By her own hand, African Program Supervisor Debbie Fisher fired herself from a job she loved. After securing a second three-year federal grant for the African Women's Coalition, the "Godmother of the Coalition" realized that the coalition was finally self-sufficient.
"I successfully wrote myself out of a job," Fisher said.
The African Women's Coalition, a group operating out of Lutheran Community Services in Southeast Portland, provides social services to women refugees from 31 African countries. Formed in 2003, the coalition now has federal grant funding for the next three years and has succeeded in a long-standing goal to be run entirely by African women.
Fisher, who originally taught English as a Second Language classes at Clark College in Vancouver, Wash., began working at Lutheran Community Services in youth mentoring and literacy. After participating in a federal program designed to reach out to women from the Horn of Africa and Iraqi Kurds, Fisher said she was on a non-stop mission to help these women.
"I just fell in love with them," she said.
Fisher was one of several founding members to receive recognition during an event organized by Program Supervisor Evelyne Ello-Hart, an Ivory Coast immigrant. The event also aimed to attract new members; enabled the coalition to unveil its new Web site (www.awcportland.org); and discussed the need for community involvement and funding.
The event's keynote speaker, Shafia Monroe, founder of the International Center for Traditional Childbearing, told the audience about the importance of birth doulas, or midwives. With about 55 percent of African women immigrants and refugees unable to access healthcare, she said, the importance of having a trained birthing assistant becomes that much more important.
Doulas help pregnant women before, during and after their pregnancy, advocating for them, informing them about their options and they help decrease the likelihood of birth complications.
"I have to fight the system," Monroe said. "The woman has the right for quality care."
Helping to promote the system of pregnancy care, the coalition has partnered with the childbearing center to help promote a doula training program. Currently, the program is only open to African refugee women.
This is only one of many programs offered by the coalition. The coalition also supports the PEA SOUP Project (Project for Ethnic Advancement: Sisters Organizing and Uniting for Prosperity), a program designed to assist refugees with literacy tutors, mentors, cultural sensitivity training, academic assistance and other activities.
Fisher said the in-home tutoring programs are essential for the successful relocation of refugees. Without education, many fall through the cracks, she said, and eight months of governmental assistance is just not enough to overcome what often adds up to adjusting to a new culture, learning a new language, finding a job and being a single mother.
"One-on-one tutoring is the most effective way to get people on their feet," Fisher said. "For the refugee, it grounds them."
Plus, she said, along with education assistance, the tutor becomes a cultural guide for the refugee, leading the newly arrived woman into a world that can be very different from the one of their birth.
Knowing the fear and anxiety that can occur for these women first hand, coalition director Ello-Hart said she would have been lost when she first arrived if it hadn't have been for the helping hand of another African immigrant. She believes the best way to serve the refugee community is to ask the refugees what they need, instead of offering programs that may be underused, unneeded or unnecessary.
And the programs help with the necessities of the refugee community – citizenship classes, driver's education, small business training, nutrition guides. While another class, Sewing Across Cultures, helps to build relationships — and quilts — with women across the many cultural lines that can divide them. Another stress point for many refugees can be child care.
America has different cultural practices for child care and discipline than in many African countries, Ello-Hart said. For the first time, some families are feeling the role their own skin color plays in society, she said.
"I never realized the importance of race until I came here," Ello-Hart said.
The children of refugees often have an easier time adjusting to American culture. When the traditional relationship between parent and child is switched because the child knows more about the language and culture than the parent, family tension and even violence can result.
Explaining the complexity of the refugee experience, Youth Coordinator Abdul Fofanah said many refugees would be better off staying in Africa. Fofanah, who came from Sierra Leone at the age of 12, said without assistance, some refugee children can fall into a dangerous trap. Without help, a young refugee, who has lived in a refugee camp all his life, comes to Portland and is placed in a grade level corresponding to his age. He has never set foot in a classroom, he does not speak the language, and teachers do not know how to provide for him.
Not understanding his school work, the young man fails in school, gets into trouble, falls into the hands of criminal elements because he cannot find a job and soon finds himself behind bars. Fofanah said this scenario happens too many times, and the people who find themselves in this trap never get a chance to live the American Dream.
"Not a lot of people realize the importance of this work," he said.
Fofanah helps many of these youth in the refugee communities adapt to their new way of life. Soon enough, he said, these refugees will be someone's neighbors, co-workers and friends.
"The quicker we understand how to play the game, everyone wins," he said.
The African Women's Coalition is always looking for volunteers and new members. Contact Evelyne Ello-Hart, coalition coordinator, at 503-231-7480, ext. 638.