Coach Claire? [Nonfiction]
by Claire Siegel-Wilson
Runner-Up for Nonfiction in the Echoes Writing Contest
Thirteen sweaty elementary schoolers walk in; one’s wearing a Disneyland T shirt and neon green shades, another is decked out in all pink from head to toe. It’s a blur of swim trunks, sunscreen and oversized lifejackets. “Hey! Yeah, you with the blue bag! No running on the dock!” I must be making a great first impression, because everyone freezes and starts shuffling into the clubhouse. Joey wears green Nike tennis shoes and his brother… Nick… has a red cap but Samantha also has a red hat… hmmm… Samantha is tall. Okay, that’s how I’ll remember them. Every week, when I show up at 11am on Monday and check the shift board in the cramped, dusty staff shed that’s filled with rusted pliers and screwdrivers, pins forever separated from their ring dings, ripped sails and discarded rubber duckies, I find out who I’ll be teaching. Sometimes It’s a group of highschoolers, all of them sixteen or seventeen. “You may be older than me, but I’m a better sailor so, for now, I’m in charge”, I say to those juniors with their bursting egos who won’t take orders from a fifteen-year-old. This week, I’m in charge of the young ones. The hardest part of this camp is dealing with the parents: “Yes, we’ll put on sunscreen”, I say to one while consoling another, “She’ll be okay, we all wear lifejackets” and, to a worried dad, “Your son can’t swim? Oh, just terrified of water?” I know that last one won’t show up on Tuesday.
I have everyone checked in! Success! Now only another five hours to go. We’ll do nomenclature first, then lunch, then actually sail. I’m dreading that part. Although I love to see the kids learn new skills, this group seems especially rambunctious, and rambunctious and thirteen small boats on the Willamette don’t mix without trouble.
Bleary-eyed, these kids stare back at me. It’s got to be 102 degrees out and even hotter in here, and I’m roasting. “Time for the swim test!” I yell. “You must wear shoes; if you have a towel bring it.” As we walk outside into the light, breezy sunshine, water sparkling and docks swaying below my feet, a small hand taps my arm. “Coach Claire?” I turn around to face the brave one who dares to speak on the first day, and look down; it’s a young boy with mousy hair and pale, freckled skin. He looks anywhere but me and shyly shakes his head. What? No words. That’s one of the challenges I have with the younger groups; nobody will tell me exactly what they want. Am I expected to read minds? He finally makes eye contact and mumbles something and points to the water; he must be the boy who doesn’t like swimming. But we have to keep the rest of the kids entertained, and the swim test is a mandatory part of the first day, so I send them into the water three at a time. Some laugh, some giggle or scream, but Mouse just looks sad. “It’s your turn now”. I stoop to see what he’s going to do. Mouse chews on his his lip, arms crossed and a scowl on his brow; he looks at me and says, very softly, “Okay”. We walk to the edge of the dock and I sit down with my toes just skimming the oily surface. The other twelve float little ways out. Mouse steps up and gracefully slips into the water.
Escape Rooms: A Captivating Experience [Nonfiction]
by Joan Marie Hady
Runner-Up for Nonfiction in the Echoes Writing Contest
On the way to their senior prom, six Battle Ground High School seniors were locked in a room and handcuffed to a wall. They reminded themselves of how they got there, “down the hall and to the left,” one chanted in his head. Another kept mumbling about the tan carpet and walls and orthodontists down the hall. Each person was individually guided into a dark room, shepherded to the wall and heard a lock snap shut. Suddenly their handcuffs were stuck on a chain attached to the wall, making a cold clank as they tested their range of motion. They tried to look around the room for clues in order to remember what they saw entering the building. It was impossible to know that they were in a brick office building, right across the street from the DMV. Red lights lit up on the wall; they read 1:00:00, and as quickly as they appeared, the lights began to count down. It was hard to believe they had each paid thirty dollars to be in this dilemma, handcuffed to this wall, and in the dark, right now. Puzzling.
* * *
In the early 1980’s alone over two hundred million Rubik’s cube puzzles were sold (Danesi 3). The puzzles may be fabricated, but the satisfaction from solving puzzles is very real. When a puzzle, or problem, is solved, dopamine is released to the brain (Carey). Dopamine creates a sense of pleasure. The feeling of pleasure we get when dopamine is released becomes associated with the action that provided the brain with that dopamine, in this case, solving a problem. When a puzzle is solved, it also satisfies the human need to create order (Carey). It is gratifying for humans to fix one small problem in their lives because it makes outside problems seem less important (Carey). Puzzles solve our human desire for instant gratification. A short problem with a clear solution, in the form of a puzzle, provides us with a short journey to the pleasure of solving a problem. Fabricated problems often have a definite answer, giving us a definite time to feel pleasure from solving the problem. Real life problems do not give us the same satisfaction because generally there is not only one right answer. There is a grey area because most implemented solutions will either not solve the problem completely, or create a different problem. This lack of one true solution can be seen in current issues like the Syrian Refugee crisis, because all ideas to help Refugees may help, but they also can present problems in other aspects. There is not one true answer to real life problems. The lack of a definite answer lessens the satisfaction felt when a solution is reached, as less dopamine is released thus solving problems without a clear solution, often natural problems, is not as gratifying. Our brains are literally wired to release dopamine, a hormone that makes us feel pleasure, when we solve a problem (Carey).This association causes a desire to solve problems. When we do not receive enough satisfaction from solving natural dilemmas, because of the unclear answers, we have to create our own. One of the most popular forms of man made problems are puzzles. Puzzles are not necessarily the jigsaw puzzle of kittens you try to put together, nor are they only those brain teasers where you can never get the key off the ring. Puzzles are a chance to stimulate the brain, force yourself to solve a problem, and receive the pleasure of dopamine when you solve the puzzle.
