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The air flurried silently, casting a frozen breath over everything it touched. It stung my nose and cheeks as I walked through a garden of snow and ice. Snowflakes fell slowly to the ground, the thin layer of powder crunching with every step I took. The sky was blanketed with gray clouds as if I had been trapped inside a glass orb covered with cashmere sweater. The trees were barren; not a single leaf hung from their branches. Tire tracks rolled through the snow in front of me, perhaps left from the truck of the gardener on his way to tend to the desolate garden. A large ferris wheel loomed up behind me, its hinges fixed from the chilled air as well.

I was alone.

In the distance, through the fog, I could see the top of Le Tour Eiffel, its hard edges smoothed out by the gray light. I had been taken back in time to what seemed a simpler age, a time when everything was black and white. Writhing branches stood starkly against the white sky and ponds lie still, their beautiful women frozen in longing. Chairs sat empty around the fountain while ravens and swallows pecked at the ground for morning morsels. A door to the summer gazebo swung back and forth with the breeze, revealing more lonely chairs inside.

I walked through the frosted hedges to the edge of the garden, turning right down Rue de Rivoli. Small black cars with round headlights drove past as I skipped across the street in my knee-length white and navy plaid coat with embellished collar toward a cafe in hopes of finding une crepe au nutella et bananes. To my dismay, the cafe was closed on Sundays.

Standing on the corner, the breath rising from my lips frozen within an instant, I tucked my hands in my pockets and looked down the street from left to right, following the small black cars that drove past. To my knowledge, either way was as good as the other, so I chose to turn on my wedge-heeled boots and walk down Rue de Castiglione behind me. Gray buildings rose up around me with white awnings hanging over their doors. A young girl in a red coat and white stockings ran down the steps of Hotel de Vendome, stopping on the sidewalk to turn and wait for her mother and revealing a red ribbon curled around her hair. The doorman smiled and tipped his hat as he opened the door to a black taxi. Several square suitcases sat on the ground.

The air kept biting at my nose, I could feel the tip of it turning pink with the cold. After a while, the black taxis driving by turned into sleek town cars and the narrow street stretched out to both sides and around a large column. The buildings turned a soft peach decorated with snowflake-like lights and terraces framed with black and gold iron. Faces stretched out above each archway and every window glimmered beneath the lights. Despite the gray sky, Place Vendome shone with something, je ne sais quoi. The awnings were still white, but it was the lettering that caught my eye.

Dior. Chanel. Tiffany. Louis Vuitton. Lanvin. Cartier.

– One of the most popular and my favorite post on Musings of Ernie Pete

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Borderlands

I have always wanted to try mud pie. When I was little, my brother and I would wait for the puddles that a rainy day left behind. We would prepare pie after pie, but we were never allowed to eat our delicious desserts. My mom said we could only take pretend bites. “Mud is yucky,” she would add, and then her face would scrunch up tightly.

Fifteen years later, I’m in the bateyes (pronounced “bah-tays”) of the Dominican Republic, the poverty-stricken section of the country’s sugar and banana plantations. Here, cooking mud pies is more than a child’s game. When there isn’t enough food, the locals bake a mixture of dirt and water over an open fire to make mud cookies. In the bateyes, mothers feed their families mud pies simply to stay alive.

It’s March 2011 and I’ve signed up for a community service trip with the University of Oregon, thinking that the experience will satisfy my desire to help save the world. As I board the plane with a group of 15 students and advisors, I already feel proud of what I plan to accomplish during the next six days. I’ll be working alongside North American doctors and dentists to provide medical care for those living on the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Ten hours later we arrive in Monte Cristi, a sleepy Dominican coastal town about an hour away from the bateyes. The locals are friendly and chatty. The kids, all dressed in tidy school uniforms, enjoy showing off their broken English. The small town has a few restaurants, a grocery store, a hotel, and an ice cream shop. While this isn’t a luxury area, the quality of life in Monte Cristi is drastically different from what we later witness in the bateyes.

