Before 2016, Sankar Raman, a Portlander and immigrant from India, wasn’t so big on politics. Then came the election of no. 45. Alarmed by the divisive “us vs. them” rhetoric espoused by the president and his supporters, and moved by the stories of fellow immigrants experiencing the real-life consequences of xenophobic policies and racially motivated attacks, Raman felt compelled to act: the Immigrant Story was born.
A community-based nonprofit, the Immigrant Story promotes empathy and cross-cultural understanding by sharing the stories of some of the area’s new (or not so new) arrivals from afar. Since 2017, Raman and his team of more than 30 volunteer writers, editors, photographers, and designers have published one short-form tale about a person each week on its website. In August, the nonprofit celebrated a milestone—the publication of its 100th piece. It’s a story about Naskah Zada, a Kurdish refugee who relocated to Portland in the ’90s, forged a career in media in Washington, DC, and ultimately returned to Portland, where she now produces her own Middle Eastern news, politics, and culture-focused YouTube series, The Zada Show.
The 99 narratives before Zada’s come from immigrants and refugees representing 47 countries and touch on feelings of home, belonging, trauma, resilience, love, ambition, and more. They feature everyday people as well as prominent locals, including Nong Poonsukwattana of cult Portland Thai eatery Nong’s Khao Man Gai, and Susheela Jayapal, Multnomah County’s India-born District 2 Commissioner.
“By lifting up individual immigrant stories, [the series] shows both how each story is different, and how all our stories share a universal desire for a better life,” says Jayapal. “That’s why people have always migrated and always will, [and why] I was honored to add my story to the broader picture that Sankar is painting.”
Vivid, arresting photo portraits illuminate each story and create a greater sense of connection between subject and audience.
“Readers tell us they often feel drained emotionally after reading [these stories]—but also hopeful, inspired, and reinvigorated by the reminder of what the United States still represents throughout many parts of the world,” says Matt George Moore, an Immigrant Story volunteer and former editor at the Oregonian. “Pick just about any story, and you’ll see bravery and genuine heroism displayed in abundance.”
The Immigrant Story also hosts themed live events to encourage public discussion about the immigrant experience. Who We Are, a story and photo exhibition highlighting six Muslim Portlanders who wear a hijab, for example, was organized in response to the fatal May 2017 MAX attack, a hate crime that stemmed from an assault on two young women of color, one of whom was wearing a hijab.
This fall, in conjunction with Beaverton’s “Welcoming Week” for immigrant communities, the Immigrant Story embarked on its first-ever live story-telling endeavor.
“[Audiences at our events] make it a point to wait and talk to us. They thank us for the work we do,” says Raman. “They almost always say that these stories touch them and connect them to the person in the story. This is exactly what we want to achieve.”
6 p.m., November 21, Oregon Convention Center