Puzzles and games have been a part of the human experience for as many years as humans have been a part of the earth (Danesi 3). In medieval times the Book of Games was one of the best selling books to the rich and poor alike (3). The buyers of these puzzles were paying for human experience. They needed more problems to solve because they were not experiencing as many solvable real life puzzles. As humans we have invented tools to make our lives easier, and these have solved some of our problems and given us more free time. For example, Farmers used to have to plow their fields with ox and plod slowly along the farmland. Now, with the invention of tractors, farmers can plow their fields much faster, and have more free time than they did before. In this time, the farmer no longer has to solve the problem of an unplowed field, and has time to do something for pleasure. This free time has opened up a new market for the human race, buying experiences.
* * *
The pitch black was quiet except for the rustle of crinoline and hum of the air conditioning. When the clock hit 0:59:00 the girl in the green strapless dress started to move. She guided her chained hands to the left slowly, stretching for a flashlight. The chain caught and rattled as she pulled it tight. The tips of her fingers were still about six inches from the small metal flashlight. “Guys, see if you can reach anything” she whispered to her friends. The room started to jingle with the movement of chains as her five friends started copying her movements. One could reach a flashlight, another could reach a padlock. Their expressions shifted from frowns to grins as the gears turned in their heads. The whispers got louder and louder, until the conversation was only one notch below yelling. It could be done. They would get out of the handcuffs. They had all the tools they needed. They tried and tried to escape the handcuffs frantically, even though deep down they knew they were not held captive. These high schoolers were immersed in the puzzle, they wanted to solve the room and escape. They were not kidnapped in the traditional sense, because their “captor” did not exist.
They were in an escape room.
* * *
Escape room experiences consist of four to twelve people willingly being locked in a room, with one hour to escape. The only way to get out of the room is to put together clues and solve puzzles in order to “solve” the room and unlock the door. In most instances, to solve one puzzle, you have to solve a different one first. For instance, a key may be hidden in a lock box. In order to open the lock box and get the key, you have to find the box of different colored marbles and find the combination from the number of each color. The puzzles are not random; there is a focus on the story of the room, how you got there, and why you need to escape. Most objects within the room follow the theme of the room.
One of the first rooms was created in Kyoto, Japan by the company Scrap in 2007 (Moore). At first, the experience was based off of escape room video games, much like the ever popular Japanese game shows, but more people had the option to participate, rather than the few people who were able to be on the game show and “live” the games, anyone could participate. The trend traveled across Europe and then finally made its way to the United States. In 2012 Scrap opened an escape room in San Francisco. Currently there are 2,120 escape rooms in the Escape Room Directory, a list of all existing escape rooms and their general location. Portland Escape Rooms, first opened about a year ago, is owned by Nick Lindert and Steven Diaz. The puzzle room trend is growing quickly.
* * *
When the lights showed 0:43:32, the classy tuxedoed kid with shaking hands clicked his handcuffs open. “Help me!” everyone shouted, as he scampered around the room trying to match the different letters on the keys with the different numbers on the cuffs. Eventually all the cuffs were released. The dark was starting to get in the way, so they raced around the room looking for the switch. Someone flipped it and suddenly illuminated the room. They squinted their eyes to adjust, but the room made as little sense as it did before. Eyes darted around the room, as they saw polaroid pictures with names and dates scrawled on them covering a cork board on the wall next to the door, and an antique cherry desk across the room with a toolbox on top and locks on two of the three drawers. One lock required a key, so every key from the room was thrown into a pile and tried one by one. When none of them worked, someone spotted a key attached to a chain in the opposite corner of the room. A girl in a floor length gleaming ball gown run-hobbled across the room in her five inch black heels to the key, only to find it was attached to the wall by the same chains she was trapped with earlier. She swore and fell to a sitting position on the ground, twisting the cold silver curls of metal, trying to detach the keys.
* * *
To better understand puzzle room culture, I interviewed Nick Lindert. Wearing the traditional Portland plaid shirt Nick welcomed me into the waiting room of Portland Escape Room’s new location. We sat behind the desk, each in a swivel chair. As he turned his head to plug in his phone I saw the side of his short black hair was greying. Not only does Lindert co-own the escape rooms, he also works full time at Intel. The room resembled a dentist’s waiting room; oak cupboards with laminate paneling filling the area behind the desk, but where there are normally chairs to sit and wait in, there was a pinball machine, and instead of pictures of happy families with gleaming teeth on the walls, there was a poster with labeling of the human brain and one empty bright red wall. From my seat behind the desk I could crane my neck to see into the zombie room that I had completed a week before. It contained a man in a white shirt and black pants with zombie makeup and fake blood covering his face, a woman in a lab coat, an old large desk in the middle of the room with a robot on top in a clear plastic box, and an old cupboard with pieces of green tape all over it in the back room. That was all I could see, and that was all I was supposed to be able to see. If people could solve the puzzles or know how to solve the room before they entered it, it would not provide the same experience. The window around the door that would normally peek into the hallway was covered. Later I learned that this was so it was impossible for people coming earlier than the fifteen minutes early they are supposed to come, to see any preparation for the rooms. Just as the rooms are a surprise to the participant, the creation of escape rooms was a surprise to Portland.
The rooms opened rather quickly in Portland. According to Lindert, twelve months ago there were zero escape rooms in Portland, and now there are ten. Talking in a soft even tone about his escape room experience; Lindert kept checking his phone but did not seem to be in a rush. He originally heard about puzzle rooms not from the media, but from his mom. He completed his first room in Seattle, then one a couple months later. A week after his second experience his now partner of the rooms said, “Hey, we should do one of our own in Portland,” and Portland Escape Rooms was born. The entire conversation was portrayed as something casual, like starting a new business is something Lindert does every day.
