In Their Words: Stories of Immigrants & Refugees

In a restaurant kitchen, a woman with dark, curly hair pulled back in a ponytail, wearing an apron holds a pan over a stove as a burst of flame flares while she cooks.
Civic Life sat down with Portlanders to hear their important stories about immigrating to the United States, challenges and wins, and how each of us can support their immigrant and refugee communities.
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2022: Building a Business

In a restaurant kitchen, a woman with dark, curly hair pulled back in a ponytail, wearing an apron holds a pan over a stove as a burst of flame flares while she cooks.
Image by Diego G Diaz Photography

El Inka Peruvian Cuisine

Claudia Fernández's journey to Oregon, from helping her “abuelita (grandma)” in the kitchen as an child in her native Guatemala, to meeting her Peruvian husband, Luis Cabrera, and opening her restaurant El Inka Peruvian Cuisine. Read Claudia's story!

A woman in a chef's uniform smiles at the camera and grinds ingredients in a mortar and pestle.
Image by Diego G Diaz Photography

Sandy's Myanmar Cuisine

Sandy Mynt is a chef from Yangon, Myanmar. She grew up mostly in the kitchen with her Ahmay, Grandma and Grand Aunties, learning traditional Burmese cooking techniques. She takes pride on staying loyal to the curries, somusas, coconut noodle soups, and the signature Mote Hin Gar fish soup recipes passed down by her family. Read Sandy's story!

A woman with long brown hair, wearing a black graphic t-shirt and large hoop earrings smiles at the camera while standing next to a custom made leather handbag.
Image by Diego G Diaz Photography

Casa de Iyari

"Iyari" means "heart" in Wixárika, an indigenous Mexican language. Through Casa de Iyari, owner Carmen Flores wants to reclaim space for indigenous artisans from her native Jalisco, who traditionally have crafted excellent leather hand bags and accessories for hundreds of years. Read Carmen's story!

A Black woman wearing a chef's uniform shows off a plate full of fish and vegetables.
Image by Diego G Diaz Photography

Akadi PDX

Akadi means “tasty” in Bambara, one of many languages spoken in West Africa. Akadi PDX’s chef and owner, Fatou Ouattara, brings delicious, traditional foods from countries like the Ivory Coast, Senegal, Ghana, Mali, and Burkina Faso to the Pacific Northwest. Read Fatou's story!

Behind the counter of a bakery, a woman with should length blond hair, wearing a blue denim shirt holds up a tray of freshly baked pastries.
Image by Diego G Diaz Photography

Cherry Hill Bakery

Ukrainian-born chef Inga Turman has a passion for cooking, especially baking. Inga has seen her share of unrest and fear in her life. While the current war sows hatred between families and friends, Inga firmly believes that the kitchen is the one place when we can still come together. Read Inga's story!

2021: Coming to the United States

Mia Sabanovic and her husband are refugees from Bosnia and Herzegovina. "Whenever people hear Bosnia and Herzegovina, it brings up images of the war and atrocities that happened. The Bosnian community here does not want to let that define who we are. We are proud of our culture. I have heard members of the New Portlanders Policy Commission say it's best to integrate and not assimilate because we all have our differences that add value to this community."

Romeo Sosa immigrated from Guatemala. He speaks Maya K'iche' as his first language. "People who come to this country are like heroes. They have lived through very difficult things and a very difficult path. Coming to this country is not easy and breaking down all those barriers is also not that easy. [I want to say] welcome to everyone from different parts of the world. If no one has welcomed you, I welcome you. I know that many have not received you with open arms. On the contrary, they have tried to reject us, to stop us, and they did not want us to come to this country. It doesn't matter where you come from and it doesn't matter what color you are, your language. Here we are siblings, we are all humans, and we all have dreams."

Baher Butti is an Iraqi American Arabic speaker and a member of the New Portlanders Policy Commission. "The acculturation process takes time, especially the immigrants and refugees that came from areas that have been disrupted by violence and poverty, so we need time for healing. And that means resources to help immigrants and refugees heal, and start adjusting."

Multnomah County Commissioner Susheela Jayapal is an immigrant from India. "Today as we await the arrival of new immigrants and refugees from Afghanistan, accepting, protecting, and empowering all who enter our community is more important than ever. And being welcoming is so much more than being friendly, tolerant or peaceful...A truly welcoming place has intentional, inclusive policies, practices and norms that enable all residents to live, thrive, and contribute fully, including immigrants and refugees."

Kien Truong immigrated with his family from Vietnam to Portland in 2014. "My parents didn't speak English so I had to do literally everything. I was the one who applied for food stamps, I was the one who applied for health care. I was the one trying to get us green cards and renewal and, you know, literally everything. You know, we're in a system that puts the minority or the underserved groups to fight against each other for resources. So I think it's very important for us to recognize that and just work together to support each other. "

Eddie Vents is originally from Guinea-Bissau, Africa. "I'm a professional dancer and it's very important to explain. I'm not just a professional dancer. I am also a historian. Especially during the time of the pandemic, I started following a different path in terms of history. I started looking at the path of slavery."

Blanca Gaytan-Farfan is an immigrant from Michoacan, Mexico. "When I think about my family's experience adjusting to a new environment here, I think a lot about the difficultly with language and accessibility to spaces that had translation services or interpretation services. Often my older brother or I would have to help my parents navigate those systems. Us, very young, needing to navigate those adult spaces for our parents was very difficult."

Arianna Perez Garcia is a Multnomah Youth Commission member and is 19 years old. "It feels like this secret, like, oh my family are immigrants, and they...didn't come here the right way. I know they had fear...but I never experienced that and to me that is a privilege. I'm nineteen, and my mom was nineteen when she came here. My birthday was last month and I thought about how she had to navigate through this world, the United States, California, Oregon, having to learn English and having to defend herself."

Timur Holove immigrated from Tajikistan. He is currently the chair of the Slavic Community Center of Northwest. "I think one of the biggest barriers is definitely the cultural barrier and the language barrier. And the trust. If we are looking at people who came here in the 90s, those are people that were oppressed by the Soviet government and they couldn't trust the police and city officials. [The Slavic Community Media Center] is a liaison between the city officials and the community. The radio and magazines, they might not be as popular right now in the American community, but for the ethnic communities, those traditional media carriers are still the trusted source of information and we are able to directly reach those people."

Zinah Mudahfar is an Iraqi refugee and came to the United States with her family in 2014. "What has really surprised me is to find out that a lot of [American Iraqi] children are trying really hard to keep the language and not only to speak it but also to try and learn how to read and write. When we are teaching them their languages, their culture, this will nourish them as they grow."

Noah and Rakeb  are siblings and both Multnomah Youth Commission members. They immigrated to the United States with their family from Ethiopia. "Obviously, I'm proud to be Ethiopian, but, some people are like "Oh you're an immigrant?" I've experienced some people who weren't really welcoming...There should be events to support morality, so the process [of being new to this country] isn't too tough for them, they should have a place to go for support. And somewhere where they feel safe."

Evelyn Liu's parents emigrated from China. She was born in Portland and has lived here her whole life. She is currently a member of the New Portlanders Policy Commission. "I know that city municipalities want individuals that look like the people that they want to serve. The [New Portlanders Policy Commission] is trying to lower those barriers, [so that immigrants and refugees] are at the table when certain issues are discussed."