The African Youth and Community Organization Friday celebrated its second annual cultural night with music, dance and steaming plates of shredded chicken and rice. It was also a chance for the community to step back and celebrate at a time when so many are afraid.
"When one of us is threatened, all of us are threatened," Multnomah County Commissioner Lori Stegmann told those gathered together. She said the county has committed to being a welcoming place to all residents regardless of national politics and policies. "And we will hold true to that promise and those values," she said.
Jamal Dar, executive director of AYCO, said the organization is struggling with fallout from the presidential election and a rise in violence and fear.
“People are coming in traumatized, with anxiety about what will happen next — because they're muslim, because they're from Somalia. They have this fear.”
Some families have lost hope that loved ones will be allowed to join them in resettling to the United States. Others have gone back to Somalia to join family even though they haven’t yet earned their citizenship. As Dar was preparing for the event Friday, two young people came into the office saying they had been bullied for being Black, being Somali, being Muslim.
“Instead of only helping with housing, job placement, youth employment, youth mentorship, people are having huge anxiety about the future.”
But Dar says he sees hope in the same atmosphere of hate and fear.
“We’re working hard to see this as an opportunity to shine, to engage the white community and show them we're not what they think we are. This gives us hope. This gives us a chance to create our own future.”
AYCO offers youth sports and mentorship programs and job placement assistance. They help newcomer families find stable housing, access social services, and even take public transport.
Saara Hirsi, who has volunteered for AYCO for four years, launched a program to advocate for people with disabilities. Today she helps up to 30 families connect to education, job training services, social services and leadership training. And Hirsi, a masters student in social work who is also blind, draws on her own experience of advocating for herself.
"I worked so hard. I didn't allow people to tell me that I couldn't do it,” she said. “I had to educate the community, my family, the leaders. They want to take care of you, but they damage you at the same time. I'm introducing parents to what is possible."
That program prompted Multnomah County Health Department to team up with AYCO last year to help East African families struggling to navigate clinic services. In addition to contracting with trained interpreters, who simply convey what is spoken, the county contracted with AYCO staff to act as cultural brokers, to ensure that providers understand some of the cultural patients receive care in a culturally appropriate manner.
“It’s just amazing the depth of support they offer to the community,” said Tasha Wheatt-Delancy, who oversees the county’s system of primary care and dental clinics. “We can’t help but support that work.”