Andromeda: The changing face of Anchorage and an event with new voices

Tired of election news, pundits, and partisan bickering? Here is an incredibly positive event happening in our community on Thursday night, and I share it at this blog because every writer finds inspiration in the vicinity of a great true story, and this event is all about great true stories happening in our town, just under our noses.

Catholic Social Services’ Refugee Assistance and Immigration Services program (“RAIS”) will be hosting an “Emerging Communities Project” event tomorrow (Nov. 4) from 6:00 to 9:00 pm at APU’s Grant Hall. Talks from local leaders will include brief histories of some of these “emerging communities” that are growing and gaining visibility in Anchorage, including Hmong, Sudanese, Polynesian, and Nepali, as well as Alaska Native. Through the CSS project, funded by a federal grant, leaders of these ethnic groups have been receiving organizational development assistance. On Thursday night, they’ll share not only their experiences of living in Anchorage, but their plan for future initiatives to serve their own communities better.

I have a very small personal connection to RAIS. Until recently, for about a year, I spent one afternoon a week working in the office, doing basic office tasks: file auditing, website and database stuff. I took the short-term freelance job because I needed some help eking my way through this recession. I kept the job because there was nothing better for a recession-battered soul than the little glimpse I got into the lives of recent refugees who, for the most part, had lived through difficult trials that make our own recessionary nail-biting seem like no big deal.

Often, while I worked at my office tasks, I’d be seated just a desk away from a new family that literally had just stepped off a plane, sometimes transported from a refugee camp halfway around the world. They’d enter the office looking exhausted from the trip, still completely unacclimated to life in Alaska, but ready to dive into the paperwork necessary so that CSS’s RAIS Program could help them locate a new apartment, find a few articles of winter clothing, learn about bus routes. Many of these refugees come speaking little or no English, with skills that don’t translate easily to Alaska jobs. And yet: most of them do succeed. Most of them take English classes. Seventy-five percent of RAIS refugee clients arriving with no support from relatives find employment within three months.

During the limited time that RAIS serves these refugees, they come back to the office to meet with social services staff. The RAIS waiting room is often full with people from multiple countries: a Sudanese man in one chair, an Arabic woman from Iraq in another, an on-call translator arriving to help a case manager who just as often was born outside of this country and may speak with an accent. (The lunchroom, no surprise, smells wonderful.)

One of my jobs was to update the language interpreting part of the CSS website, adding data for a constantly changing corps of local translators representing forty-nine languages, from Nuer to Cebuano to Gurung — languages I’d never even known existed anywhere, much less in Anchorage. When my husband and I first moved to Alaska 16 years ago, we made a list of pros and cons for moving here. On of the biggest cons was “lack of diversity.” We thought Anchorage was a pretty bland, culturally homogenous town — and perhaps it was back then. It isn’t now.

For writers who want to know what the real Anchorage of 2010 is like — and who recognize good stories when they hear them — Thursday night’s event should be very special.

4 thoughts on “Andromeda: The changing face of Anchorage and an event with new voices”

  1. Andromeda, Thank you for the heads up on this event. I am unable to make it to the event but will pass the information on to others I think might be interested.

  2. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Thanks to Carla (yes, Carla — not Karla) for helping me catch some typos that were in the original. Eke! Eek!

  3. Thanks for this post. The world is full of amazing stories and most of them go unheralded. Since I'm no longer in Anchorage it's harder to drop in to events like this one, but Kodiak is also full of people from everywhere. "Emerging communities" is a great term, isn't it – refugees, writers, political survivors, people finding each other.

  4. Thanks for mentioning this event, hope it went well. I agree that Anchorage has grown in diversity and the refugees add a richness to our community. It's hard to criticize our country when we see how much people risk just to get here. And of course it adds great stories to our lives.

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