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Lifting each other

Posted by | Catholic Charities Communications

Throwback Thursday: Refugee family and neighbors create a transformative bond

This is a story about a family from 9,000 miles away with so much gravitas and good nature that a Portland neighborhood has fallen hopelessly in love.

In March 2023, Prosper Toubaro and Evelyne Motorom and their seven children made it to Oregon, having escaped deadly peril in the warring Central African Republic.

The inland nation, southwest of Sudan, has suffered civil war for two decades. Power swings from one group to another. More than a million people have fled the nation of 5 million during the struggle.

Extremist rebels wanted to kill Prosper and other men of fighting age.

“They attacked my home,” Prosper, 51, told us in French through a translator. He was captured, endured two weeks of torture and was due for execution. But the Red Cross intervened.

After Prosper’s release, rebels returned. This time, he and his family fled. They landed first in Chad, then Gabon on the Atlantic coast and then waited for 15 years in the relative stability of a Cameroon refugee camp.

In March, Catholic Charities of Oregon provided a resounding welcome.

“Due to the large size, the entire refugee team pulled together to help welcome this family,” said Rose Bak, Catholic Charities’ chief program officer. Most of the Refugee Services staff went to the airport and cheered with welcome signs as Prosper and Evelyne appeared with their seven smiling children.

Catholic Charities case managers stepped up, working with the family on immigration papers and processes, health insurance, school enrollment, public transportation, job placement and temporary cash aid. Like all refugees in the care of Catholic Charities, the family attended a cultural education class at agency headquarters. They also entered the Catholic Charities Ganz Matched Savings program, which pays rent for six months and matches the money the family saves 3 to 1.

Catholic Charities staff humbly and gratefully know that volunteers extend the loving work geometrically. In cooperation with the agency, zealous volunteers and neighbors gave a new definition to the word “hospitality.”

The family moved into a Southeast Portland house that a group of neighbors had purchased and renovated expressly to help families that are priced out of housing. The children are amazed their house is made of wood. They grew up in tents and humble lodgings composed of mud, grass or sheet metal.

The house has become a hub of neighborhood relationships. Children run from all over to play; adults amble by to chat. On the porch 18-year-old Debo sometimes sits alone, thumping his drum gracefully, sending a sweet rhythm into the warm evening. Neighbors smile.

Many of them have rendered assistance, leading trips to the grocery store, the berry fields of Sauvie Island, the Rose Festival parade, outdoor concerts and a nearby amusement park. Neighbors have given a basketball hoop, bicycles, a television and trendy shoes. Two boys studied French so they could speak with their new friends.

One neighbor engineered scholarships so 10-year-old Danyo could go to an afterschool science program and four of the children could attend a summer program at Sellwood Community Center. Volunteer teachers have been coming to the home to teach English.

After medical checkups and vaccinations, one neighbor took five of the kids to a Vietnamese bistro. It was their first experience in a sit-down restaurant.

A family hosted Gentil, 12, and Danyo, 10, for a sleepover, complete with pillow fight and scary movie. Neighbors have invited all nine to dinner.

One neighbor boy walked the children to middle school while another household signed some of the youngsters up for soccer.

Neighbors helped the family navigate public transportation and even organized several cookie-baking lessons, which resulted in great rejoicing.

Organizing all the help is a sterling Catholic Charities volunteer who prefers not to be recognized. Using social media, she introduced the family to neighbors. She has maintained a calendar and stayed in constant touch, becoming a trusted friend and advocate. She brings children to the doctor, the dentist and the library. She worked to get internet and phones at low cost. She supplied the house with a first aid collection and oversaw efforts to obtain state ID cards. The volunteer even made calls so the family could get reduced rate utility bills.

Volunteers and staff give help, but always with an eye toward helping the family become self-sustaining. That progress is notable.

Prosper and 21-year-old Max, who is deaf because he had malaria as a child, have landed jobs on the custodial staff at Lewis and Clark College. Evelyne works cleaning rooms at a downtown hotel.

Debo took a job at Bastion PDX, an up-and-coming restaurant in the neighborhood. He’ll take classes at Portland Community College and play soccer.

Debo, 18, plays his drum on the porch of a house in Southeast Portland fixed up by neighbors and offered at a reasonable cost to a refugee family.

The day Social Security cards arrived was a big celebration. That allowed the family to open savings accounts but also had major symbolic value. They are on their way to becoming Americans.

“They have brought so much life to this corner,” said Dr. June Reynolds, a next-door neighbor and a leader of the plan to fix and offer the house.

Debo, 18, speaks with neighbor Jeffrey Kolwitz.

“I am astounded by what Catholic Charities brought to this neighborhood,” said Jeffrey Kolwitz, a graduate of Catholic-run De Paul University in Chicago and another of the owners who renovated the house the family now calls home. “You could ask what the neighbors have done, but you really should ask what it is about this family. What attracts people to them? Everyone wants to be around them.”

At the local middle and elementary schools, the new children are dazzlingly popular. Other middle schoolers asked to shift schedules to be in class with them. Grade-schoolers jockey to work on projects with Danyo.

Kolwitz, who runs the construction firm that worked on the old house, said the renovation included raising the structure to add a ground floor. That’s a symbol of the whole venture, since not only have the neighbors elevated the refugees’ lives but Prosper and Evelyne and their children have lifted the entire block.

“These volunteers and neighbors are beautifully living out the idea of welcoming the stranger,” said Natalie M. Wood, executive director of Catholic Charities of Oregon. “The relationships formed on that block embody the Catholic social teachings of option for the poor and solidarity. We are so grateful to partner with neighbors in this important work with refugee families. We could not do it without them and our donors and funders.”

Children from the neighborhood enjoy a moment with 10-year-old Danyo and 12-year-old Gentil.