Each morning our group travels to one of the several poor batey communities in the area (there are an estimated 400 such towns along the border). On the first day, I gaze through the window at the line of people waiting for us. Many of the adults have dark skin and prominent cheekbones, but it is their large eyes that I notice first. Despite their vivid beauty, they gaze out emotionlessly.

The people in line stare at us while we set up our makeshift clinics. Most of the women hold smiling babies in their laps. The children’s eyes seem different than those of the adults. They glisten with innocence and a blissful unawareness of what they don’t have: basic human rights and an identity in their own country.

While both the Dominican Republic and Haiti are independent countries, they share the same island, Hispaniola. Geography plays a primary role in their drastic economic differences. Mountain ranges force the majority of rain to fall on the Dominican Republic, leaving Haiti with an arid climate unable to support much vegetation. The Dominican Republic’s fertile land means the residents have greater access to resources while Haiti struggles to feed its rising population.

Eighty-two years ago, these economic differences, aggravated by a history of political conflict, resulted in widespread discrimination against Haitians within the Dominican Republic. It was 1930 when Rafael Leonidas Trujillo took control of the Dominican Republic and began his infamous push to “cleanse” the nation of Haitian blood. In October 1937, he led a campaign to brutally murder any Haitian found outside of the bateyes. The Dominican Republic refers to this one-month massacre as El Corte, or The Cutting.

Today the mass killings have ended, but the Dominican government continues to support Trujillo’s “cleanse” by denying citizenship to Haitian immigrants and residents of Haitian descent. According to the international organization Human Rights Watch, the Dominican government deports 10,000 to 30,000 Haitians annually. To avoid this fate, many settle in the bateyes, providing a steady supply of cheap labor for the wealthy plantations.

Each batey community is built around an open dirt field where barefooted children run around snapping whips or playing soccer. Tiny homes made from uneven wooden boards and tin roofs dot the landscape. Most of the homes have a wood stove used to cook meals of rice or beans. That is, if there is any food that day.

As I begin my first day in the bateyes, I question the dreams I had of saving the world. While watching a woman sweep outside her hut’s crooked front door, I realize my ignorance in thinking that these people belong to a world different from my own. The woman’s sweeping may only reveal a layer of caked dirt, but she keeps cleaning the small square in front of her home, taking pride in what she owns.

Orphanage Outreach, now known as Outreach360, coordinates medical care in both the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua.

Each morning we travel to a different batey where I am assigned to a registration table to pass out brightly colored bracelets for the day’s medical clinic. In Maguaca, a small batey on the outskirts of Monte Cristi, a large iron gate surrounds the concrete area where we set up the clinic. The doors stay tightly closed until the clinic is ready, preventing a crowd of antsy children, desperate mothers, and weathered old men from rushing my table. Tiny brown hands grip the iron bars and huge round eyes peer through the gaps. I sit on the other side of the fence and try to avoid their gaze.

When the gates finally open, I give each person a bracelet printed with a registration number and ask them for their name, age, medical complaint, and nationality. Few say Haitian. Those who do don’t announce it with pride like those who say Dominican. Once a patient has a bracelet, he or she must wait, sometimes up to four hours.

To pass the time, I do my best to make people smile. I soon learn my digital camera is the best way to connect with people. The kids beg to have their pictures taken, but I’m surprised to find the adults also enjoy being photographed. When I point the lens at an older woman, her smile reveals several gaps where teeth should be. Before I push the button, I notice a glimpse of the same shimmer I see in the children’s eyes. She looks at the picture on the tiny digital screen for several minutes before asking me to take another. I wonder how long it has been since she really looked at her own face—there aren’t many mirrors hanging up in the bateyes. Perhaps this woman can’t even recognize herself.

Most of the time, I can’t understand the pronunciation of a prospective patient’s name so I try to spell it out to the best of my ability. When I’m wrong, most people scoff or laugh and take the sticker with a misspelled name. I wish I could take the time to give them the dignity of wearing a correctly spelled name tag, the only form of written identification the bateyes residents typically have.

