Two worlds from Ukraine & Somali living together under one roof in East Portland

Children from Lincoln Woods play their regular game of soccer. Photo by Jennifer Jansons

By Amanda Waldroupe, Staff Writer

The sun is beginning to set on a recent Tuesday evening at the fields behind outer east Portland’s Lincoln Elementary School, and upwards of 40 young boys are playing soccer. It’s hard to count or keep track of them — they are running too fast, following a white orb of a soccer ball that moves blurrily from one side of the field to the other.

Approximately half the kids are Russian or Ukrainian; the other half are of Somali descent. Viktor Bereznay is their coach. He is tall and athletically built with close cropped dark hair, and wears sports clothes and a whistle around his neck.

He occasionally joins in the game, but mostly observes and encourages the kids, shouting “nice try” and “let’s go,” and instructing one team to “come back” to their side of the field to play defense. When a score is made, Bereznay blows the whistle and calls out the score.

For nearly two hours, they play. As the evening wears on, a group of younger Somali boys breaks off from the game and plays nearby. Soon, there is shouting.

“Hey!” Bereznay shouts. “What are you doing over there? You’re supposed to be playing soccer.”

He jogs over to the boys. “He started it,” one boys tells him.

“What did he say?” Bereznay asks.

“He said something in Somali,” the boy says. “We’re going to fight.”

“No!” Bereznay says. “No fighting.”

The boys return to the game, but they soon splinter off again. Bereznay urges them to come back again. “No more fighting anymore,” he says. “No pointing fingers. No nothing.” He waves his arms through the air as he speaks, as if to swat away any notion of fighting.

Bereznay has been teaching the boys to play soccer for the last month. “You should have seen them at the beginning,” he says. “Now they are angels.”

“The whole point of doing this,” Bereznay says, “is to bring them together and to create community.”

Around 7 p.m., Bereznay tells them it is time to go home. Soccer balls are packed, and the gaggle slowly makes its way back to their homes at Lincoln Woods, an apartment complex a few blocks away from Lincoln Elementary School, if you take the unpaved dirt road and maneuver through a broken chain link fence.

Lincoln Woods is a 74-unit apartment complex for low-income residents operated by the social-service agency Human Solutions. Some units are Section 8, but many are affordable for people living between 30 percent and 50 percent of the median family income.

Through the random crapshoot of apartment applications, approximately half of Lincoln Woods’ residents are Somali immigrants. The other half are immigrants from Russia and Ukraine.

All of them are refugees, coming to Portland from refugee camps, war-torn regions, and other circumstances of strife and suffering. Many residents are simply grateful to finally be living in peace.

Yet they came to Portland unprepared to live independently, and remain so. “They really need help,” Bereznay says of the residents.

Their English, if not broken, is non-existent. The barrier of not knowing English presents problems — some serious, some mundane — for how the Russian and Somali communities live as one Lincoln Woods.

“Those two groups are totally different,” Bereznay says. “From the very beginning, they had a lot issues and problems — culture issues, religious differences.”

Bereznay — who’s official title is Russian Speaking Resident Service Specialist — and his Somali-speaking counterpart, Amal Ahmed, are the glue holding the two communities together, and serve as the resident’s link to the rest of the world. Lifetimes of conflict, vastly different cultures and the language barriers have alienated and isolated these residents from each other. Ahmed and Bereznay are working to bring them closer together.

Ahmed and Bereznay share a small, quiet office in Lincoln Woods’ administrative offices. A bookcase separates them, and they face in opposite directions. They work in silence for the most part, until there is a knock on the door.

Faduhma Aden, 39, a Somali woman, walks in. She is wearing a brightly colored burqa. She sits next to Ahmed’s desk, and gives Ahmed a small stack of papers. Ahmed examines them, and they speak together in Somali.

It is a bill from Best Buy, and Aden wants Ahmed to write the check. “I can’t write the check myself,” Aden says.

(Ahmed and Bereznay interpreted for Street Roots for all the interviews with Lincoln Woods’ residents in this story).

Writing checks is one the most common requests Ahmed gets from her Somali residents. Aden says she went to school for only six years as a child in Somalia. Her English is broken, even though she is taking English as a Second Language (ESL) classes.

Illiteracy is common among Somalis, says Portland State University Senior Instructor of Social Work Sam Gioia. “There was no need for it in a farming culture,” he says. “They are an oral culture.”

