August 20, 2015

The girls came as refugees from Burma and Bhutan through camps in Thailand and Nepal. They hadn’t been here long.

In east Portland high schools, they struggled with English. They didn’t have email accounts, were unfamiliar even with computers. None had ever earned a paycheck.

Needless to say, a summer job seemed out of their reach.

Dr. Susi Steinmann with her SummerWorks Interns, from left to right, Sunita Monger, Tika Misra, Que Mah Wah, Ganisha Gurung and Sanchi Maga

But this year, Sanchi Magar, Sunita Monger, Que Mah Wah, Tika Misra and Ganisha Gurung were awarded SummerWorks internships with Lutheran Community Services NW and a nonprofit called Portland Meet Portland that pairs refugees with established Oregonians as mentors. 

They built bird houses with students at the Arbor School and shoveled manure at the Big Dog Horse Stable as they explored possible careers.

Sunita Mongar’s favorite job shadow was with a nurse. That’s what she hopes to become one day.

For Kue May Wah, it was teaching English to refugees eligible for citizenship. “They told me they learned, and that made me happy,” she said.

This week, their internships coming to a close, the young women slipped into dresses and lined their eyes with makeup, clutched purses and gathered for a job fair hosted at Portland State University.

SummerWorks, a partnership between public and private employers and Worksystems Inc., employed 700 young people this year at 159 worksites across Multnomah and Washington counties. 

Multnomah County Commissioner Loretta Smith has been a longtime champion of the program, nurturing the growth of SummerWorks since its inception five years ago. She's made it a point to increase the number of underserved young people employed in the program. 

Back at the job fair, Faith Lao, a student at Portland Community College, folded clothes and fetched the right sizes for customers who visited Threadz, a donation clothing store at the Portland nonprofit, Sunshine Division.

Maryan Abdiyo, who starts PCC this fall, and her friend Asha Ali, a senior at Madison High School, helped coordinate a teen night out at Matt Dishman Community Center. Dinner included east African injera bread, American-style chicken wings and tacos.

Sam Sonish, a Franklin High School senior, helped direct passersby to TriMet -- for the second year in a row.

Karen Fuentes chased children as they painted a mural (and anyone who wandered past) for the Hacienda CDC campaign to turn a run-down strip joint into a community center.

Inters talk to recruiters from the clothing store GAP during the 2015 SummerWorks job fair

SummerWorks received more than 2,000 applications this year, said employer outreach coordinator Reese Lord. Multnomah County sponsored 250 of the 700 slots - and that will double next year.

Young people who have a hard time in school, risk run-ins with the law or whose families struggle financially get priority in the selection process. These are the young people who might not have the networks to secure a job on their own. “That’s where we step in,” Lord said. “We definitely know the transformational impact this program can have.”

SummerWorks begins accepting applications in April each year. That’s when the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization (IRCO) hires a team who screen applicants, supervise the interns, and hold workshops on everything from interviewing skills and proper work attire to how to write a professional email and manage money.

“We have really seen changes from the first stages, when they would come to class and sometimes they would fall asleep or they had bad attendance,” said Anna Klinestaker, one of the program supervisors.

“But we have no idea what they go through. We get upset if they’re five minutes late. Then we’re given a reason we don’t even know how to deal with.”

Like, a family member gets shot. Or a kid runs away from home.

Supervisors make sure interns turn in timesheets and show up to work. But often they’re counselors and advocates, too. They help a student get a food box or new clothes. If a student worries someone at home will steal her wages, the IRCO supervisor will make sure that check lands in her hands.

At this week’s job fair, Klinestaker stood against a wall with fellow supervisor Alpha Tessema and watched the room.

It was full. Teens brushed past, their backs erect and shoulders squared in the stiff unfamiliar clothes of adulthood. They shook hands, took business cards.

“Despite all of that they’re here, dressed up, meeting potential employers,” Klinestaker said.

Dr. Susi Steinmann, wellness group coordinator for Lutheran Community Services Northwest’s refugee mental health program and founder of Portland Meet Portland, supervised Magar, Misra, Que Mah Wah, Monger and Gurung.

As a capstone assignment, she asked them to develop a skit to show newly arriving refugee parents what their own kids might go through at school. The girls came up with the rest on their own.

The first skit showed a girl sitting down in an empty desk. Then a snooty American walked up and demanded the girl get out of “her” chair. Another refugee girl was sitting nearby, but she had been in America longer. She was torn between helping the new arrival and fitting in.

In another scene, this time in science class, the girl forgets her homework. The teacher loudly announced that she must need to be placed in ESL.

IRCO supervisor Hellina Gesese talks with the SummerWorks interns from Lutheran Community Services during an end-of-summer job fair

There’s a scene where American kids give a refugee the wrong directions to the school bus. And one where she’s being teased for wearing traditional clothes. The next scene is the girl at home. She refuses to put on the traditional clothes, and her dad begins to yell, “you should be proud of your culture.”

By the end of the skit, their audience was in tears.

“What I’ve seen these girls do, just in terms of their confidence,” Steinmann began and then stopped. She shook her head and shrugged. “It wouldn’t have been possible without this summer. They would never get on TriMet and navigate to a job without serious handholding. Now if I tell them to be somewhere at 9 a.m. next Tuesday, they would be there.”

Take Ku May Wah, for example. She was so shy, so timid, Steinmann worried she wouldn’t be much help to the adults who came to learn English in preparation for their citizenship exam.

“Then last week she said to me, ‘Give me the keys to Portland Meet Portland. I’ll run the group myself.’ That was amazing.”

Que Mah Wah stood nearby and smiled. The computer wouldn’t work that day, she said. Not only was she teaching alone, but she didn’t have any materials. So she improvised. “I didn’t want to send them home without learning anything,” she said.