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Group Seeks to Provide Support for Iraqi Immigrants, Refugees

Baher Butti is founder of the Iraqi Society of Oregon, a community organization that seeks to provide services and support for Iraqi refugees and immigrants. Working as a counselor for the OHSU Intercultural Psychiatric Program, Butti became acquainted with the challenges faced by newcomers to Oregon. In his own words, he talks about the opportunities and challenges facing the fledgling organization.

Baher Butti

It was good luck that brought me to the United States, and to Oregon in particular. After I fled from Iraq in 2006, I was exiled in Jordan, not knowing what will happen to me. I worked as a psychiatrist back in Iraq. Dr. David Kinzie, professor of psychiatry at OHSU, invited me to a world conference to speak about the psychological consequences of the war in Iraq. He invited me to the United States to make the same presentation at OHSU. When he learned about my situation, and that I was seeking refugee status. Dr. Kinzie helped me to gain asylum here in the United States.

After 2003, Iraq entered a new era, when the country needed to know what the world looked like. I feel that I am lucky that I came to Oregon, which seems to be made up of the most accepting and tolerant people. I started working in the Intercultural Psychiatry Clinic at OHSU, serving immigrants and refugees in Oregon. Most of the people we serve have suffered psychological trauma from wars in their native countries. I started the Arabic clinic, which was developed in preparation for the arrival of Iraqi refugees.

Listen> Genesis of the Iraqi Society of Oregon

Listen> Challenges faced by refugees and immigrants

Linking my own situation as a refugee, my profession as a psychiatrist, and my interest in the experience of acculturation led me to develop the idea for the Iraqi Society of Oregon. We now have 11 board members who come from all professional, educational and religious backgrounds. We’re multicultural: Iraqis in Oregon come from the Arab, Kurdish and native Mesopotamian ethnic backgrounds.

Through outreach activities, I found that the local Iraqi community lives in isolation. Most of these community members arrived in Oregon during the 1990s, after the first Gulf War. Many of the families live in the Tigard and Beaverton areas. There is a church for Christian Iraqis and a mosque for Muslims.

I started efforts to start organizing a community group, now called the Iraqi Society of Oregon. There are about 5,000 Iraqis, and the population is growing because of new refugees who are coming to the country.

It’s true that the dominant culture has not been oriented toward meeting the needs of refugees and immigrants. As more new people come to Portland, the city is making an effort to become more sensitive to the needs of new Portlanders. There is an honest desire from the larger community to reach out to new communities, especially refugees and immigrants. As newcomers to Oregon, we also must make the effort to bridge the communication gaps and build mutual understanding with the larger society.

The local Iraqi community is definitely a population that needs all kinds of social services. Some of them have a lot of difficulty learning English. Some are still suffering from psychological trauma. Language and cultural barriers contribute to the community’s isolation.

There are different phases of loss that a refugee goes through in the process. Leaving the country is traumatic, then there’s the trauma of going somewhere and dealing with uncertainty while waiting for asylum in another country. Finally, coming to a new environment, the refugee suffers cultural shock. All these traumas take place, and in many cases, they are not dealt with properly.

Families need all kinds of programs to help integrate them into the larger American community, and bridging cultural gaps between the two communities. At the same time, we’d like to preserve the values of our own culture, while also working to integrate into the wider American culture. Obviously, this requires a delicate balancing act so that one is not isolated within his own culture, while making sure that one does not “float” without any culture, or perhaps lose ties with one’s own culture altogether. These scenarios are all traumatic in their own way, and will likely create generational conflicts in the community.

Since we are living in an increasingly globalized world, each culture is learning from every other culture in our world. It’s common for Westerners to look to the East for spiritual inspiration. Westerners are also looking at family bonds and social patterns of people from the East, in an effort to examine their own social bonds. Typically, as Easterners, we have family systems that have worked well to build strong communities. We need to preserve that, and modernize it at the same time.

We’re a brand new organization, so we’re still in the planning stages of programs we’d like to offer. We have a lot conceptual work ahead of us. We want to offer life skills and social supports, and help children succeed in schools. We’d also like to build capacity to provide mental and physical health services. The community also needs economic and financial empowerment. Eventually, we’d like to be able to provide resources and help for people to learn how to start their own businesses.

Colors of Influence Fall 2008

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