Throughout the week, I notice how much the people enjoy simply interacting with the volunteers. We acknowledge them as humans through a gentle touch, be it a hand to hold while the dentist completes an examination or an offer to cradle a baby while the mother has a tooth pulled. One four-year-old boy stands by my table for a long time before he decides to sit on my lap. Every time I look down at his face, he grins; this becomes our game. I wish I could remember his name.

A mother and child wait for a dental exam.

I have a name on my passport that reminds me that I am a citizen of the United Kingdom. That piece of paper is not what makes me feel human. I felt human when I shook my principal’s hand at my high school graduation and when I gripped my best friend’s arm as we sat through our classmate’s funeral. I feel human when my dad lets me stand on his toes while we dance around the kitchen, or when my boyfriend rubs his thumb across the top of my hand while we walk. A human touch is a powerful thing.

For the first time it strikes me that the people we are helping are not “others.” I cannot give these people a piece of paper with their legal identification on it. Nor can I provide clean toothbrushes for every child or meals for every person in the bateyes. However, I can make each person feel accepted as a fellow human being by speaking to an old man in his own language, by taking pictures alongside smiling children, by comforting babies as they wait for their mothers. I can touch their lives and remind them that they are human. And they can do the same for me.

Written by Kerri Anderson, 4/2/12

Edited by Erin Peterson

Expert Couponing

“When I go shopping at Walmart, I often end up getting money back,” she says. Dressed in a dark blue plaid coat, Nanell Clark shuffles through her purse and pulls out a large black wallet stuffed with receipts. She tucks a strand of long red hair behind her ear before taking out one receipt after another, placing them on the table in front of her and pointing to the negative total on each.

Clark is an expert couponer who searches online and through the pages of the Sunday newspaper to collect coupons for items from groceries to apparel. Each week, she figures out what she needs to buy for her family, flips through her coupon binder and finds coupons that will reduce the cost of the items she buys that week. “I can’t remember the last time I paid full price for something,” she says.

Having grown up as one of seven children, Clark learned early on that in order to get the most out of her twenty dollars for back-to-school shopping, she would need to be frugal. With six other children in one household, watching for deals and clearance sales was a necessity.

“I grew up couponing because my mom couponed,” she says. “When there are that many kids in one household you kind of have to.”

Now, as a wife and mother of two living in Springfield, Clark’s frugality has become an obsession. “If it’s not on sale and I don’t have a coupon for it, I’m not going to buy it,” she says. Her obsession saves her family thousands of dollars per year. Her kids know the one most important question when shopping with their mother: “Mom do you have a coupon for this?”

When Clark discovered a couponing blog called My Frugal Adventures three years ago, her obsession really took flight. “They do most of the work for you,” she says. “They do all the match-ups and tell you where the coupon is, you just have to get the coupons from them.”

Clark once found twenty coupons for granola bars on Ebay for just one dollar and subsequently bought fifty boxes of granola bars- at least one year’s worth for her family. Her kitchen pantries and laundry room cupboards are filled with boxes of food, the garage pantries house bottles of shampoo and toothpaste, and a corner of the attic serves as a toy store. When her son had a birthday party to attend, she didn’t even have to leave the house to find a gift.

***

Underneath the fluorescent lighting of a large warehouse-sized store, customers mill around the long aisles of everything a person could need: clothing, kitchen appliances, groceries, entertainment, furniture, and children’s toys. The monotonous beeping of the scanner at the register echoes off the walls.

Clark carries a calculator in her purse as she shops at Walmart. Although couponing comes quite naturally to her, she admits there is definitely a learning curve. As she puts each item in her shopping cart, she calculates what her total should be minus the percentage her coupon gives her for each item. Once she gets to the register, if the cashier’s total doesn’t equal her own she makes the cashier go through and find the mistake.

“It doesn’t effect me as much as it effects the customers behind her,” Walmart cashier Casey Wise says of ringing up avid couponers like Clark. “It’s time consuming and frustrating for other customers.”

However, if a store doesn’t give her the extra cash when she has a negative total, she turns to the customer behind her. “If the store doesn’t give cash back, I’ll start buying other customers’ items for them,” she says. For Clark, wasting money is not an option. She buys a few of their items until her total is brought up to zero.

