On the heels of an especially difficult year marked by both the COVID-19 pandemic and the demonization of immigrants that has been tied to an increase in violence against them, the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners marked the Immigrant Heritage Month at their Thursday, June 24 board meeting. The proclamation was the first time the observance has been celebrated at the County. Commissioner Susheela Jayapal, who sponsored the proclamation, introduced it by recounting her story of coming to the United States.
“Forty-two years ago my parents sent me, their 16-year-old daughter, to the United States to go to college. They did so because they believed an American education would unlock a better future for me. And they did so knowing that I likely would stay here, that I would never come back to live permanently near them,” she said.
Commissioner Jayapal’s parents still live in India and have never had any interest in moving to the United States.
She acknowledged the advantages in her immigrant journey, including arriving in the United States by choice and already speaking English.
“Every immigrant journey is different,” she said. “Other immigrants arrive fleeing war, political or other violence, or extreme economic hardship.”
Jayapal said that as her parents enter the “twilight of their lives,” it is important for her to recognize the sacrifice they made to send her to the United States.
“These journeys have been going on for millennia. Immigration isn’t recent or strange or aberrational. People have always migrated, they always will, and that should be not just accepted but embraced as part of a natural cycle that makes us all stronger,” she said.
One of several speakers who accompanied Commissioner Jayapal at the board meeting, Nishimwe shared a three-part poem illustrating the nuances of coming to the United States as an immigrant and navigating life in a new country. [Watch Nishimwe perform her poem.]
Both Commissioner Jayapal and Nishimwe’s poem underscored shared themes found across all immigrant stories, including sacrifice and an “aspiration of leading a new life in this country — one that incorporates the best of the old and of the new.”
Calling it powerful, honest and authentic, Commissioner Jayapal thanked Nishimwe for her poetry.
“As immigrants we’re bridges between one culture and another, and that’s both a burden and a privilege that we carry, so thank you for bringing that out… and for being here and sharing that with us,” she said.
Other speakers included Sankar Raman, an Indian immigrant. Raman recalled the 2017 shooting in Olathe, Kansas, where two young Indian engineers were shot in a bar after being called “terrorist” and being told to “get out of my country.” One of the victims died from his injuries.
Raman said that as the news unfolded, he remembered the time he was assaulted by a man who also told him to get out of his country.
“I could have been dead that night,” he said. “At that moment, I needed to do something, anything. I couldn’t just sit idly by and watch it all happen.” [Watch Raman recall his story.]
Raman created his organization, The Immigrant Story, shortly after to share stories of immigrants and refugees in public spaces to bring the community together and generate conversations on the importance of diversity. He thanked the board for hosting his and others’ stories, an action he said contributes to changing the narrative of our country.
“It is even more important today that we welcome everyone, that we celebrate the cultural uniqueness of all the residents, no matter what part of the globe they come from and what their status is,” he said.
Joe Kye remembered moments of “pure joy” after he emigrated from South Korea at the age of six with his family, including “dancing in the living room of our apartment, cranking up the volume on our tiny boombox and bouncing in unison to Stevie Wonder’s ‘Isn’t She Lovely,’ which is still my mother’s favorite song.”
But Kye also acknowledged the tremendous struggles and discrimination that his parents faced in the United States as immigrants. He recalled their apology to him before he left for college for being unable to support him the way they would have liked.
“I didn’t accept their apology then, and I don’t now, because it wasn’t my parents who failed me. It was this country and its unwillingness to see my parents for anything other more than perpetual foreigners; its unwillingness to recognize our full humanity and belonging; its unwillingness to pay fair wages to its hardest working group; and it’s eagerness, as we’ve witnessed in the past year, to pin its problems on those that live on the margins of society,” Kye said.
Before the proclamation Kye performed “Happy Song,” a piece he wrote about “growing up the son of immigrants and searching for joy amidst suffering, and finding it.” [Watch Kye perform “Happy Song.”]
Commissioner Lori Stegmann thanked each presenter for sharing their powerful stories. She also recounted her own experience of growing up in the United States after being adopted from South Korea at the age of six months, as well as the challenges she experienced trying to fit in with the dominant culture without losing her Korean identity.
“When I was growing up ... I did not feel welcome in this country,” she said. “As an older adult, I’ve really tried to rekindle the knowledge of my culture and to be proud of it, and I can’t always say I felt that way in my youth.”
Thursday’s Immigrant Heritage Month proclamation recognized immigrant stories and celebrated the “immense economic, social, and cultural contributions” of immigrants in Multnomah County and all over the country. It also reaffirmed the County’s commitment to ensuring immigrant communities are safe, supported and can thrive.
“Today is an example of why representation matters. The fact that we have an all female Board of County commissioners, majority minority with two women who identify as immigrants really says it all,” Chair Deborah Kafoury added. “It shows our commitment to hearing and listening to the voices of all of our communities, and that especially includes those who identify as immigrants.”
“Someone recently asked me what it means to be an immigrant,” Commissioner Jayapal said before Raman read the proclamation.
“It means a lot of things, but most fundamentally it means being firmly rooted in my identity as Indian and firmly rooted in my identity as American. It means bringing the best of both identities and experiences together into a stronger, more resilient whole. That’s what each of us do individually and that’s what immigrants collectively do for our Country.”