. "Everything will depend on how supportive the community is." That community includes PSU students who Dogo hopes will help by donating volunteer hours.

    "It’s a new world for them and it’s easy for them to get lost here," Karifa Koroma, chairman of the African Community Association in Portland, said about refugees. Dogo and Koroma said that there are about 18,000 to 20,000 African immigrants and refugees in the Portland metropolitan area, and Africa House plans to help 120 families a year.

    Since many of the people who come to Oregon do not speak English, the transition can be a difficult one. Africa House hopes to help newcomers adjust.

    "There is quite a bit of misunderstanding," Koroma said. Both Dogo and Koroma mentioned that many things acceptable in Africa are unacceptable and even illegal here. People must be informed of this so they can stay out of trouble.

    It is more than just a helping hand for new arrivals, though. It will also serve as a place to teach youth about community leadership. And there, children can learn about their culture and their language.

    "You need to make sure for the culture to still exist," Koroma said.

    Africa House was created with a grant given this year by the Office of Refugee Resettlement. Though the grant only pays for three years and only pays for assistance to refugee families, Dogo hopes that the program will continue after that time is up and that services can be expanded to immigrants as well.    

    Since the center opened on Oct. 1, Dogo has been busy networking. He has been reaching out to different African communities in Portland. The Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization, and the African Community Center of Oregon will also assist in operations of the house.

    Dogo already had a bachelor of arts from a school in Chad. Now he is working on a bachelor of science in communications studies. He has been attending PSU for about three years, and is nearing the completion of his degree.

    "It’s good, it’s a very good place to study," he said. Before coming here, he also attended the European University Center for Peace Studies in Austria.

    In the 1990s, many regimes in Africa collapsed due to conflict between diverse ethnic and religious factions. Dogo went to places like Croatia, Slovenia and Hungary and studied how countries in similar situations reconcile.

    "There is no peace at all," he said of Africa. The irony is that many of the places, like Chad, the Sudan and the Congo, are rich in natural resources, yet people have to leave their country because of dictators and persecution.

    "There will be peace only when the people make decisions, " he said.

    He described a "circle of violence" between different ethnic groups that will end only with democracy. "We have to educate the people to make decisions."

    Dogo came to Portland in 1999 seeking asylum, and now lives here with his wife and three children. He said he likes it here and has no plans to leave. After he gets his bachelor’s, he says he wants to get a master’s in public administration.

    For now, Africa House is a full-time job. Twenty-eight of the 54 African countries are represented. Though each of the countries can contain a multitude of different cultures, Africa House will look past that.

   ����’We still have a lot of similarities," Dogo said.