Next week brings Portlanders an opportunity to help student refugees and devour a world of delicious dishes, as the nation-spanning nonprofit Refugee Center Online hosts its inaugural PDX Global Eats dinner on Thursday, April 26. The event, held at the Lagunitas Community Room, features small plates from chefs originally from some of the most affected regions—Iraq to Somalia—plus talks from refugees resettled in Portland.
“We wanted to do an event that would be fun but that would also highlight the ways refugees make our community better,” explains Jessica Marks, the co-president of the Rose City-headquartered nonprofit, which connects refugees to resources like education, jobs, and health care. “Portland is such a food town that it seemed like a natural way to highlight how immigrant and refugee chefs in our community really contribute to our food scene.”
Since 1975, more than 65,000 refugees have resettled locally, according to the Oregon Department of Human Services. PDX Global Eats chefs represent a range of countries with a prix fixe menu that includes Somali sambusa (Alleamin Catering), Tibetan momos (Himalayan Dumplings), dolmas from Iraqi outfit Dar Salam, and tasty Cuban pastries from Que Bola?
Every dish contains a story. Chef Tenzin Yeshi-Men, who goes by “Kyikyi” (which means “happiness” in Tibetan), plans to make three varieties of Himalayan dumplings, also known as momos: beef and chive, curried potato, and veggie mix—plus spicy cilantro and roasted chile dipping sauces. “Sharing my cultural food is bigger than me. It represents my identity and my roots, and the trials and tribulations my parents went through as Tibetan refugees,” she says. “I’m like an ambassador. I want to make sure I represent my culture as best as I can through my food.”
Two summers ago, Kyikyi started selling momos from a 10-foot-by-10-foot pop-up tent at the Portland, Beaverton, and Jade District night markets, and for the first time this summer, she’ll be at the Hillsboro Tuesday night markets. She learned the time-intensive art of making momos as a child growing up in the Himalayas before she moved to the United States in 1999. Now she’s teaching her own children. She hopes every introduction to momos is a chance to tell people about her homeland, now in its seventh decade of Chinese occupation. “Tibet is still the second country after Syria as far as human rights abuses go and it’s rarely in the media," she says. "It’s my way of food activism in a very gentle way. It’s my way of giving back to both my new community and the country I’ve left behind. I hope this emotion, this rawness never leaves because it’s what keeps me motivated in making sure I never forget the people are still stuck in Tibet and don’t enjoy the same freedoms as I do.”
Organizers hope other connections will be forged at PDX Global Eats. While sampling global cuisine, diners will learn how their dollars will support RCO’s Educating Refugee & Immigrant Students program, which trains teachers across Oregon how to best work with refugee students who may have interrupted education, no formal classroom experience, or little to no English language skills. RCO focuses on rural towns, which are often homogenous communities without much access to funding, resources, and other nonprofits. Last year, RCO trained more than 300 teachers in Ontario, an Eastern Oregon city with 11,000 residents and a rapidly expanding refugee population. More than 30 languages are currently spoken in Ontario schools.
Portlanders also benefit. David Douglas counselor Hannah Snyder will describe her RCO training experience, and two refugee high school seniors, Felix Songolo and Abel Getachew, will share their stories.
Getachew didn’t speak any English when he came here as a 12-year-old from Ethiopia. Forty-minute ESL classes were not enough and his teachers didn’t know how to help him. He considered dropping out, but his mom encouraged him to continue. Now, six years later, Getachew has earned a full-ride scholarship to Georgetown University and plans to study biochemistry on his path to becoming a medical doctor for people who can’t afford medical care. He has also worked with RCO to create a college prep workshop. “I’m sure there are a lot of immigrants and refugee students who have dreams and goals but they don’t have the right resources to succeed,” says Getachew. “And RCO is doing a really good job of teaching the teachers so that they can connect themselves with the students and provide them access to higher education.”
Marks contends that the need for advocacy and support is even greater now than when she cofounded RCO in 2013. “When the Muslim ban happened, a lot of local agencies received a very kind outpouring of support, but because there’s so much going on in the current administration, it’s easy for that kind of support to dwindle back down,” she says. “There has been a drastic impact on the resettlement system and resettlement agencies, including the local agencies in our community, so to show support for refugees at this time is really important.”
But Marks prefers people focus on the positive. “I hope that [diners] have fun, that they enjoy some really good food, and that they are reminded that refugees really bring a lot to our community," she says. When you meet people, when you hear stories, it motivates people to act and to advocate.”
6 p.m. Thu, Apr 26, Lagunitas Community Room, $30