To most people, having a full time job and starting your own company seems like an impossible feat. There are, after all, only twenty four hours in a day. I found myself thinking, “Does he ever sleep?” Especially owning a business like puzzle rooms, where Lindert hopes to open a new room about every two to three months. Lindert accredits the new rooms to his passion for the business, “if you’re passionate about it you’ll just think about it all the time and then some puzzle comes to you when you’re in the shower or on the train or something like that.” So far Portland Escape Rooms has two locations in the Portland Area, the newer one being opened in October. Currently there are rooms with themes of kidnapping, the American Revolution, a zombie experiment gone wrong and coming soon a brand new arcade room. The kidnapped room holds objects such as handcuffs and old-fashioned freezers containing decapitated heads. Within the zombie room there lives a zombie trying to attack the people who try to solve the room. The theme aspect of the room creates an escape similar to that of a play or a movie, but each person has a part to play in the escape. Passion seems to work for this company; it is still expanding and is planning on eventually opening a third location. Maybe making puzzles is how Lindert gets his, “dopamine fix.”
These feelings of risk, fear, or accomplishment when you complete a puzzle can be easily shared with others, and that makes the experience not only fun but a positive way to bond. Some people pay for an experience because of the strength it can add to their relationships. Your brain associates released dopamine with the situation that released it. So when a puzzle is solved and dopamine is released, in a puzzle room you are associating that happy feeling with the people around you, not only the puzzle. Because of this opportunity to pay for bonding, companies will sometimes send their employees to Portland Escape Rooms to do a room together to “bond,” similar to the idea of doing a ropes course in the woods to get to know each other better.
The clients at the puzzle rooms include child and adult birthday parties, couples on dates, groups of friends, and coworkers for team building. Interestingly enough, according to Lindert, the groups that consist of, say, three couples that do not know each other on a date night tend to do very well. Not only are they more outspoken among strangers, but they leave as friends. This creation of new friendships is a testament to the strength of the bonding created by experiencing something unique together.
* * *
At 0:12:19 the group was starting to get nervous. The kidnapper was due to come back when the clock ran out, and they were nowhere near escaping. The girl in the red dress had not been able to get the key off the tangled metal, so the girl in the green dress came and sat on the floor next to her. They talked it out and continued to twist the metal pieces until they eventually got it off together, and after a cheer and a high five, used the key to open the second to last locked drawer. In that newly opened drawer there were different colored pads of sticky notes, and the group was stuck. No one had any idea how to open the last drawer, which they were pretty sure held the key because it was the only thing in the room not open. The last lock was a padlock with a numbered combination. The group of students ran around with the paper, writing down all the number combinations they could think of and trying all the different four number combinations. They tried to match the colors in the 4 colored paintings across the room with the color pattern on the back of the lock, a pink, yellow, and a neon orange. None of the combos worked. They knew it had to be something they had not found yet, but they had no idea what. Their faces got more and more dejected as the lights counted down to 0:04:01. It looked like the kidnapper may have really trapped them. Even though the kidnapper was not real, they wanted to solve the puzzle, to come this far only to not “make it out alive” would be disappointing. They had seen the social media posts of middle schoolers making it out in the time limit, and wanted to prove to themselves that they could do it. They wanted that feeling of accomplishment, that rush of dopamine, when they escaped.
* * *
So why do businesses such as this this prosper? Why do people pay thirty to forty dollars for a stressful hour of being locked in a room? Well, currently instead of telling us we cannot buy happiness, society is telling us that buying objects can not create long term happiness, but buying experiences can (Cassano). When you share an experience with someone else, you then have a connection with that person (Cassano). These bonds from shared experiences with other people is what makes humans happy. It is much more likely that you will have a bond with someone with a shared experience, like trying to escape a kidnapper, than someone with a shared object, such as owning the same TV (Cassano). Paying to do a puzzle room is paying for an experience. Most people cannot bond over being kidnapped because in real life they will not be kidnapped, and most people do not want to be kidnapped, but paying to be fake kidnapped with a set way to escape is an unforgettable experience that brings people together. Belle Scott, a recent participant in an escape room stated, “It was like being in the movie “Saw” except without dying.” By paying for an experience such as this, people have a chance to escape, and feel as if they are in a high risk situation, but without the real risk.
Scott went to a puzzle room with her volleyball team to improve the team closeness. Another one of her teammates, Lianna Semonson said, “I believe it brought our group together.” Bonding is something that can happen naturally, but sharing a unique experience usually speeds up the process of getting to know each other better. In this way, the people who participate in the room have something to talk about, laugh about, and remember. They have happy memories of escape or solving a puzzle together with someone. Lindert pointed out that not all experiences are created equally. “If you go out to a movie, a year later you won’t remember that, hardly at all,” said Lindert, “If you go and do an escape room, you’ll be talking about it for months.” When people learn that Lindert owns a puzzle room, if they have done one they will usually tell him how, “I did the zombie room in Vegas, and I got infected… but I also told my team how to solve the main puzzle from my quarantine, so we escaped!” This excitement can then become a common interest between people and, viola, they have more of a bond because they have experienced something unique and memorable together.
Puzzle rooms are still growing. “Puzzles are super fun, especially since we are coming out of the recession and the economy is humming right now, and people are having more money; it helps when they are starting to look for what to do for entertainment and people don’t want to just go to the movies and do the same old thing,” Lindert said. Paying for the experience of a puzzle room is like paying for a miniature vacation. The user has time to focus only on escaping the room, if they want to make it out. As well as simply stimulating the brain and providing a chance for dopamine release upon the solving of puzzles, this escape and bonding experience forces people to be in the moment, only intensifying the benefits of the experience. Phone use is banned inside the Portland Escape Rooms puzzles. Forcing people to put down their devices that we as humans often hide behind allows us to connect with those around us. The puzzles and lack of distractions assist humans escaping the real world through escape rooms.
Finding real life problems with clear solutions is uncommon. Human lives are filled with safety warnings and rules to keep us safe, but all of the work to keep us safe has taken away our chances to solve our own problems. Escape rooms help humans to escape their reality and enter a realistic fabricated scenario. Because of their problems containing clear solutions creating a dopamine release and a positive bonding experience, escape rooms do not just look like the next fad. They look like they are here to stay.
