More than 10,000 African refugees have realized a long-held dream: They have opened a home of their own called "Africa House."
Designed to be a one-stop social service center by and for Africans, Africa House will serve as a "home away from home" for the 20,000 Africans who live in Portland and the surrounding area, half of whom are refugees.
"This is a truly historic moment," said Oregon State Sen. Avel Gordly, who attended the opening of Africa House on Oct. 25.
"You can count on me and my office to help you in any way."
After trying for several years to secure funding for a service and community center, the African community will use a three-year grant awarded to the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement.
"We have a window of opportunity here to build something of permanent value for the African community," said Sokhom Tauch, executive director of IRCO. "Succeeding beyond the three years grant period will be dependent on the community's unity in working together to develop new resources."
Djimet (pronounced "Jimmy") Dogo, coordinator of Africa House, who arrived in Portland in 1999 from Chad, said the center will provide many services: needs assessment, referral services, community education workshops on life skills, women's skill building groups, community building and organizational development.
The center also will sponsor a youth leadership conference and develop partnerships with other agencies that also provide services to Africans, Dogo said.
Initially, the program will be located in a building owned by IRCO at 631 N.E. 102nd Ave. in Portland, but Dogo hopes eventually to relocate the center in Northeast Portland, possibly on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
Djimet Dogo, left,with Karifa Koroma, and drummer Chata
"That would be perfect," Dogo said. "It is in the center of the population and accessible by bus."
He hopes to be able to find a 1,500-square-foot building for the center's four staff members to work from and for room for partnering agencies and a community center. Soon, he said, he will convene a meeting and ask the African community to help find a building and to develop ideas for permanent funding that goes beyond the three-year federal grant that provides seed money for the organization.
"We plan to help newly arrived refugees learn what Oregon is like, what life is like in the United States and what things that might have been acceptable in Africa but are not acceptable here," Dogo said.
Those who aren't well educated or don't speak English will need help to complete forms and communicate with those providing services. Women who cannot work because they have children to care for will be able to find help from the center, too, Dogo said.
"We want it to be like the Asian Family Center," he added. "We want to raise the visibility of the African community and educate service providers about African needs and potential."
African refugees began arriving in Portland in 1982, and at least another 1,000 are "secondary migrants" who left their original American communities to obtain services in Portland.
"Our main goal is to not only help refugees but the entire African community," Dogo said.
Africa House will be a service center but also a "community" center — a place for Africans to celebrate their cultural events, conduct weddings and forge friendships. Until now, there has been no other place to go, Dogo said.
"It has been a long, long dream that the African community has had," he said. "Now it has come into realization. We want to have a permanent place where we can remember our culture, where we came from and why we came here. Where Africans can feel at home in our own center and recognize that we are here."