Although it comes quite naturally to her, Clark admits that the strategy to successful couponing can be confusing. “It can be really hard to learn on your own­– it’s best to use a friend who coupons or the websites to get help,” she says.

A Thrifty Mom, a couponing website created in 2009, provides printable coupons and links to coupon sites as well as information about what to use a specific coupon for, where to use the coupon and when to use it. Sarah Barrand, creator of A Thrifty Mom, learned that it’s best to use coupons that are coordinated with a sale in order to get the lowest price.

Ten years ago, Barrand gave birth to a son with only half a heart. With very few options for their son’s survival, Barrand and her husband were in and out of hospitals in Washington, Arizona and Utah for the next three years. “Because we were already trying to pay off our debts, we only had fifteen dollars per week for food,” she says.

Barrand quickly learned that clipping coupons coordinated with sales was the best method of saving money. Today, her son is a healthy ten years old and they are living debt-free.

“I knew how to make my dollar really stretch,” she says. When the economy took a downturn in 2008, Barrand saw her friends and family begin to worry about how they would provide for their families. With all the support her family had received during those first three years of her son’s life, Barrand wanted to do something to return the favor.

“When my son was going in and out of surgery there were a lot of people who would help us by giving us rides to the airport and things like that,” she says. Creating a website to teach them about couponing was her way of giving back. Now, A Thrifty Mom offers coupons, deals, and meal ideas for people all over the country trying to save money.

When couponers want to find specific coupons and deals online, they go to websites like Cheap Sally, which offers coupons for 11,000 different retailers worldwide. Some of its most popular retailers include JibJab, Target, Forever 21 and Auto Trader. “We try to cultivate a relationship between our site and the advertisers so that people can coupon on our site,” says Tyler Stauss, one of the creators of Cheap Sally.

Walmart Customer Service Manager Keith Aiken says that coupons are good for business. “We get reimbursed by the manufacturer for the coupons,” he explains. “Although the customer may be saving money, we are still making the total price.”

According to a Compete Online Shopper Intelligence Agency study, 91% of coupon redeemers say they will visit a retailer again after being offered a coupon and 57% of shoppers, like Clark, say they would not have made the purchase without a coupon first.

“Their conversion rate is greater than those who don’t use coupons, which is probably good for the economy,” Stauss says.

***

As she walks down the aisle of a grocery store, Clark can easily point out her fellow couponers. There is a friendly atmosphere between them and Clark has even made good friends through couponing. “They’ve got their binder and they’ve got their coupons,” she says. “After a while you start seeing the same people over and over.”

Now that Clark has become an expert at couponing and can get so many items for free, she often donates any items she can’t fit in her pantries and cupboards to those in need. “There is always a place to donate to,” she says. With her stockpiles of shampoo and granola bars, she always has something to donate to local food banks and shelters.

Over last Christmas, Clark provided Christmas to an entire family. Coupon website Frugal Living Northwest had begun its Christmas Tree Project in which readers could sign up to help some families in need in the Pacific Northwest. Readers could donate toys, school supplies, food, books, games, and other household items, pay a utility bill, or even adopt a family for Christmas.

Clark and another reader worked together to provide Christmas to a family in Springfield. Unable to pay rent for several months, a couple and their two young children had been forced to move in with their mother, who had also been struggling financially, in a small duplex. The couple and their children were living together in one tiny bedroom. “They really had nothing- when we took stuff over to their house they had nothing under the Christmas tree,” Clark says.

Because Clark’s children had outgrown diapers, she donated her stockpile of baby items to the family. She and the other reader asked their friends and coworkers to donate money to help pay their bills as well. “I always have something I can give away to someone who needs it more,” she says.

Clark’s frugality has begun to rub off on her husband and children. When Clark’s daughter picks a penny up off the ground, she asks what she can buy with it. “Most people would say you can’t buy anything with a penny,” Clark says. “You might not be able to, but I can.”

Photos of the Picc-A-Dilly Flea Market in Eugene, Oregon.

People gather at the Picc-A-Dilly Flea Market on Sunday, February 19 to buy and sell personal items like handmade soap, old records, books, and jewelry. The Market has been held at the Lane County Fairgrounds in Eugene since 1970.

