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How Do You Explain Earthquakes to Refugees Without Freaking Them Out?

For Portland's refugee population, news of "the big one" seems frighteningly similar to the catastrophes they've already fled.
February 2, 2016, 6:50pm

An earthquake survival kit. Photo via Flickr user Global X

Off the Pacific coast, along the 700-mile long Cascadia faultline running from Northern California to Vancouver Island, tectonic plates are shifting. When they eventually collide, it will cause the continent's largest "megaquake."

It could happen tomorrow. It could happen 50 years from now. The word "if" doesn't get used much anymore when discussing the Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake, or the tsunami it will unleash into coastal towns, or how it will destroy bridges, roads, infrastructure, and houses.

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Naturally, news of this event—especially as it was detailed in a July 2015 New Yorker article called "The Really Big One"—sent Pacific Northwesterners stocking up on water and supplies. But for refugees who are resettling in cities in Oregon, the mythology surrounding the "megaquake" has sent them into a tailspin.

Thousands of refugees have made Oregon their home in the past few years (there were 1,327 refugee arrivals in 2015 alone), and most initially settle in Portland, the state's largest city. Most of those people come to the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization (IRCO), a resource center to help immigrants and refugees acclimate to Portland. Starting last year, shortly after the New Yorker article came out, IRCO case managers caught whiff of rumors about the earthquake—specifically, rumors that it would happen the next day.

The organization is well-versed in conveying crucial information to non-native, non-English-speaking communities: IRCO offers over 100 social service programs, which help immigrants find housing, take language classes, and secure jobs. But this was different.

"We started hearing a real sense of an impending doom," says Megan Harrington Wilson, the Community Works Program Manager at the IRCO.

In talking to clients, the IRCO staff learned that many of the refugees were taking extreme actions to prepare for the quake: Parents kept their children home from school, afraid to be separated in the aftermath. Others cashed their paychecks and crammed loads of bottled water into their already-cramped apartments. People bought life jackets, a tsunami precaution. A Burmese woman said she'd heard all flights were grounded in Portland, and that everyone was trapped. Rumors flew across social media. According to IRCO, several people even quit their jobs, packed up their families, and moved out of Portland altogether.

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IRCO invited Felicia Heaton, a senior community outreach representative from the city's Bureau of Emergency Management, to provide information and arranged for interpreters to translate her messages into several languages. About 140 people showed up to the meeting, where Heaton gave basic earthquake safety information: If the ground shakes, get under a table; stock up on food and water in advance; create an emergency plan. Simple stuff.

But the meeting only made things worse. "The communities heard panic," Wilson said. "It backfired. Massively."

For refugees from areas that have been affected by bad earthquakes, news of an earthquake hit too close to home.

"[They] still have friends [back home]," said Surya Joshi, a community engagement specialist at IRCO. "They heard the stories about how it happened and how everything got destroyed."

Worse, many of the refugees in attendance feared they wouldn't be able to prepare the way they were instructed at IRCO's meeting. Joshi said his clients tend to live "in cramped apartments with little free space. They were told to store at least three gallons of water per person. In our community, there are seven people living in an apartment—that's 21 gallons of water. That made people panic more and more."

News needs to be filtered through a 'trauma-informed perspective'—an outlook that acknowledges many refugees have been fleeing catastrophe for most of their lives.

While IRCO and the city regrouped, some communities started to take the information into their own hands. Ahmed Al-Zubidi, a case manager in the housing program at IRCO and an Iraqi refugee, noticed several people spreading misinformation on social media. In his family's small suburban apartment, he held meetings for members of the community.

"The main concern was the tsunami. Our community, they don't know the geography of the area," he said. With people gathered on his floor and on couches, he showed them maps of Oregon on Google, pointing out the distance and large mountain range that separates Portland from the ocean—too far to be swept up by a tsunami.

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IRCO called a second meeting, this time targeting the Bhutanese and Burmese communities, which seemed to be the most concerned about the quake. Nearly 100 people showed up. Wilson gave a stripped-down Powerpoint presentation, with simple slides. On one slide, a large wave appeared, with the text: "Will there be a tsunami in Portland?" On the next slide, a red cross appears through the wave. "No!"

Joshi provided translation for the Nepali-speakers at the meeting, and when that slide flashed across the screen, the room erupted in cheers.

"When I ruled out the tsunami from the place our community lived, they were so joyful," he says. "Everybody gave a standing ovation, they were clapping and hugging each other. It was quite an event."

After that second meeting, Wilson says the staff realized the fundamental mistake: "I think what we've seen is that when you present information—even simplified information—coming from a Western perspective, it actually just triggers people's fear and trauma." She likens it to a traffic cone on a cracked sidewalk: A native Oregonian might recognize it as a simple caution, whereas a newly arrived refugee might interpret that as a sign of danger.

News like that of the earthquake, she says, needs to be filtered through a "trauma-informed perspective"—an outlook that acknowledges many refugees have been fleeing catastrophe for most of their lives. Wilson recalls a meeting in which a Somali woman explained her fear: "We understand war. We understand genocide. We understand rape and pillage. We flee from that." An earthquake felt like a unexpected continuation of that long flight away from danger.

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Heaton, Wilson, and others from IRCO have now constructed plans to assemble phone trees: simple call lists that start with prominent figures within refugee communities—spiritual leaders, in most cases—which then allow the dispersal of crucial information through trusted sources.

"For a lot of people, that sounds really, really basic," Heaton said, "but when it comes to appropriately serving these communities, that's what we have to do. They're not tapped into traditional media. Going back to basics is really the best way to do it."

After a 7.1 earthquake shook Anchorage, Alaska last month, there were more murmurs about potential disaster among the refugee community. Al-Zubidi was able to placate refugees in Portland, but back in Iraq, he says people still think living in Oregon is dangerous.

"People back home, they say we will die [in an earthquake]," he said. "I told them, 'Guys, you have faith. If our God says we should die, we should die. No one can say no. You know? Maybe a car hits you. Maybe you fall down from a ceiling or something. Maybe you will have a heart attack. After that, they have some peace."

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