The clock blinked to 0:03:03 as the fancily dressed high schoolers kept trying different combinations on the lock. Suddenly, someone thought to count the sticky notes. Urgently they grouped out the different colors and counted them with shaking hands. There were 3 pink stickies, 45 yellow stickies and 9 orange stickies. The guy wearing the tuxedo shouted, after hovering over the lock with the rest of the group, that the colors of the stickies matched up with the colors on the back of the lock. Everyone gathered around the lock as they tried the last combination. The lock clicked open and four hands reached out and tore open the drawer. In the bottom, there was a gold antique old fashioned key. They sprinted over to the door, put the key in the lock and turned. The door clicked open, the clock stopped as everyone let out a sigh, and high fived.
Minus Zero to Ten: Refugees in Portland [Nonfiction]
by Henry Talbott
Nonfiction Award Winner in the Echoes Writing Contest
Out of a frosty grey sky, an airplane comes to rest on a stretch of runway next to a winding river. Near the back of the plane, a single family stands to follow the impatient crowd into Portland International Airport. The father has no well-cut jacket, and the mother does not wear the close-fitting stylish jeans of the women around her. The family does not reach under their seats, as they have nothing to bring with them. As they exit the plane, a flight attendant smiles and thanks them, and they nod but do not answer.
In the terminal, light falls down on the family from windows above, illuminating a swirling mass of color and sound. People are paying this family no attention, walking by with determination as they trace out an enigmatic dance upon the wide floor. Words behind the gate counter tick by, aggressively red, while emotionless signs and primary-color advertisements point in every direction. Conversations and announcements pass by and fade away, the sounds circling in a cloud of cadences and alien noise. Yes, this is the American Dream, but it has surrounded them now, pressing in from every angle, and it courses through their minds.
A single word cuts through the chaos, in a language they never imagined they would hear again. There, standing like an anchor, a man is dressed in a suit like the other American men, but he speaks the family’s language perfectly, revealing his heritage. He explains his name is Som Subedi, he is their case worker, and he will take them to their new home. He hands them a fresh 100 dollar bill. The father, amazed, takes the tiny piece of America, and Subedi reminds him it will be the last one he will get for free. The family drifts through the hall, following Subedi, a beacon in the constantly mutating crowds. They can’t stop wondering at it all, wondering how they will come to call such a foreign land their home.
The word invariably stands out, branded onto the faces and emotions that pass by in the news: refugee. These fifteen million people are “collateral damage”, the word says, seeking only a place where they can continue their fragile lives (“Refugee Admissions”). But somewhere in the camps, a refugee family is offered one fantastic opportunity: to start again in the Land of Freedom. The family accepts, is absorbed into the mass of the United States, and vanishes from the pages of the newspapers. Somewhere on a United Nations computer a name is deleted.
“We should not forget that our Nation was founded by immigrants, many of whom fled oppression and persecution,” said President Truman in a 1947 message to Congress. “…It is a source of our strength that we number among our people all the major religions, races and national origins” (Truman, “Special…Admission”). In three years 400,000 refugees from war-torn Europe, sponsored by voluntary agencies, crossed the Atlantic (Truman, “Special…Aid”). Yet the worldwide crisis never seemed to grind to a halt, and only through a string of hasty allowances and special programs did US refugee policy slouch towards cohesiveness in the form of the 1980 Refugee Act. The United States had pledged to welcome tens of thousands of victims of the world’s suffering to its shores (Holman 3-24).
The chill of a winter’s day runs through my hair as I stand under the concrete staircase of a boxy apartment block, just off a busy highway. Splinters peel off its dull-blue-painted wooden walls, while bolted-on fans cover many of its windows. A boy with bright eyes and a mass of tightly curled hair opens his door, and I cannot resist analyzing his face for some mark or expression as our group of students is ushered into a narrow hallway. His name is Mohamud, and his family, weeks ago, travelled thousands of miles from Kenya as refugees. In the low-ceilinged living room, thick carpets overlap on the floor, and the windows are covered in lace curtains, yet there is an emptiness in the space that the fluorescent lights fail to dissipate. As we drop our bags of books and school supplies and crowd in on the family’s couch, I notice that the large glass-fronted drawer next to the television is entirely empty.
A four-year-old girl, her short hair an explosion of frizziness, runs into the room, and two OES girls sit down with her and show her the markers we brought with us. Mohamud’s brother brings each of us a bottled water, giving it without a word, and an acoustic void begins to creep into my mind. The family, as of yet, speaks almost no English aside from an American “hello”. Then Zach, our unofficial translator, introduces himself as Zachariah, and a conversation begins, creaking by in a mix of Swahili, Somali, and English. Viktoriya, the family’s case worker through her church, interjects questions. Do you have dental care? Are you taking your prescription? We learn that 19-year-old Sofia has been rejected from both high school and Portland Community College, and now works. Her younger brothers were transferred from Wilson High School to Benson, across the river, and must wake up at five every morning to catch the bus. Fatuma, the mother, watches silently from the floor. She is forty, but her rough, chiseled face is already deeply etched with weariness.
In the corner, Halima, the young girl, continues to draw as the two students help her make a green-eyed self-portrait and write her name in English. Meanwhile, Zach slowly pieces together Mohamud’s life for us as the Swahili/Somali rises and falls in emotion. Although originally from Somalia, Mohamud lived in Mombasa, close to the beach, and his family had a stand where they sold things to tourists (Voznyuk). He now wears a stylish black jacket, while his brother is dressed in basketball shorts and a Nike t-shirt. Only his mother’s patterned, floor-length skirt, and her purple headscarf, indicate there is a deeper history. Of his past life, which seems so vivid in Mohamud’s mind, he will only say he misses the sunlight.
Viktoriya tells me, later, that she doesn’t feel she can ask the family to bring up memories and fill in whatever past chasm made them eligible for refugee status. It’s likely that Kenya was their “second country,” a bordering nation, before coming to the United States, a “third country,” for permanent resettlement. Perhaps leaving home was a choice that became necessary in the face of continuing persecution; perhaps their reality shattered in a second and they had no choice but to leave when they could.
