On a sunny Saturday morning, Dr. Deane Defontes sits inside an office, hunched over stacks of paperwork alongside Mid County Health Center’s Medical Director, Dawn Mauder and other Multnomah County’s Refugee Clinic team members.
The team sees newly arriving refugee families every weekday, as a routine part of the resettlement process for newcomers arriving from overseas. On this Saturday, though, they’re seeing former clients much later in the immigration process, as the clients apply to adjust their status from refugee to legal permanent resident.
“This is something good. Mid County Clinic is the first place many refugees come when they enter the United States,” said Harold Odhiambo, former chair of the county’s Community Health Council. “Then they see you one year later, how far you’ve come. It can’t get better than that.”
Refugee Clinic staff joined colleagues from the county’s Communicable Disease Services and Environmental Health divisions, and other volunteers May 12 for the 10th annual Refugee Adjustment Day.
Interpreters from Passport to Languages and Linguava assisted families as they met with volunteer attorneys who are members of the Oregon American Immigration Lawyers Association. Other participating agencies included the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization, The Mexican Consulate, CareOregon, the Portland Police Bureau, Butterfly Boxes, Photos by Kim, the Printory, the Sunshine Division, and Kroger.
Private citizens donated $600 towards supplies, while students at Sunset High School students raised $1,600 for the event.
Attorneys helped 178 people complete the complicated paperwork necessary to adjust their immigration status from refugee to permanent resident. Failure to take that step can put a refugee at risk of deportation, but the process is lengthy and can require paying expensive legal fees. Immigration attorneys from across the region come together once or twice a year to offer their services for free. Supporting agencies come out to perform a host of tasks.
Jim Gardner, Executive Director of Health Operations at Care Oregon served bowls of curry to families waiting for their appointments. His team helped visitors sign up for health insurance and book appointments.
“We oversee the member experience,” he said. “This is truly the member experience.”
Photographer Kim Nguyen set up lights and a backdrop for family portraits. Adrienne Enriquez, founder of Butterfly Boxes, ran a bank of donations including cleaning products and towels, children's clothes, blankets, books and backpacks.
Brian Dale, Jose Gonzalez and Patrick Murphy from the gang unit at Police Police Bureau, handed out goody bags to kids, offering up high fives and posing for goofy photos.
“It’s awesome,” said Dale.
Connie Kim-Gervey with the Oregon Advocacy Commissions came out to volunteer. She said she hopes the Commissions can use the Refugee Adjustment Day platform to study the gap in professional credentials of refugees moving to Oregon. She said there’s a gap between the skilled workers coming to the state and their ability to work in their fields. At the same time, there’s a dearth of social and medical providers with the cultural and lingual skills to deliver direct services to many newcomers.
The state wants to explore ways to narrow that divide.
Immigration attorney Chanpone Sinlapasai — a walkie talkie in one pocket, and a Coke in one hand — divided her time between appointments with families and coordinating more than 260 volunteers. “It’s going smoothly,” she said as she rushed past about noon, still early in the day that would run until after 8 p.m.
Chris Partipilo, a Visa Corp member with Multnomah County Environmental Health came out to volunteer, seeing overlap with his work to offer healthy homes education to immigrant tenants and landlords. Eugene Sadiki, a member of Multnomah County’s Communicable Disease Services team, came out to interpret in Swahili and French.
Susanna Nor-Ashkaria, a member of Mid County’s Refugee Clinic screening team, played the role of interpreter for families who spoke Russian or Armenian. She postponed a Mother’s Day lunch with her daughter, mother and mother-in-law to come out and support Refugee Adjustment Day.
“Because it’s a good cause,” she said. “I want them to feel loved.”