One vendor works on a drawing while customers pass by, admiring her home-made lamps.

Most of the items sold at the Market are priced significantly lower than items sold in a store- jewelry is priced at just a few dollars and books are sold for a few quarters.

Near the end of the day, a young girl sits on a bag of shoes and plays on her father's calculator while he organizes the items on his table and converses with customers.

Vintage and antique items fill the tables- old sports equipment, sewing machines, and dolls are a common theme.

A vendor excepts $4 for a box of Girl Scout cookies- many vendors allow customers to barter over the cost of their items.

Joey Larko’s fingers shuffle through the blue and black crates that lie at his feet under his desk. Just above them sit two turntables and a couple of two-foot-tall speakers where a college student would typically keep books. He lands on a bright yellow twelve-inch square cardboard case with italicized helvetica print on the cover and pulls out the album contained inside: Dutch Flowers by Skream. He turns the turntable on to forty-five rotations per minute and drops the needle. A base-filled beat follows the scratchy sound of the needle running across the album’s surface.

“I pretty much always choose vinyl if given a choice,” Larko says. “The bass is so much warmer, so much heavier. There’s nothing like it.”

Larko, a twenty-one year old University of Oregon student from San Francisco, has been collecting vinyl records for the past two years. In a time where compressed music formats such as Mp3s are the public’s main form of music consumption, Larko continues to add record after record to his 300-piece collection.

“I call it black crack,” Larko says. He spends roughly fifteen dollars a week on new vinyl. “I just party less so I can afford it, which is better I suppose.”

Record enthusiasts like Larko are finding their way into music stores more often. According to a study conducted by the Nielson Company, 3.6 million vinyl albums sold in the United States in 2011, a thirty-seven percent increase from the previous year, and an increase that has been steadily moving upward since 2006. This is in stark contrast to 1993, when only 300,000 vinyl albums were sold nationwide.

 

In a music industry dominated by digital files, vinyl growth is unexpected. Eight-tracks, an early form of cassette tape, gained popularity in the late 1960s and early 1970s but was completely phased out of the market by 1982. Cassettes peaked in popularity during the late 1980s, but have now become so obsolete that last year the term was removed from the Concise Oxford English Dictionary. Compact discs dominated the market until recently, when Mp3s, which could be acquired almost effortlessly (and often for free from file-sharing programs like Limewire), took over.

Greg Sutherland, a record buyer at House of Records in Eugene, Oregon, says the growth and resilience of vinyl can be attributed to several factors. “I think collecting is a huge part of it because it’s a substantial thing,” Sutherland says. “A record is a packaged piece of art that includes visuals and sound.”

He says CD cases are made of cheap plastic and are a hassle to open. He believes adhesive ribbon on the top spine of CD cases has been a source of annoyance to many since the security measure was introduced. Mp3s are simply invisible megabytes in cyberspace and in many cases do not include album artwork.

Sutherland says he feels a sense of nostalgia for vinyl records.

“It’s kind of romantic to me,” Sutherland says. “Something so ‘sci-fi’ that is the future—music on a file and as many files as you want. Instead of that being the future right now, it looks more like this older form that has been around since the late ’40s or early ’50s is going to be the future.”

Robert Bielski has collected records since 1959. During his time as a traveling salesman, he would stop at music stores and purchase records when he heard a song that he liked on the radio. “It was a hobby that got out of control,” Bielski says, acknowledging his addiction to collecting vinyl. “I’ve already sold off a lot of my collection, but I still have about ten thousand at home. I filled up my basement and half of my house.” Bielski sold a small percentage of his collection at the Eugene Record Convention this past February.

Larko is a new-age collector, as opposed to Bielski, who collects vintage records. Whereas many people believe that record collecting is restricted to older music, most of Larko’s personal collection is comprised of bands and groups that have released music in the past decade. He has to ship many of his records in from the United Kingdom because his favorite artists in his preferred genre, a type of underground dance music called dubstep, are mostly based in the UK.

“With dubstep, vinyl is so much better because you can feel the bass,” Larko says.

