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Girls just want to have freedom

A soccer clinic sponsored by Nike for 69 female refugee clients of east Portland's Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization was held last month at Knott Park


Young Karenni refugees from Burma (Myanmar) were part of IRCO's soccer clinic for refugee girls held last month at Knott Park. Most of the girls pictured were born in one of the nine refugee camps along the Thai/Burma border where 160,000 ethnic Karen refugees remain. Never allowed to leave the camps, their first taste of freedom came when they arrived in America with their families. The conflict between the Myanmar government, the Karen and other ethnic groups is the longest-running civil war in the world. As recently as February 2010, reports state the Burmese army continues to burn Karen villages, displacing thousands of people.
During the lunch break at IRCO's soccer clinic for refugee girls held last month, from left, fourteen-year-old Saraswoti Wagley, fifteen-year-old Purna Adhikari, IRCO employee and translator Rekha Koirana, eighteen-year-old Januka Dhongel and fifteen-year-old Kalpana Wagley, take time to be interviewed and pose for pictures. The Wagleys are cousins. Saraswoti and Januka attend Centennial High School; Purna and Kalpana attend David Douglas High School.
A series of round robin games were part of the day-long clinic funded through a grant from Nike. Refugee girls from Somalia, Bhutan, Burma and Iraq participated.
Wars create refugees. As long as there are wars, there will be refugees. Unlike immigrants - legal and not -refugees have no choice but to flee their homes and country if they want to live, ending up in crowded, unsanitary, unsafe, primitive refugee camps. America is no stranger to this issue. Our hegemonic wars in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Iraq have created millions.

Refugees come in all ages, and from many countries, but, according to estimates, between 75 and 80 percent are women and children.

Dependent on the kindness of international aid for sustenance and relief, refugees can languish for years, even decades before they are repatriated - in rare instances - or they can win a lottery to immigrate to one of a few western or South American countries that will take them.

The choice: remain in the overcrowded refugee camp - living in a bamboo hut with no electricity, where one mistake with fire renders thousands of people homeless and dead - or immigrate to a country where you do not speak the language well, have no relatives, no guarantee of employment and will receive eight months of government assistance only. What would you do? The families of 69 pre-pubescent and teenage girls, ranging in ages from 11 to 18 - at one time or another clients of east Portland's Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization, who got treated to an all day soccer clinic at Knott Park in the Parkrose Heights neighborhood last month - chose freedom and immigrated to Oregon.

The girls, from Bhutan, Burma (Myanmar), Somalia, and Iraq, received coaching from Nike employees - who volunteered their time - played a round robin of soccer games against each other, and received free soccer gear and lunch, all thanks to a generous grant from Nike. Some of the girls have been here a few months, some a few years.

“Girls around the world are not particularly encouraged to do sports. So we decided to take Nike's donation and create a soccer clinic,” said Margaret Ormsbee, IRCO Community and Donor Relations. “We used only half the funds. If this goes well, we're hoping to do another one in six months. Soccer being a global sport, it was a natural fit.”

“Some of them grew up watching their brothers play and weren't allowed to (because of religious customs),” Ormsbee said. “Now, we're in the US and girls can play. There's also the health component. When refugees come to America, they're exposed to cheap, high fatty foods, and they've been in a refugee camp their entire life; yet the women aren't encouraged to exercise.”

There are over 300 Bhutanese refugees in Oregon, with hundreds more on the way. Through a translator, 15-year-old Bhutanese refugee, Kalpana Wagley said the most impressive thing to her about Oregon is how green it is when compared to the brown surroundings of her life in the refugee camp in Nepal where she was born. Because the food she and her family received in the camp was strictly rationed - many in the camps are malnourished - she likes the choices and amount of food available here. They did play soccer in the refugee camps after school and were pleasantly surprised to learn it is okay for girls to play soccer in America. Even though the girls can speak halting English, IRCO's Rekha Koirana, their 25-year-old college educated translator, employed to work with these young Bhutanese immigrants to make their assimilation to American society smoother, and who is a refugee herself, said her girls learned the rudiments of English in the camps, which helps a lot. “It means everything to the girls to be here (in America). To me, too,” Koirana said.

There are roughly 110,000 Bhutanese refugees living in seven refugee camps in Nepal. There are 30,000 Bhutanese refugees in the United States - a number expected to reach 60,000 in the coming years. Another 40,000 will resettle in Canada and European countries.

Should the United States take in political refugees at a time when Americans themselves are struggling to attain the American dream? If living up to America ideals and fealty to freedom over tyranny are real - not some rich, white, well-fed American gasbagging, repeating xenophobic talking points over what they think freedom is during an election cycle - then yes.

Less than 1 percent of the entire world's political refugees end up resettling in the United States.

Since 1975, America has resettled over a million Vietnamese, Lao and Mien refugees in every state. However, unlike the Southeast Asian refugees in the '70s and '80s who received 36 months of government assistance, refugees today receive eight months of assistance before they are on their own.

IRCO itself had its beginnings with the influx of Southeast Asians to our community.

The United States accepts a set number every year. The President, in consultation with Congress, determines the number and from which countries.

Even though these girls have to learn a new language and customs, statistics show children of refugees do well over the long term, most becoming naturalized citizens, with many graduating from college. They are hard workers, pay taxes, raise families, and generally are productive members of society.
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