The Somali refugees at Lincoln Woods are victims of the 1991 Somali Civil War which overthrew an authoritarian president. No central authority replaced the overthrown government, and the result was clan warfare. “The country descended into utter chaos,” Gioia says.

The Somalis who became refugees as a result of the civil war fled to refugee camps, mainly in the bordering countries of Egypt or Kenya, and lived there for as long as 10 to 15 years. “It is traumatic,” Ahmed says.

“You had to run for your life,” Aden remembers.

Aden fled Somalia in 2000, lived in Egypt for six years, and came to Portland in March 2006. Sulehka Abdi, 28, who will also use Ahmed’s help throughout the day, fled Somalia and lived in two Kenyan refugee camps before immigrating to the United States in 2004, and to Lincoln Woods in 2007 with her husband and five children.

Many of the Somali refugees living at Lincoln Woods lived comfortably before the civil war, working as farmers, teachers, and at skilled trades. Now they are housekeepers, janitors, or taxi cab drivers. “There’s a huge amount of lost potential with all of the Somalis,” Gioia says.

Ahmed says some of them resent it, but others accept their new lives. “It is so much better than a refugee camp,” Ahmed says.

In Somalia, Aden owned a coffee shop. Here, she worked as a housekeeper or hotel janitor, but she was laid off last November. When speaking about her new line of work, Aden says she simply has to “accept here, what it is.”

“You learn to accept the worst,” when living in the midst of a violent civil war and becoming a refugee, she says. “Why not accept what is OK?”

Another effect of being a refugee for so-long, Gioia says, is becoming “utterly dependent” on other people and service organizations. In many ways, that dynamic plays itself out in Ahmed’s interactions with the immigrants and the seemingly endless stream of requests she receives for assistance with forms, referrals, applications and assistance, and whatever else the residents need to live secure, peaceful, and happy lives.

There are now six children and three Somali adults in Ahmed and Berenazy’s office. Children run around and play with various objects, and the sounds of women speaking in Somali, a lyrical sounding language, fills the once quiet office. There is an order to the chaos, and in many ways it illustrates the roadmap immigrants and refugees have to navigate when they arrive in Portland.

Ahmed comes over to Berenazy’s side of the room to help figure out Abdi’s predicament. They explain that it is for her husband’s sister`, who appears to be covered by Abdi’s insurance. Ahmed speaks to Abdi briefly in Somali. “Ask your husband if he signed something,” Ahmed tells Abdi. She leaves, and Ahmed returns to finishing the woman’s Section 8 application.

Ahmed comes out of the office and into a foyer with couch, chairs, and table during a brief break. But Aden comes back in, wanting Ahmed’s help to find an ESL class. The program Aden is currently enrolled in is ending. She also wants help with an application for a Section 8 voucher that would allow her to move. But Abdi has come back with a letter from the Department of Human Services stating that her reapplication for food stamps was incomplete, meaning that she might not receive food stamps next month.

Ahmed calls the Department of Human Services to make an appointment for Abdi. “Hi, I’m Amal Ahmed from Lincoln Woods,” begins her usual script. “I’m calling for Sulehka Abdi, and she received a letter saying her benefits will be suspended, and wants to make an appointment. You can give her a translator. She speaks Somali.”

Ahmed hands the phone to Abdi, and focuses back on Aden’s housing application. Abdi gives the phone back to Ahmed, who finishes the conversation and hangs up. Ahmed and Abdi quickly debrief, and Abdi leaves.

Ahmed checks Aden’s application for any missing information or mistakes, and fills out a couple more spots. She leaves, and in comes another woman who Ahmed helps enroll the child in after-school homework classes.

“Today is a busy day,” Ahmed says, laughing.

The Somalis main struggle at Lincoln Woods is simply dealing with the ins and outs of living in Portland, and finding ways to live, eventually, independently. And though many of them would like to know their Russian-speaking neighbors more, it is not a priority. “We are OK with each other,” Aden says. It doesn’t frustrate me or effect me in many ways.”

The most important part, Aden says, is living peacefully. “This is a normal life,” she says. “There is no war. I can sleep in peace and wake up in peace in the morning.”

Lincoln Woods’ Somali immigrants escaped to Portland from a war. The Russian and Ukrarian immigrants living at Lincoln Woods escaped from a more subtle misery: persecution and oppression related to their religion and ethnicity.

