Sokhom Tauch Pays it Forward to Local Immigrant Communities
Sokhom Tauch is the Executive Director of the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization (IRCO), an agency that assists refugees, immigrants, and multi-ethnic communities to develop
self-sufficiency and cultural awareness while affirming and preserving each
culture within an ever-changing environment.
Before becoming executive director, he was IRCO’s fiscal manager for over 15 years. Under his leadership, IRCO has expanded its services in many areas including youth services, senior services, community development, folk arts, domestic violence services, citizenship, environmental justice, and volunteer programming. In 2001, Tauch worked with the IRCO staff and board to purchase its own building and community center for the Portland refugee and immigrant community.
Tauch has worked in refugee resettlement since coming to the United States. He has provided numerous fiscal management workshops to refugee self-help organizations in Oregon, Texas, and Florida.
Tauch is active in the Cambodian community both locally and nationally and helped the Oregon Cambodian community to find financing to build a traditional Buddhist temple. The temple, like those in Cambodia, has become the center for Oregon’s Cambodian community.
In his own words, he tells the story of his journey from Cambodia to his current leadership role.
I came as a refugee from Cambodia in 1975. At the time, there was no such organization like IRCO. Refugees like me have to do everything on our own, with the help of the assistance from our sponsor.
I left Cambodia on April 17, 1975. I served on the Cambodian Navy. I didn’t know much about politics at the time, and didn’t even want to escape. We took a ship out – a transport ship. It was too slow, we were afraid the Khmer Rouge will catch us. We happened to come across a bigger Cambodian ship and joined them. I thought we were just going to be away for a couple of days, and if things calm down, we’ll come back in. The Khmer Rouger sent a message that they’ll kill us all if we came back.
The Malaysian government wouldn’t let us in. They didn’t know of the situation in Cambodia. We stayed on the ship form April 17 to May 1. We finally communicated with the U.S. embassy in Kuala Lumpur. They sent a helicopter. After talking to our commander, they told us to go to Subic Bay.
On May 31, we were shipped to a military camp in Pennsylvania. We were prohibited from getting near the fence, because they were afraid that we will try to escape. After three months, I got a sponsor in Portland.
When I came to the Portland airport, I sat on the floor waiting for my sponsor. When my sponsor came, he brought with him a Vietnamese who can speak French. Because I too can speak French, we were able to communicate.
Life in Portland
I’m one of first Cambodians in Portland. I came to the IndoChina Center, which offered support for Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian refugees. I got my first job there.
Back then, Asians have a lot of problems looking for vegetables, because there are not as many grocery stores. I didn’t even know where Chinatown was. But if you wanted rice, you go to Chinatown.
When I finally figured out where Chinatown was, I took the bus. I bought a 25-pound sack of rice. The bus refused to board me. The driver was afraid that if I put the bag of rice down, it could create an accident. I carried that sack of rice on my shoulder, crossed the steel bridge, and came to I-84. I stuck with the bus route and followed the freeway. If I deviate, I will only get lost. I carried the sack of rice about 10 miles. To me, as a young man, it was nothing. I thought, we used to walk further than that in Cambodia.
I did all kinds of jobs: dishwasher, janitor, busboy. When Oregon Employment Services sent me to a busboy job, I misunderstood what it meant. I thought it was about working in a bus and collecting people’s fare. I was excited because I thought I was going to do a lot of sightseeing in Portland. But they sent me to a restaurant where I cleaned the tables. It was a lot of work, but it was a job.
I was very flexible about the jobs I had. I made the most out of every situation. That’s the way I still am now.
Working for the Community
In 1977, I started my first job at IRCO. They needed a Cambodian translator to do typing, immigration adjustment status, because the refugee status is temporary. Refugees have to apply for permanent status to stay in the U.S., and a lot of people have trouble understanding the process.
I had an education in bookkeeping from Northwestern College of Business. My former boss asked me if I wanted to be a bookkeeper.