The compression process used with CDs and Mp3s standardizes the levels on the music tracks: the softer sections are made louder, whereas the louder sections are made quieter. Depending on the amount of compression used, a recording could lose most of its dynamic range.

“I think that a lot of kids who were born in the late ’80s or early ’90s grew up without records in a digital world,” Sutherland says. “Because kids never experienced what it’s like to listen to a record, the very first time they hear it is pretty shocking to them. Mp3s and CDs don’t sound as good as records do.”

With records, there is no compression process. What a listener hears is pure, unadulterated music. “It sounds really organic when you’re listening to a record,” Larko says. “Sometimes it sounds like you’re in the studio with them.”

With records’ surge in popularity more and more modern bands are releasing their albums on vinyl. The Black Keys’ most recent album release, El Camino, was widely sought after. House of Records received twelve copies of the album a week after its release date—they sold out in a week and had special orders for more.

Printing fewer records allows for more exclusivity among vinyl albums. To enthusiasts like Larko, the drive to accumulate records is partially inspired by the rarity of an album. From collecting white labels—promotional vinyl discs that were handed out in limited quantity—to digging through crates to find a hidden gem, collectors will look for records few others might own.

“Exclusivity is a huge part of it for me,” Larko says. “It’s really cool to know that you’re one of a couple hundred people who have that sound in the world.”

To many vinyl enthusiasts, it’s not about collecting to resell or make a profit. Bielski believes that fewer than 25 percent of vendors who attend the Eugene Record Convention are there to make money. Most vinyl collectors are unique in that way. Albums are typically purchased with the intention of being opened, listened to and enjoyed, in contrast to something like action figures, which many collectors leave in their original packaging in order to preserve the toy’s condition.

At the Eugene Record Convention, Bielski sits back at his table and watched as people eagerly flipped through the collection that he has culminated over the course of his life.

“If I wanted to make money [from collecting], I would go back to work,” Bielski says. “It’s just a hobby. For me, it’s very hard lugging these records around. But it’s fun, so I do it.”

Written by Brandon Andersen, 3/8/12

Edited by Erin Peterson

When Idy Maigari arrived in Portland three years ago with his wife and nine children, it was the first time he had seen tall city buildings, paved roads, or traffic jams. The city was a complex maze of moving cars, people talking on their cell phones, and sleek towers embedded with rows of windows. Because no one in Maigari’s family could read or speak English, communication was nearly impossible. The Maigaris had suddenly entered what seemed like another planet with no one to turn to but each other.

“We were shocked to see how advanced the country is … everything is so sophisticated and new,” Maigari says of the experience.

Maigari is half a world away from the cardboard walls of his shelter at the refugee camp in Chad where families still live under plastic-bag roofs. Like many families living in Central Africa, Maigari’s was transported to the camp in 2006 for protection from the violence of the civil war occurring in the Central African Republic.

The Maigaris spent three years living in squalid conditions while they waited for the Office of Refugee Resettlement to relocate them to the United States. They arrived in Portland in September of 2009, where an African community had been growing since the 1970s when the first wave of refugees arrived. The community encourages resettlement agencies to place people in Portland because a supportive network and cultural base has already been established, says Joseph Smith-Buani, a University of Portland professor of African Studies.

Refugees are eligible to receive financial support from the state’s Refugee Cash Assistance and Refugee Medical Assistance programs for up to eight months after arriving in Oregon. During this time, refugees are expected to learn English and find a job so they can become self-sufficient.

“There are so many choices and it is very complex,” Maigari says, communicating through a translator. Although he is trying to learn, Maigari has yet to master English. “We were frightened because there are so many things you have to learn in order to survive.”

To cope with the language barrier and other cultural differences, refugees often rely on outside support to help them assimilate into America’s fast-paced culture while still maintaining their own cultural values and traditions.

Africa House, a branch of the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization in Portland, is one place for Africans to find the assistance they need to adjust to this new life. Located in Northeast Portland, the facility was originally a large home before it was converted into several offices and meeting spaces.