Rafeal and Zoya Arakelyan, refugees from Russia now living at Lincoln Woods

Portland has a large Russian immigrant population. According to the Russian Oregon Social Services, a branch of Lutheran Community Services, more than 100,000 Russian immigrants live in the Portland area, and Russian immigrants are the second largest group of immigrants in Oregon, next to Latino and Hispanic immigrants.

Bereznay says growing up in Communist regimes has had far reaching effects on the Russian-speaking immigrants at Lincoln Woods and how they approach life in Portland. Bereznay describes the Russian-speaking community at Lincoln Woods as “kind of closed.”

“It’s difficult for them to trust somebody because of the corruption in Russia and Ukraine,” he says.

Bereznay says many of the Russian-speaking residents at Lincoln Wood were poor in their homeland, and came to Portland with little or no financial security. Survival and income become a priority over taking considerable time to learn English or go to school.

“They are trying to get everything really quick,” Bereznay says.

They instead settle for work as truck or cab drivers, in construction, or in auto body shops, feeling that they still make “good money.” Bereznay says that he and Ahmed are encouraging the resident’s children to perform well in school and instilling the idea that going to college is a good thing.

Acclimating to American culture for the Russian-speaking adults is slow. Bereznay says language is the biggest problem. “Everything depends on your ability to communicate,” he says.

The children do not struggle with language because they go to school and have English-speaking friends. It is more difficult for adults to learn a second language, and Bereznay also says that the adults struggle to learn English because they are concerned about retaining their Russian culture.

“The kids assimilate much faster,” Bereznay says.

Life at Lincoln Woods, says Boris Gordiyenko, 43, would be easier if the adults spoke English as well as their children. Gordiyenko will have lived in Lincoln Woods for two years this October, with his wife and four children. What he appreciates most about living at Lincoln Woods is its affordability. He likes living with fellow Russian-speakers, but says it doesn’t help his English improve. “This really affects my life and the other adults,” he says. If there is a problem when Ahmed or Bereznay aren’t there, he says, they have to wait to sort things out. “We don’t have any other choice,” he says.

“We are trying to solve those problems peacefully,” Bereznay says.

Zoya Arakelyan, 52, has lived at Lincoln Woods for almost four years with her husband, Rafael. They were refugees for 15 years in Moscow as a result of ethnic tension in the bordering country Azerbaijan.

For the first time in many years, they feel safe, Zoya Arakelyan says.  They, like the other residents at Lincoln Woods, do not mind living with a culture and people as different as the Somalis. Zoya Arakelyan’s feelings about it are mostly ambivalent.

She says she and her husband always say “hi” to anyone they pass by, but that is the extent of their interactions.

The Somali immigrants celebrated Ramadan in September. The Islamic holy days of fasting is the most important religious rite Muslims celebrate all year. Fasting during the day and cooking, eating, and celebrating only at night — the noise would keep the Arakelyans up sometimes until one in the morning. But they were not annoyed, and it was because their upstairs Somali neighbors explained to them as best they could that they would be louder than usual at night.

A few years ago, Ahmed says, that interaction would have been unheard of.

“We’re trying to get them to interact with each other,” Ahmed says. Ahmed says that Muslims are required by their religion to know their neighbor, and to at least be respectful. Ahmed and Bereznay are planning to start potluck dinners in the coming months, and hope they can start an onsite ESL class so the adults can learn English. A twice-weekly homework club that children of both immigrant groups use is starting again in early October. Ahmed and Bereznay hope that through the various events, like weekly soccer matches, can break down the tendency to distrust and be closed off from other people, and to create a culture of living together in a new community.

6 responses to “Two worlds from Ukraine & Somali living together under one roof in East Portland

  1. Thank you for this article, I personally moved here from Ukraine and live in Vancouver for 20 years and I have seen how our community has changed and grew in large numbers. It is a great to read this and see how 2 communities are trying to grow and change together.

  2. ya these apartments are the shit…we used to fight witht the africans alot…but not anymore…

  3. I have been checking out many of your stories and i can state pretty clever stuff. I will make sure to bookmark your website

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  5. nice post thanks !!!

  6. my parents moved into these apartments a year ago the kids are destroying the property nobody is nice the children talk worse than grown men drunk in a bar. and management dont do anything. there are a handful of white people and a few mexicans but it seems like the problems and complaints we voice about anything gets swept under the carpet. they encourage unity to become one community but its all a bunch of bullshit i offer anyone to come on a saturday and spend time out in the playground. i think the refugeees that live here should be entirely greatful to have a nice place to live but i doubt that will ever happen

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