Mohamud’s family was lucky; the “third country” is only an option for one percent of refugees, while half of that one percent come to the United States. The family would have remained in whatever perilous conditions their “second country” could offer as they underwent between 18 and 24 months of security and medical checks, including an in-person interview (“Refugee Admissions;” “US Refugee Admissions Program”). It’s possible that whatever memories Mohamud has of his homeland are many years distant.
The transition period often continues to haunt refugees long after their arrival, as two studies in Montreal (Rosseau, “Scholastic,” and Rosseau, “Trauma”) demonstrate. The Mohamed family arrived together, avoiding the immense worry, fear and guilt felt by many separated African families in the study. Even though Mohamud will grow up with his father, and has relatives living in the same building, it’s not clear if he’s found any wider community, and he may only have his family members in their block of small apartments (Voznyuk). Trauma experienced by refugee children does not seem to hurt school performance, but parents’ fluency and education are critical indicators of success. I glace with apprehension at Mohamud, yet he has no scars, and as he leans forward on the couch with his hands resting on his knees, it is only the soft, quiet tones of his voice that carry a subtle sweetness across my mind.
Although most African immigrants and refugees are well-educated, without English fluency past experience cannot help Mohamud’s parents (Curry-Stevens). They are authorized to work, and perhaps his father, with no English and no American training or certificates, will be find a menial, precarious job and pay back the debt incurred from his family’s airplane tickets. For African immigrants and refugees, median incomes are half that of whites. As the family is squeezed between high housing costs and growing income inequality, it is entirely likely that Halima will join the fifty percent of African children in Portland who live in poverty (Curry-Stevens).
While the Mohamed family has had no dental care since arriving in the US, Viktoriya quickly finds someone who will see the family. Their eight months of cash and medical assistance will cover it. Mohamud explains that school is going fine, and that he enjoys playing soccer with his new neighbors. I ask him and his brother if they have plans, and they respond immediately: go to engineering school and become a pilot. When answering my questions in fragile, half-formed English phrases, Mohamud looks me in the eye, and he is always smiling, with a wide-eyed look that conveys that right now things are a little too much for him. His face almost glows when Zach tells him he can learn the language in two years.
The father returns from his driving lesson, and talk goes to Mohamud getting a license. I wonder if Mohamud, who keeps forcing the same half-authentic smile onto his face, has yet recognized that it is he who will lead his family into their new life. Tomorrow he will return to school and join the flood of English; he will put on a new face every day until his African self is covered and only an American Mohamud remains. I cannot understand his words, but they carry hope that his new life is his own. I trust, I need to trust, that he will grow to fill the void in his new life. I only hope that he remembers the sunshine.
My mother brings out the pink coat she brought for Halima, and Halima tries it on with delight. It fits perfectly, and she must be persuaded to take it off. My mother and I go over to see what Halima has been drawing: the outline of a hand, a sunlit ocean, and so many random scribbles of color. We go to leave, and there is another boy at the door, carrying a basketball, who has come for Mohamud and his brother. I was expecting some sort of shadow over the household, or dark memories floating just under the surface, but in the small apartment there is only a family, perhaps a little confused, whom I could hardly consider ‘foreign’. When Mohamud learns English he will be trilingual, and I find that I am becoming used to the quick, phonetic sounds of his other languages. With exact care Fatuma folds her daughter’s new jacket and places it inside the dresser, no longer empty.
As the Mohamed family says goodbye to us and slips behind their closing door, my fear catches up to me again. I wonder if Mohamud knows how little he will
matter as one more boy on an ESL list, his future already “at risk,” or if he knows this city is not used to seeing the color of his skin. It seems that their apartment will soon vanish into the rushing mass of the city, the family will fade away, and Halima’s coloring books will once again be blank. Then, I catch Mohamud’s warm smile, and Halima’s laughter, as they wave “goodbye” in heavily accented English, and I remember in five years they will be eligible for citizenship (“US Refugee Admissions Program”). Now their American story is silence, but one day they will speak it in loud, perfect words.
Portland’s future is being built in a one-story, nondescript building fronted in tan stucco, located on a busy East Portland street next to a Plaid Pantry. The only indicator I have found the right destination is a small blue logo of a person standing on a globe, next to a handwritten sign directing users of the ILB (International Language Bank) to the next door. Beside the door, inside a glass case, hangs an eight-foot-tall American flag.
I have come to the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization, or IRCO. Founded by Southeast Asian refugees in the 1970’s, IRCO has grown to become the umbrella organization for refugee affairs in Portland, managing hundreds of programs and serving 33,000 clients in 2014. It is a birth-to-death social service provider for refugee needs, from early childhood to senior services (Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization). Mohamed’s parents arrived at IRCO the day after I visited them.
IRCO’s reception area is a small, low space. I take a chair, sitting below a flock of wooden birds as they dance on the walls between painted continents. In the room I am soon joined by people with faces of all colors as they constantly walk in or out. Sometimes I hear another language, and I listen to the strange acoustic beauty the rhythm and shape of words take when stripped of meaning. Other times English cuts in, and I shift my thinking again and again, trying to keep up as the words bend and twist under myriad accents. Sometimes, the languages are intertwined, words rising and falling before a jolt of meaning, some word in English calling attention to itself before diving back into the sound.
My guide, Angela Dea Dimmick, is a woman of average height, straight blond hair, and a cheery, businesslike smile. She works on outreach in IRCO’s development department, and takes me to a small, almost cubical blue-walled room. Dimmick identifies the space we have found as an “intake room,” the first place refugees come before being released into their new world. Someone, having given a lesson on American finance, has not fully erased the whiteboard behind Dimmick, and the letters stand out as faint lines. I see ‘$2,000’, ‘stock’, ‘mutual fund’, and, near the center, RISK in large letters, marked with a circle.