Africa House was established five years ago and now offers services to more than 200 African refugees and immigrants annually. In the offices, large African maps hang on the walls and a spicy smell wafts from the small kitchen where employees prepare lunch. Every chair in the small waiting area is usually occupied. The majority of the organization’s clients are refugees rather than immigrants or American-born Africans. Whereas immigrants choose to leave their country in order to have access to better jobs or education, refugees are forced to leave their home country for a safer environment because the threat to their lives is too great.

Establishing a community setting is an important part of Africa House because it reflects the value of relationships between friends and family, a prominent aspect in most African cultures. “There is tremendous solidarity between the community,” says Gloria Ngezaho, a youth program coordinator at Africa House.

The facility offers refugees a place to meet with other people from their continent to socialize and practice English in a comfortable environment. The organization also offers assistance with green card and housing applications, help with paying bills, and literacy classes. At Africa House, people learn to become part of a new culture without losing pieces of their own.

For Maigari, Africa House has become a second home. “When I wake up in the morning, there is no other place to go than Africa House,” he says.

Every day Maigari rides the bus to meet Djimet Dogo, the organization’s manager. Maigari brings a plastic bag filled with his mail because he is unable to read it himself. He cannot run simple errands, make appointments, or talk with his landlord or his children’s teachers without assistance from one of the employees, most of whom are immigrants or refugees from Africa themselves.

Until he met Dogo, another former Chadian, Maigari could not communicate with anyone outside of his own family. Dogo taught him how to use public transportation and purchase groceries from the store using his food stamps.

At Africa House, Maigari and his children learned how to write their names in English for the first time.

“Thank God we came to the United States,” Maigari says. “I never expected that in my life I would be able to write my name. I never believed that one day my children could write and read.”

Three years after their arrival in Portland, all nine of the Maigari children are attending school and speaking English. Maigari says he is too old to grasp the language as quickly as his children, but he continues to take lessons.

Kamar Haji-Mohamed, the community services coordinator for Africa House, wears a bright yellow head wrap with a floor length black dress. When she was eleven, she moved with her family to Oregon from Kenya, where her family found refuge after fleeing their home in Somalia to escape a violent civil war. Working at Africa House has allowed her to better understand some of the challenges her parents and family faced when they arrived.

She says the language barrier is one of the toughest challenges to overcome. Without the ability to read or speak English in the U.S., understanding something as simple as an electricity bill becomes an arduous process.

“If you speak the language, it’s much easier to access basic resources,” Haji-Mohamed says. “The main thing we do and we want is for [refugees] to be self-sufficient and not to depend on programs or resources always.”

For Maigari, the language barrier has hindered his attempts to find a job. Currently, his family is living entirely on welfare support—something Maigari is anxious to change.

The processes of submitting applications and attending interviews are just some examples of cultural adjustments refugees must adapt to. Maigari, who is a member of the Fulani people, a nomadic and herding culture in Africa, says before he came to America it was possible to wake up and find a different job to do for the day without filing any paperwork.

“Here it is not this way,” Maigari says. “I have to take classes and I take employment training and all of kinds of things to prepare me to get a job.”

Africa House works to help families understand cultural differences that can make everyday routines seem complex. Ngezaho says new laws, social customs, and even relationships take time to adapt to. In Africa, for instance, it is common for a twenty-one-year-old man to be with a sixteen- or seventeen-year-old woman, but here that is illegal.    “There are a lot of rules and laws in America that have an impact on how people view life here,” Ngezaho says.

Despite the challenges, both Ngezaho and Haji-Mohamed agree that most refugees are happy to be in Portland and anxious to establish a new life here. “There is a lot of issues [refugees] face, but there is a lot advantages they see,” Ngezaho says. “They always have hope because they have been at their bottom, so this is doable.”

Families are also excited at the opportunity to provide a better life for their children with new opportunities.

“America is a safe haven,” Smith-Buani says. “[Refugees] find this to be a good place—a safe place—to raise a child and live their life to its fullest.”

