Paulmang Pau Gualnam, Community Outreach Coordinator, Division-Midway Alliance
Tell us about yourself.
I came to Portland by myself in 2009 through a refugee resettlement program after waiting years in a refugee camp on the Thai/Malaysia border. In resettlement we have no chance to choose what city we go to, especially if we don’t have a family sponsorship. Wherever it is, it’s better than a refugee camp. But I think I got lucky, I came to the right place.
Ever since then I’ve worked with the refugee community. I went to Mt. Hood Community College for two years but community need was high volume, especially for the Myanmar/Burmese community. So I held off on my classes to help as a job counselor. Everyone needed extra help. I worked 60-70 hours a week.
At the same time I learned how to start a new life in Portland.
Since March 2015 I have been with the Division Midway Alliance (DMA), supporting the community. After a year and a half I got the full time position as the community outreach coordinator. The Myanmar/Burmese community is still new, people are a little scared about reaching out. I point them to the agency or link that gives help.
How have you connected to programs and resources supported by Prosper Portland?
I’ve lived in the outer SE Portland area since I came here, and I see Prosper Portland as one of the agencies that is especially helping communities of color. As a refugee and new to Portland, Prosper Portland’s motive is really heartwarming to me– doing things for the community, things we can count on. Portland has so many social services that are helping families that are new and vulnerable. I find myself the link between such urgent needs and the services we can provide.
What have you learned?
I learned how to help myself at the same time that I helped others. [For example] I got the Oregon Health Plan, so I made an appointment for myself and at the same time helped other people do the same thing.
Most of us came from years in refugee camps; we had no chance to get basic education. We had to work on surviving. So we’ve learned new things in the real-world classroom. Self-sufficiency is our goal. That makes a lot of challenges. The big challenge is how to bring the resources to the community or bring the community to the resources.
Helping our community become more part of the neighborhood is one thing I am trying for, especially because the Myanmar/Burmese community is so new. There is a need to say, hey, there’s an organization where you can get help. Or you can have a business and help yourself. That’s my focus right now. I’m still learning every day.
What’s been an unexpected benefit from your connection to Prosper Portland?
I am honored to be on the Council for Economic and Racial Equity. I’ve met a lot of very successful people with high skills, who have kick-started their own businesses For me, coming downtown is still a little nerve-wracking! Even that is a learning experience. But whatever I have that is being recognized is a big chance for me.
What does equity mean to you?
Equity starts at home. The challenge we face every day is that we’re talking to people who want to start a small business, but those people struggle with basic things. You have to start really small with the essentials, like making things more accessible to people. For a refugee and immigrant community, it’s a challenge to even understand the materials we see every day. It’s a grassroots process to help people with immediate steps from the ground up.
I work with people who can’t even read their mail, but everyone has a chance to improve their lives, their skills, and have hope for the future. We are here to help those fulfill their hopes. That’s the very motivation behind community work and equity as I understand it.
What’s next for you?
I spend a lot of time helping people meet basic needs. But I also want to work with those who are ready for the next step, defining opportunities that are good for the neighborhood and understanding what our community skills and opportunities are, and how we can take advantage of Prosper Portland resources to move forward.
Before I came to the US I spent 6.5 years in a concentration camp in Myanmar/Burma for activities in my student life. That brutal experience makes every step, every day here exciting. I look the same, but every day I get one more day far away from those troubles. I see opportunity. No matter how much you struggle, opportunity is waiting, and people are ready to help. It makes me forget my nervousness and see hope.