We go past a series of classrooms: one holds employment readiness instructors tidying up, another is a carbon copy of the elementary-school room where I first learned to write. A long line of people walk out of IRCO’s computer lab, and I brush past them. I beg Dimmick to let me stop in a room and take notes, but she informs me that we can’t bother the people who use the facilities, all the while continuing to lead me through at a friendly yet brisk pace. From every wall, whiteboard, and map, words and numbers jump out at me, and I barely have a second before the next series of symbols appears, trying to impress its meaning onto my mind. We pass a painting of Angkor Wat, a sign in English, Russian, and Spanish, a poster explaining one’s rights under the HHS, and a notice above a drinking fountain that reads “No Spitting.” At last we come to a door, at the base of which a yellow-and-black square outline is taped. Dimmick explains that we are about to enter “the Pit,” the main office and nerve center of IRCO, where many employees will be working or meeting with clients.
Light pervades the space we enter, and I look up to see that the ceiling, edged with windows, is now far above me. Everywhere there are gray cubicles and tables, and desks are arranged in no particular order. Bulletins are posted on the cubicles, the one I pass headed with ‘Inspire yourself, inspire others,’ and motivational posters are placed alongside jumbled supplies, high on the walls. All around me people are working, typing into computers or speaking with their clients, with frantic, desperate energy. We silently move by a woman quickly speaking into her phone in a language I can’t place. I step past a boy about my age, and I wonder if should make some acknowledgement to him as people press in around me. I try to take it in, but Dimmick leads me through as the energy of the room almost carries me along. Everything is moving, and the vibrant colors shift around me and blur together as I try to make sense of the space. I register an eerie, overwhelming silence in what must be a loud room, the faces and movement and the constant brightness permeating my vision until they cut out any sound.
Another door opens, and we are back in the empty corridor. I struggle to adjust to the new, actual silence. The images are still churning over in my head, and I feel as though I had entered a sacred place. Eventually we find our way back to the small, dark waiting room, and I locate my father. As we leave, I notice again the American flag, IRCO’s most visible external feature. It seems not so much an assertion, but a reminder: we too can claim this flag, we too can define it. As I walk away, the fantastic silence of the Pit is still ringing in my ears.
IRCO’s Asian Family Center is tucked away in a tiny neighborhood, where small two-story houses with gardens and arched roofs are caught in the triangle between three busy roads. Across a chain-link fence is an auto repair shop, and the Columbia river is almost in view. I only wait a minute before Sophorn Cheang, the director of the AFC and my contact, walks down the stairs to meet me. She shakes my hand in one precise, iron motion, while black hair and a black blouse frame an authentic yet tight smile that runs over to her eyes. Upstairs, AFC’s offices could be those of any corporation, containing a large printer-photocopier and rows of drawers above a kitchenette. But the art hanging on the walls, a delicate web of string and a painting of Southeast Asian dancers, lacks the gloss of ‘exotic’ corporate art. I am led into a small, yellow-walled meeting room, and Cheang and I sit on couches between potted plants and boxes of Legos.
“I was very fascinated, and wanted to learn more about [refugees’] story and their experience. At the same time, I wanted to get involved in the Cambodian-American community, to help unite [the] community together, to help preserve the culture,” says Cheang, who came to America from Cambodia to study at the age of eighteen (Fernandez). She speaks firmly, in the voice of a dedicated businesswoman, but there is an emotional weight that runs under all she says, giving a steady force to her words. As director of the AFC, she now manages fifteen million dollars and over 100 programs, from the Beaverton-based SUN school-community engagement programs to direct rent and utility assistance. She currently serves over fifty different Asian and Pacific Islander (API) ethnic groups in even more languages.
Cheang explains that one of Portland’s refugees’ greatest challenges is the census checkbox for ethnicity, a system she is working to change. A Hmong refugee and an Iranian refugee might both be left puzzling over the meaning of a single “Other Asian” box, while a Russian Jew who speaks no English is absorbed into the label of “white” (“United States Census 2010”). “Because of the country and the culture that [refugees] come from, and the language, I can say that they cannot compare to each other,” says Cheang. “My opinion is that no one size fits all…they are not the same.”
The names of the AFC and Africa House, IRCO’s two culturally-specific centers, mean nothing to ethnic groups that had traditionally defined themselves by their differences. The wealthy, educated Khmer city-dwellers that first fled Cambodia’s collapse saw little connection between themselves and the lower-class refugees that came after the fall of Pol Pot’s regime, much less the Hmong from a country away (Mortland 238-241). Somali and Ethiopian refugees both quickly created their own organizations once in Portland, remaining uneasy about anything “pan-African” (Hume, Hardwick).
As Cheang explains, when a Vietnamese family comes to America, a Vietnamese health worker, hired from the community, will sit down with them and explain the United States healthcare system. He or she will know there is no health insurance, emergency rooms, or yearly checkups in Vietnam. “The system here is very complex,” says Cheang. “We want to educate our community members. We want to make sure they understand before they connect to the service.” To provide truly culturally specific services, IRCO must graft itself into all the communities it serves, a situation that puts a heavy responsibility on community leaders such as Cheang. For Cheang and IRCO’s employees, the job never ends at 5 o’clock.
I ask Cheang about the difference between refugees and conventional immigrants. Cheang’s smile fades, revealing a solemn weariness in her face. “Let me put it this way. There’s the immigrant, and there’s the refugee. The immigrant, they have a choice. It doesn’t mean the immigrant didn’t have any drama, issues, or any challenges, but the challenge for the refugees is… most of them, they had to go through war in their country, or trying to escape from one country. They lost everything, they went through a lot of PSTD, a lot of issues, [and] especially for many of them who spent so many years in the refugee camp, they also lost hope.” I had imagined that anyone who was offered a chance to live in America legally would gladly accept it. Yet, as Cheang states, America is often only a bitter consolation prize for the life refugees were forced to leave behind.
As Cheang explains, when the first Southeast Asian refugees arrived in Portland “there was no IRCO. [In the 1980’s] we were a small organization …We didn’t have enough resources.” As explained by Ong, understanding of refugee cultures was absent or degenerate: Cambodians in particular were considered lazy welfare cheats in comparison to the supposedly industrious Vietnamese. As families struggled to navigate the byzantine American welfare and job systems while preserving local values in their children, the meaning of “refugee,” as applied to varied ethnic groups, was never clearb(Mortland 241; Ong).