In Portland, Maigari’s children are experiencing a life of freedom and comfort for the first time. In the Chadian refugee camp, the family of eleven lived inside a cardboard structure. The Maigaris received rations every twenty days from the United Nations. Desperate for food, Maigari says people often fought to make it to the front of the line on distribution days and some stole from other families. Anyone who was seen causing disorder was beaten with iron bars the soldiers carried. It was unsafe for children to leave their cardboard shelter. Maigari and his wife chose not to send their kids to the camp’s school because the teachers were known for beating students.

The children feared the teachers would beat them because they could not speak English on their first day of school in Portland. Now the children wish classes were held on weekends. “When the children get home from school they are happy,” Maigari says. “They are not hungry. They make friends and the children are friendly with the teacher. It’s not like at the refugee camp.”

The family’s townhome is in a safe neighborhood with a park. Maigari’s children spend their free time using the computer, playing basketball, and riding their bikes with friends.

Maigari is amazed he can go to the grocery store and buy food whenever he wants. “Here, I don’t have to worry about somebody coming home and attacking my family to take that food away,” he says. “For the first time I have peace of mind.”

Maigari is overjoyed that his children can experience the once-foreign luxury of making their own choices. He wants to incorporate pieces of American culture into his family’s lifestyle to help his kids feel at home here.

Africa House encourages all of its clients to maintain a balance between acculturating to American life and maintaining African values and traditions. Haji-Mohamed says that most adults make it a priority to keep African tradition and values in their homes and to raise their children in that environment. For youth, however, attending school and making friends with Americans proposes an interesting dichotomy that can be challenging for those trying to maintain two identities.

The African Immigrant Mentoring project, one of the multiple youth programs offered at Africa House, connects children with mentors who teach them about their heritage and offer support with balancing their American school life with traditional expectations their families uphold at home.

For Ngezaho, who moved to Portland from Burundi as a refugee when he was eighteen, the combination of cultures is a valuable asset. “I’m an American, but I feel like I have a culture that I came here with,” he says. “You have to take from both sides, and they do shape you.”

Maigari says he will maintain his native language and religion in his home, but is happy to see his children speaking English and “behaving like American kids” outside of the house. The children are also introducing their parents to some new cuisine—burgers are a common request in the Maigari household.

The preservation of African culture in America is evident in Northeast Portland, where many African-owned restaurants and stores are eager to share traditional food or clothing with others in the community.

“It is our way of contributing to American culture,” Ngezaho says. “It brings pride.”

Smith-Buani, the University of Portland professor, says these reminders of home don’t only help immigrants and refugees with the acculturation process, but also allow them to contribute to America’s melting-pot society.

“When people go places, they change the places they go, but they are also changed by those places,” Smith-Buani says.

For refugees, assimilating means creating a new home with the knowledge that returning to a life in their war-torn nation will be difficult or impossible.

But Maigari doesn’t hesitate to call Portland home. He still hopes he and his wife can find a job and become self-sufficient. To Maigari, Portland has provided a secure life for his family with a bright future.

“I have hope and optimism that one day I will make it,” Maigari says. “At one point, I will get a job. This is my home. I am not going back.”

Maigari thinks that in one or two years, his children will know English well enough to help him with basic tasks like reading bills so he doesn’t have to ride the bus to Africa House before starting his day.

But for now, he will stick to his morning routine.

Tomorrow, Maigari will ride the bus to Africa House with his stack of mail. Before he meets Dojo, he will stop at the registration desk where there will be a clipboard holding a sign-in sheet. On the next open line, he will write his own name.

Written by Kerri Anderson, 2/28/12

Edited by Erin Peterson

Splat Ter

Portrait photos of tattoo artist Splat Ter.

Tattoo artist Splat-Ter has been tattooing for almost 20 years, from the United Kingdom to the United States. He now works at High Priestess Tattoo in Eugene, Oregon.

Splat-Ter has been working on this full-length sleeve for almost a year, starting with the outline and slowly working in the colorful details of Lord Ganesha, Hindu God of knowledge and the remover of obstacles.

With his specialty being in large tattoos, Splat-Ter is used to working on the same tattoo for hours, weeks, months, and even years.

As loud rock music plays in the background, Splat-Ter likes to sing along as he works.