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IRCO: Doorway to assimilation
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IRCO: Doorway to assimilation (continued)

IRCO staff member Joe Dunford, using pointer, teaches a weekly hands-on training in the use of public transportation for newly arrived refugees.
IRCO Industrial Instructor Matthew Mehlhorn, left, teaches Boris Meshcheryakov, left, and Igor Burlakov employment skills in IRCO’s Pre-Employment Training program.
Djimet Dogo, seated, IRCO staff member and refugee from Chad, demonstrates African drumming techniques for a father and son.
When Sadia’s English proficiency level improved, she took IRCO’s eight-week housekeeping class. After completing the class, she interviewed for a job at the Monarch Hotel and was hired in August 2005. She was having trouble with numbers, including room numbers, so she returned to IRCO and enrolled in a newly created six-week literacy class designed specifically for the hotel housekeeping environment. Upon completion of this new literacy class, Sadia returned to the Monarch Hotel, where she enjoys her work and her employer is pleased.

Three of the family’s five children are school age and began exhibiting behavioral and social problems in school. They were placed in IRCO’s school-based programs, where they received case management and extended day activities, including tutoring and mentoring.

In addition, both Noor and Sadia have participated in all parent workshops provided through the IRCO school programs. Workshops include how to be a good rental tenant, developing successful student management skills, waking students up on time, calling the school when a child is sick, how to use the school bus system, mediating parents’ cultural issues, what the Pledge of Allegiance is, parental discomforts about physical education classes (because of exposure of the body), what respect for teachers looks like in this culture and, despite gender differences, the need for respect for teachers.

The program also provides needed family support in the areas of rental assistance, bus passes and emergency assistance for basic needs when there isn’t enough money.

As a result, all three children have demonstrated social and academic improvements as documented by academic grades and behavior reports from school staff. Parental involvement in the school has increased, and the family’s living situation has improved.

The Husseins are an IRCO success story.

In the 2005-2006 school year, IRCO worked with 1,028 children from ethnic communities in the Portland and Parkrose schools. Of these, 98 percent have shown academic improvement.

The countries from which IRCO’s refugee clients flee change with geo-political upheavals. In the early days, the majority came from Southeast Asia. In 2005, 65 percent came from the former Soviet republics, 18 percent from Africa, 10 percent from Cuba, 4 percent from Iraq and Iran, and only 3 percent from Southeast Asia.

Today, IRCO has an annual budget of almost $8.7 million, 60 percent of which comes from federal and state refugee resettlement funds.

Throughout the United States, work with refugees and immigrants is generally done by large, national charities such as Catholic Charities or the International Rescue Committee. IRCO is unique in that it is a stand-alone 501(c)3 non-profit agency governed by a local board of directors, of which 60 percent are former refugees. Sokhom Tauch, IRCO’s executive director, was among the original Southeast Asian boat people from Cambodia. In Portland, Tauch worked as a dishwasher while learning the language then completing his undergraduate degree in business accounting and earning a master’s degree in business administration.

IRCO has over 150 full time employees, most of who came to America as refugees. The employees reflect the clients in ethnicity, language, background and personal experience. The IRCO staff currently represents over 40 ethnic groups and speaks at least 39 languages.

In 1980 IRCO started the International Language Bank to offer interpretation and translation services to local businesses and social service agencies, which had customers or clients who could not speak English. The original funding came from government contracts, but when those fell due to budget cuts in the mid 1980s, IRCO continued on a fee-for-service basis. Today, IRCO offers interpretation and translation in over 50 languages, with an emphasis on “languages of lesser diffusion” — little known refugee languages.

IRCO moved to the Mid-county area in 2001 after purchasing its current site at 10301 N.E. Glisan Street. Part of its purpose in designing the renovations to this site was to be a community and neighborhood resource. Its community center building holds a middle school-sized regulation basketball court with a volleyball court and a full kitchen. The facility is rented to many youth sports groups, and two churches use the facility on Sundays. The space is frequently rented out for both large and small conferences, wedding receptions, city and county budget hearings, and for a variety of social and business uses. In addition, IRCO operates a Loaves & Fishes daily lunch program for seniors in its community center.

In the past year, IRCO has become the Multnomah County provider of senior services in the Mid-county area, operating the Cherry Blossom Senior Center; IRCO purchased and renovated a building at 631 N.E. 102nd Avenue that was recently used for employment skill training classes for adults and youth.

Although IRCO has moved into other areas to support its clients, removing barriers to employment remains the primary focus of the agency. Nothing expedites a refugee’s success as much as gainful employment. IRCO works with over 2,000 employers in the Portland metropolitan area and placed over 1,000 adults and youth in jobs in 2005 alone.

When immigrants and refugees first arrive in America, IRCO is committed to help get them on their feet and acclimated — to steady themselves and learn their adopted country’s culture — then stand tall in their new home as they become productive citizens building new lives for themselves and families in this, the greatest country in the world.

Editor’s note: Rowanne Haley is community relations coordinator at IRCO.

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