In February 1985, long before Cheang would become a community leader, Nady Tan, a Cambodian refugee, addressed the Beaverton Public Affairs Forum on behalf of IRCO. “They escape to survive, to keep themselves alive,” he said. “Asians are not immigrants, philosophically speaking. They do not want to move to another country. They wanted to live. They seek their freedom” (Thompson). 50% of the 18,500 Southeast Asian refugees in Beaverton at that time were unemployed, even as agencies fought over which ethnic group would united the community (Hortsch). Tan’s plea for a mended promise was tucked away in the back of The Oregonian, next to an ad for a VHS player.
From that period, IRCO coalesced as the ‘voice’ of refugees, but in 2006, the 15,000 African refugees in Portland fought bitterly with IRCO over whether a supposedly Southeast Asian organization could truly serve Africans. IRCO’s Africa House won, and the organization narrowly retained its privilege to give refugees a unified voice (Chuang).
Cheang admits that the Southeast Asian refugees who first arrived in Portland are now “all over the place” in terms of their success in America. Nevertheless, the children and teenagers who came over the ocean have become key leaders of Portland’s refugee community. Cheang and IRCO’s leaders, as they grew up, were able to experience firsthand the struggle of building a community identity from nothing. In 2010, refugee leaders met to evaluate their communities’ needs, submitting a single document requesting fair employment and accessible healthcare (“IRCO Community Needs”). “They [have] now become the mentors to the community leaders, to the younger generation…” Cheang says of the original refugees. As for their now-adult children, “they now feel that they are giving back to the community.”
As Cheang points out, two decades ago, Portland had almost no communities of color, and “Portlanders are still trying to understand and trying to address that racial disparity and racism, because it’s still out there. Portlanders need to…accept that there are many people of color.” African refugees are not black, Slavic refugees are not white, yet both must somehow exist inside America’s towering racial legacy.
According to sociologists Susan Hume and Susan Hardwick, Portland’s history is predominantly that of whiteness and exclusion. The Southeast Asians who arrived in the 70’s and 80’s, the African immigrants who began to arrive in the 80’s, the 80,000 Slavic refugees from the Soviet Union, and the current influx of refugees from Bhutan and Myanmar still make up one of Portland’s most important influxes of people of color. They come to Portland not knowing they will play a critical role in its future, but now, as they move out of affordable areas such as Northeast Portland, they must challenge Portland’s political and social norms of whiteness (Hume, Hardwick).
“The community identity is very important because we are trying to help them to understand why it is so important for a Cambodian-American to call themselves Cambodian,” says Cheang. “Because we think that where they come from, where their parents come from, there’s a lot of history, a lot of background, [and] they should not abandon that, and we encourage them to eat their own food, speak their own language, to actually even dress in whatever they want.” Cheang remembers a difficult time when she managed the Slavic leadership program, despite not speaking a word of Russian. Yet she believes language is necessary to preserve culture and remain comfortable with identity. “Most of the time, if they speak their own language, they can say more.”
When I ask if refugee repatriation should be the eventual goal of resettlement, Cheang lowers her voice, speaking with a flat, matter-of-fact tone. “We believe that they should integrate here in the United States. But as a humanitarian person, I feel that people are entitled to their own choice, hopefully. But one thing we have to understand is that the refugees, unlike the immigrants, they have no choice. When I say they have no choice, they cannot go back to their own country.”
Cheang remains positive when telling me that there is so much I can do to help IRCO, either by volunteering or by telling Portland’s refugees’ stories through my writing. Yet every so often I notice the lines on her face and her grim determination. Community by community, Cheang is building the foundation of a new Portland, a delicate, multiethnic web she holds together every day. The first refugees’ challenge, to rebuild their lives and their peoples, is now hers. For her and for all of us, she must find their American Dreams.
“It’s helped the economy. It’s helped bring the diversity, and that really is what America is, it’s all about the mix of cultures, the mix of traditions and languages,” says Cheang. “All of the immigrants and refugees coming to this country, they are not just coming to utilize resources, they come to work, they come to be a part of this society, they come to help this country to grow. And they bring the richness of their culture, and the beauty of their character, to make America become so successful.”
I’m not quite sure what to expect of Som Subedi as I step inside the glass-walled foyer of the East Portland Community Center, a large tan-brick building surrounded by apartment blocks and evergreens. Having come to America from Bhutan in 2008, he has become one of the Bhutanese’s greatest advocates, publishing his opinions in concise prose. He has worked with Bhutanese refugees as a case manager for Lutheran Community Services, a resettlement agency, and he is now an employee of the City’s New Portlanders program (he is not authorized to speak for the city, and expresses only his own opinions).
I check in at the long desk, and wait in front of the center’s wide windows. A few seniors walk by, followed by a young man who could be my age, all with faces of different colors. I only have to wait a minute before Subedi strides out from behind the desk to shake my hand in one quick, firm motion. He wears a dark blazer over a crisp white shirt, and beneath his close-cut hair is an emanating sense of steely determination. A worry strikes me, that against the depth of his experience I will only reveal my lack of understanding. Then his determination is covered by a smile that catches me off guard with its extraordinary authenticity, and I know I have nothing to fear. Subedi leads me past the front desk to his cluttered office, moving with such energy I do not notice he is half a head shorter than me. I am introduced to his assistant, who looks to be only a few years older than me, and Subedi motions to pull up a chair at his tidy desk. Behind Subedi are a few oxygen tanks and a hand pallet, a storage overflow in the cluttered building.
The 100,000 victims of Bhutan’s “One Nation, One People” policy, forced to flee to Nepal due to their Nepalese ethnicity, are not authorized to work, move out, own land, or even collect firewood from Nepal’s protected forests (Kulman, Delp). As Delp explains, food rations are handed out in exact quantities, while the few square feet allotted to each refugee to garden is not enough to restore his or her pride.
