Image: Loris Lora

For 37 years, Lee Po Cha has calmly met a small but steady stream of refugees arriving in Oregon from all corners of the globe. They come from Laos, like him. From Syria, Somalia, Chad. From Russia and Iraq.

As one of many kind faces at the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization (and as its executive director), Cha helps some of our state’s most vulnerable residents adapt to life in America. Since 1976, IRCO has sought to be a “one-stop shop” for the wide-ranging needs of some 200,000 refugees and immigrants who now call Oregon home.

IRCO’s support starts on day one—helping families secure shelter, purchase food, learn bus routes, and enroll children in school. But the organization’s 190-plus discrete programs also offer instruction in things that might surprise you: on navigating a PGE hookup, or this country’s stubbornly nonmetric measurement systems. Without IRCO, the 31,000 clients it served in 2017 (speaking more than 60 languages between them) might have trudged solo through a maze of social programs and agencies including the DMV, DHS, HUD, and PPS. And without IRCO, Oregon’s newest residents would not have had an emotional support network—one ready to guide them through a life transition literally foreign to many of their new neighbors, coworkers, and classmates.

“We see people who are so cheerful because they know they have made it to freedom,” says Cha. “And then we see people come in with faces so grim, because they don’t know where to begin.”

When Cha and the IRCO team work with clients, their job isn’t just to enable a successful integration. It’s also to manage expectations: that a doctor might not practice medicine again, or a lifelong farmer will need to work a factory job. This kind of generational thinking—starting anew and building a future for your children—is, to Cha, the true face of the American dream. He sees those faces every day, in his clients, and on the IRCO board, now comprising Portland professionals who are themselves children of refugees who settled here decades ago.

These days, IRCO focuses more and more on securing legal aid for families desperate to reunite with loved ones but caught in the crosshairs of fast-changing federal policy. The nonprofit has even set up a new hotline for hate crimes, as many of its clients are now too afraid to reach out to law enforcement. 

“Anyone passionate about children, or seniors, anybody who’s a teacher or a lawyer, it’s wide open,” says Cha, of the volunteers needed to help his clients. “The United States is a nation of immigrants. Today, they are the refugees. Tomorrow, their children are our doctors and lawyers.”

Editor’s Note: the print version of this story incorrectly stated the number of clients IRCO served in 2017. 

 

Do you know other nonprofits, organizations, or volunteers doing incredible work? Nominate them for our 2019 Light a Fire Awards—submissions are open now!

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