Behind a church in Northeast Portland, just a few blocks from the hum of Interstate 84, a dozen women from the Democratic Republic of Congo and other central African countries bend over thickets of kale, squash and corn. The one-acre plot they share is roughly the size of one family’s garden back in their home country. But these women say they’re grateful for a place to come together amid the seeds and dirt and green; a place that feels a little like home.
The Congolese Women’s Group, launched this summer through Mid County Health Center, met regularly for three months to talk about adjusting to life in the United States. The group held a graduation celebration last month. The Multnomah County Health Department worked in partnership with Lutheran Community Services Northwest, Sponsors Organized to Assist Refugees (SOAR), The Oregon Community Health Worker Association (ORCHWA), Oregon Food Bank and Grow Portland.
The women spend one morning a week in the garden, sowing seeds donated by Oregon Food Bank. As the day warms up, they move inside the church to share a traditional meal, often including boiled squash leaves, or cassava leaves fried with onion and smoked fish. They sing, and they pray, and eventually they settle into a facilitated group discussion on aspects of life in the United States.
The power of the program is perhaps best detailed through the change in Christina Ramadhan, who immigrated last year with her five children.
Ramadhan’s husband was killed in the unrest that followed the Second Congo War, which claimed more than 5 million lives during the height of the conflict. She then survived brutal beatings and other abuse at the hands of her husband’s family. The worst of the beatings left her paralyzed. It also left her traumatized. After leaving Congo for Portland in 2016, she suffered the grief of isolation in a city where she was entirely alone.
Neither medications nor traditional talk therapy seemed to help her adjust.
Therese Lugano, a community health worker for Mid County clinic who is also from the DRC, knew the group could do for Ramadhan and others what traditional Western therapy could not: allow them to open up. But even she didn’t expect the changes she saw in Ramadhan.
“Wow,” she said. “Even I was surprised.” Lugano and other staff at Mid County had worked with Ramadhan since she arrived in the United States. But it wasn’t until this summer, about the second week of the program, that Lugano saw the woman smile.
“When looking at this group, I feel like I’m back in Africa,” Ramadhan said in Swahili. “The group taught me to do a lot of things such as go outside and become self-reliant. I opened up. I’m more therapeutic. I can talk, smile, laugh and understand things.”
Ramadhan smiles when she comes to the group. It didn’t used to be that way. She said she used to fear that bad things may happen again, but being surrounded by a group of women pushed the fear from her mind. The women have become a family to her.
Harold Odhiambo, an interpreter for the group, said he’s seen her transform.
“She is different now,” Odhiambo said. “The group has changed her, made her more vocal and lively. She doesn’t want it to end.”