Subedi grew up in a ‘temporary’ Nepalese camp, a dark irony that seems to unite all refugee experiences. “It’s a worse place than you can imagine. I was one of the kids. I spent that childhood without good books, good school, good teachers, good nutrition to grow,” he says. “It hurts. Living in refugee camps is totally isolated, confined to a part of the world, and when I came to America, that was development, advancedness, it was like… Boom! In my experience, in my eyes, in my body, it was coming from minus zero to ten.”
When Subedi came to America, he had $10 in his pocket. During his early days, he would only sleep a few hours a night to, as he puts it, invest in his integration and learn the American system. Now, every dollar he contributes in taxes is proof that refugees are not a burden on the United States (Subedi, “Resettled”). “Within three years, I have bought my house, I drive American red Mustang car, I have good job, I have paid more than $70,000 as a tax back to the system,” he says, describing the $1000 of government support he received as an investment in him. “And I will pay all my life.”
“It’s hard work. We are a connected community,” Subedi says. “We help each other, we support each other, we come together when there’s a crisis. That’s our community strength.” He notes that there are no homeless Bhutanese in Portland. “We help when people are about to be on the street. We welcome them in our culture. For example, one of our women died two weeks ago, and we came together, contributed together, and we were able to pay her funeral cost and help her family a little bit. When I am successful, my family is successful, my community is successful and proud. But in America, one guy is successful, not family, not community.” For some refugees, community may be insulation from integration, but, as Subedi points out, community is also refugees’ greatest strength in a disconnected American society (Horvat). Subedi hopes that his newborn American daughter will be able to balance her two cultures and navigate a new life between them, although he acknowledges that to her, the hopelessness of a camp in Nepal will always be fiction.
Subedi has seen firsthand the struggle of building a strong community from the ground up. For him, the problem is simple economics. The resettlement agencies have only so much resources, and the upkeep refugees must pay on their American lives is far greater. For instance, a family of four needs a two-bedroom apartment, the rent for which is about $800, yet they are given $621 to pay it, and still must find money to buy food and diapers. Each refugee gets around $7,000 to start school, yet school is taught in a language they may never have heard before by teachers who know nothing about Bhutan or refugees. Subedi found his Nepalese bachelor’s degree of teaching meant little to Portland State University, while he describes doctors and engineers who have ended up washing bodies for hospitals or cleaning houses.
The Bhutanese community faces a suicide crisis among its refugees, with races twice the national average. Refugees, lonely, confused, and unable to speak English, are cut off from American society. A CDC study participant identified the issue: “His wife [acculturated] differently – did not like this, he felt blamed. He could not adapt. Hard to communicate” (“Investigation into Suicides”). It may be Hindu Bhutanese see suicide as more permissible, but in an Oregonian piece, Subedi points to the shattered expectations of refugees who find that, after living in stasis for so long, the American Dream is far out of reach (Preiss; Subedi, “Bhutanese”).
“First challenge for [Bhutanese refugees] was, they are survivors, they know how to survive, even with limited resources,” Subedi says. “They have that mind and body established. When they came to America, they didn’t have organizations established already, so they had to start their own.” While IRCO could support the influx of Bhutanese refugees, it could not build for them a resilient community. Subedi started organizing in 2009, and in 2013, he held the first election for a community leader after finding a compromise between seventeen proposed election systems, a “next level” he hopes will channel the frustration many refugees brought with them into a unified voice. The mainstream may now ignore his message; the same year, Governor John Kitzhaber went to Bhutan and returned talking of copy-pasting its happiness policy. But Subedi swears “when I get the chance, I will talk about refugees. My advocacy will always be there.”
In Subedi’s house, there are six families that can vote, yet refugees, silenced for so long, receive no education on civic engagement. “Politicians love to see voters,” he says. “Now, only the money comes, but not the votes. If they keep contributing to the system, paying taxes, opening businesses, but not voting, that continues the invisibility. But if [refugees] are eligible to vote, and if we help as organizations, that shows visibility. That means they have power, right there.” I sense that Subedi will not stop until the City of Portland fulfills the American Dream it has promised.
Subedi continues to give the same heartfelt smile, and I begin to understand that it is not toughness, but a survivor’s energetic, focused resilience that keeps him fighting for equity in America. He never raises his voice while carefully explaining all that must be done for Bhutanese refugees to be fully integrated. He describes how even now he is still learning, how some people are not happy with his accent, his questions, or his being here. Having achieved the American Dream, a car, a house, and a job, in three years, he is materially American, but he feels that he is not fully American, at least while others refuse to accept his presence as a citizen.
“America has a tradition of helping people around the world, who are in crisis. That’s what we are,” he states. “You know, everyone talks about, America is a country of immigrants and refugees. We are here, right in your heart. We are your neighbors. You should know us.” What if peace were possible? What if the endless stream of conflict that causes so many nationalities to wash up between the Columbia and the Willamette was to halt, and that forbidden, double-edged word, ‘repatriation,’ took hold of refugees’ conciousness? The camps would be swept off on desert wind, and streams of people would wander back to reclaim their homelands. I would go to the airport, and find the Mohamed family waiting with a long line of Africans, Halima never to finish her coloring books. Mohamud’s name would fall off an English-Language class roster, leaving only binders full of words that would never be learned. The Ethiopian restaurants would close in unison, but it would be only a matter of time before microbreweries and lifestyle outlets took their place. The Pit would fall silent, and Cheang would sit in empty community meetings, the first refugees’ dreams blown away on the breeze. The owner of a Subway would learn that the doctors and engineers he had paid to wrap sandwiches were returning to their professions. America would be sheltered from the forces of the world, but its dream would be a hollow echo, monotonous and slowly fading away.
What of Subedi? For all the stories I hear on the news of the disintegration of the ‘American Dream,’ I am standing before a man who, from a small, cluttered room in the back of a community center far from downtown, every day puts on his iron smile to build a new Portland and find his own American Dream. He was not American when he boarded that flight over the wide ocean, yet now I feel he is teaching me how to be an American.
 This montage is based on my interview with Mr. Subedi and the article by Kulman.