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The Oregonian: Documentary sheds light on Oregon immigrant and refugee experience
Author: Andrea Castillo
Posted: January 28, 2013

Read the original story in The Oregonian here.

Nickson Khamasi never knew he had an accent until he arrived in the United States.

The 34-year-old who moved to Aloha from Kenya said that his accent -- a softer version of British English stemming from the colonization -- turned out to be a big barrier.

And Khamasi said his challenges don't stop there.

He was one of 20 people interviewed by Melanie Blesio, a Portland State University conflict resolution graduate student, for her documentary, "The Unheard Voices of our Neighbors."

She produced the film, which touches on different facets of the immigrant experience, as part of her volunteer internship with the Center for Intercultural Organizing, a Portland-based immigrant and refugee rights organization. It premiered last month at the Hollywood Theatre in Northeast Portland and future screenings are in the works.

Blesio interviewed Oregon refugees and immigrants from 15 countries. Some told her about their lives being threatened by war and the consequent struggle to assimilate in the U.S. Some broke down crying.

"When you hear a story like, that you become more connected and in tune because you can hear the human side of it rather than just hearing numbers," she said. "We're talking about immigration policy so often in the government, but you can't really form a law unless you really understand what it is like for people."

Like other immigrants, Khamasi said getting a job in the U.S. was difficult. Even though he coordinated a large nonprofit in Kenya, he said that experience didn't count and many employers wouldn't hire him.

Having now been here for six years, Khamasi has settled down and runs his own cleaning business. But he said some challenges remain and might never go away.

Courtesy of Nickson Khamasi   Khamasi said people continually ask him things like whether he's glad to have escaped poverty and if he used to live with monkeys.

"It feels so offensive," he said. "Some people are not informed but base their information on stories they hear. People here know about war in Africa but not all countries or towns are at war. Not every person in Africa is poor."

Blesio said the 75-minute film is meant as an educational tool to explain the similarities and differences between different immigrants' experiences. It is segmented into themes: Why the immigrant or refugee left, challenges when they arrived, what Americans should know and how to form policies that will change the status quo.

She said she hopes it will distill some prejudices and empower those trying to reach the American dream.

"It might surprise people a lot because some have that feeling that immigrants are living off of our tax dollars," she said. "It changes the way you look at things."

Karla Hernandez, CIO's Washington County organizer, was also featured in the film because of her journey at age 9 from Guatemala to the U.S.

She said the documentary was an eye-opener for many people because it painted a bigger picture of immigration than many had been exposed to. It also gave people an opportunity to understand who their neighbors are without having to knock on their doors, she said.

Hernandez said the film's positive response at last month's premier prompted CIO employees to think about how they can reach a wider audience. Future screening dates have not yet been set up, but CIO is working on a discussion curriculum to use the film as an educational tool for local organizations, businesses and schools.