‘The Immigrant Story is the American Story’

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Wafa Almaktari speaks about how she grew up in a tough neighborhood, which taught her to rely on family and herself. Speakers from around the world, who now call Portland home, share stories during Portland Story Theater in the Old Church Nov. 2. Brian McGloin/PSU Vanguard

Portland Story Theater, a nonprofit dedicated to facilitating the spread of diverse narratives and deconstructing stereotypes, hosted their Urban Tellers Immigrant and Refugee Special Edition on Nov. 2 at the Old Church Concert Hall. The evening event highlighted stories from six immigrants and refugees in the community, including Sankar Raman, Israa Hasani, Ivan Hernandez, Victor Bencomo, Onyeka Jones, and Wafa Almaktari, and the challenges each have faced in their journey to the United States.

The event began with an introduction by two of the founders, Lynne Duddy and Lawrence Howard, welcoming the full house to the evening’s performances, as well as their story behind the non-profit. “We started this program really in response to what is happening in our country and in the world,” Duddy said.

First to present that evening was Sankar Raman, founder of The Immigrant Story—a non-profit organization of more than 20 volunteers. Raman’s presentation titled, “The Passive Activist,” detailed his journey in founding the organization in order to disparage negative stereotypes against people who originate from elsewhere. “To be an immigrant, especially if you’re a person of color, has always been challenging in our country,” he said.

Born in a small town in India, he immigrated to Indiana before coming to Portland. In the backdrop of the 2016 presidential election, Raman recalled being faced with hate speech and violence in his youth. One night while having a drink with his friends in a bar, he was beaten by a man who mistakenly assumed he was from Iran, calling him “a fucking Iranian.”

With similar rhetoric espoused by President Donald Trump, Raman decided he would create an avenue to counter these ideologies. “I told myself, I’m going to be a passive activist,” he said. “The immigrant story is the American story.”

Israa Hasani, a mental health counselor at OHSU for refugee victims of war and torture, presented “Self Love” in which she told her story of self-discovery. Hasani expressed the constraints of life in Iraq as a woman and the control necessary to adhere to social norms. “That control didn’t come from a privileged place; it came from fear. Fear of persecution, fear of being spoke at as a woman.”

Hasani left the country by way of marriage, spending the next 20 years with her husband. “It was really going well until my son hit 14 and I was faced with the biggest challenge in my life which is trying to provide my son a space to connect with himself, to know himself,” Hasani said. “I couldn’t because I don’t know what I like. I don’t know what I love. I don’t know what I hate.”

Four years after starting therapy, Hasani left her husband. “Marriage became for me an obstacle to the way I want to raise my child.” She ended her presentation detailing a story about meeting a man who, while he was no longer in her life, gave her the chance to feel a deep connection she had not known before. “I am thankful to meet with you because you gave me a glimpse to what it means to fall in love. But more importantly…the most important thing actually is loving myself this way,” she said to him.

Later in the evening, Wafa Almaktari, a senior at Portland State, led the audience with her story, from her childhood in Yemen to her current life. “As a child, I was honest, I was bold, I was outspoken. I was confident and I was never afraid.” Almaktari detailed several incidents in standing up to boys who would taunt her, exemplifying her spirited personality.

In high school she met her future fiancé, saying, “In my head I thought, ‘I’m going to graduate, I’m going to start going to college, I’m going to get a car, I’m going to get married, I’m going to have the happily ever after.’” However as the war in Yemen started, Almaktari made the decision to leave, waiting six years for an interview. “I was privileged enough to leave the country. I got to immigrate to the U.S., but immigrating was not easy.”

Almaktari went on to detail the immense pain in leaving her home, including her love, and hardships that followed, such as the time she was called a terrorist on campus. “I left everything behind just to live in a world where it’s safe to get to talk without fear,” she said. “But the Wafa in me, the person who fought the boy, the person who yelled and screamed can’t do that here…I don’t want to risk my green card. I worked so hard to get here.”

Almaktari has found new ways to combat prejudice, such as speaking out against Islamophobia at events. In June, she will graduate and intends to join her fiance back in Yemen. “I’m planning to go back to my country and get married, and I’m planning to get him here. But with all that’s happening right now, I don’t know how it’s going to go,” she said. “The warrior inside me is not going to leave the love of my life behind.”

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