After all these years, I’m still doing the same job.
|Sokhom Tauch with instructors and students at an English language class offered at IRCO. The agency empowers refugee communities, families, and individuals so they can become
self-sufficient and contributing members of U.S. society. Photos on this page by Maileen Hamto
Back then, we only had eight people working at IRCO. If something needs to be done, one of us has to do it. We didn’t care about job titles, we just wanted to get the job done. Our work was about the community, not about one’s self.
Community is my big thing. IRCO started out serving refugees from southeast Asia, but it has evolved to help a lot of different communities. We serve different ethnic groups, languages, cultures – we all work together here. We are trying to build one immigrant and refugee community. It doesn’t matter where you come from. Each one is encouraged to preserve traditions, if we come together, we’ll be a bigger voice.
Many newcomers are difficult to work with. They don’t speak language, or come from cultures with no written language. I remember when we placed a group of women to work in a hotel. That afternoon, the owner of the hotel called to tell us they didn’t have any clean rooms. The women couldn’t read the numbers, so didn’t clean the right rooms.
We established a literacy class to work with people and teach them how to read and write in English. When I first came here, everytime I went on the bus, I had to save my address in my shirt pocket. I didn’t know where to stop, or how to stop the bus.
Now, we have mass transit training with TriMet. Have a bus that drives new arrivals around town: show them how to put the money, how to stop the bus.
A New Start for IRCO
When I took on the leadership role at IRCO, we had operated at a loss for four years in a row. We were losing about $60,000 to $100,000 per year. Right away, I knew that my first job was to find the hole in the pot – why are we losing money? We were able to stop all the leaks, and turned the agency around financially in about a year.
Financial control is critical. If there’s a problem with programs, it takes a few years for an organization to get in trouble. But money problems take only months to bring an organization down. People won’t trust you if you mishandle money. If people don’t trust you, you can’t establish relationships. It would be hard to raise money and get grants. You can’t have services unless you have donors.
By 1999, we started a capital campaign to buy a building. We felt that it was the best move into the right direction. Just like a family that owns a house, you and your children become stable in a neighborhood. It was the same for IRCO. Because we have a building for our services, people now view us as a more stable organization. There’s more accountability.
We started fund-raising. Former clients who now have jobs donated $5 to $10. They worked for minimum wage, and that’s the best way they can give back.
The different community groups also helped: the Hmongs, Laotians, and Vietnamese communities. Our staff began working the concession stands at the Rose Quarter. As a nonprofit, our staff volunteered to serve hotdogs at events, usually after work. We raised money that way.
We took all that we raised and approached the Meyer Trust. We showed them that the community wants to buy the building for IRCO. They gave us $400,000 in grant money. Smaller foundations soon followed and we raised more money.
We were able to raise $2 million – a good-enough downpayment for our new home.
We moved here in 2001, a few weeks before 9/11. The community didn’t understand who we were. People complained about parking and driving. We didn’t look like the mainstream, so at first, they saw that as a negative to the community.
We went to community groups to raise awareness about IRCO. We wanted for people to understand that we are good people, that we help the community. After they got to know us, they became more accepting.
I used to be a Buddhist monk before I was in the military. Being a Buddhist monk is a Cambodian tradition for young men. We learn how to be a good man, to know right from wrong, to truly care for other people.
I practice servant leadership. Characteristically, I don’t order people to do something. It’s a little contradictory to Western management style. I believe that if you do the work, then you inspire others to join you.
Our people are our biggest asset here at IRCO. We don’t have enough money to pay our staff for all the work they do. They volunteer their time to work extra hours, to go the extra mile. They truly respect and believe in what we do for the community.
Our staff have strong relationships within their own communities. They come to work during the day, and in the evening they go back and serve their community.
I can’t get away from the community. At my age, I should be looking for place to retire, but now I have a new idea: low-income housing for seniors.
New immigrants that come as seniors don’t speak the language. They can’t even understand what’s on TV. They end up babysitting their grandchildren, and they get bored. Our senior program brings them here twice a week to have lunch, exercise, and attend workshops on Medicare, nutrition, and how to take care of themselves.
We have dances here too. Asian, African, Russian seniors dance together with one music. You feel differently when you see them all dance together, enjoying themselves.
We want to look at low-income housing for seniors. We’ll do research about how to connect services to housing.