Muwafaq Alkattan sits at a picnic table under an awning at Cooper Mountain Nature Park near Beaverton and watches a fall shower roll off the Coast Range and across the Tualatin Valley.
“This is the tax you pay for evergreen,” he says.
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He arrived here from Iraq only four years ago, but he’s already adopted a resigned appreciation for the region’s weather. He says Iraq has similar low-rising mountains, even if they don’t have the same density of greenery. Cooper Mountain, he says, is one of his favorite places on earth.
When Alkattan arrived here with his wife, Lubna, and their four grown daughters, Alaa, Saran, Dana and Reem, they had to learn not just a new city but a new culture, new pretty much everything.
Alkattan didn’t have to learn or translate nature. Cooper Mountain became a respite, a place he didn’t have to strive to understand but could just enjoy. Now, four years later, he’s brought many fellow Iraqis to parks across the greater Portland region, helping them connect to nature, discover a favorite place and make this more of a home.
“Nature is part of my life,” he says.
Alkattan was born in Iraq in 1948 and worked as a civil engineer. In 1999, he began working for UNICEF, the United Nations’ children’s relief agency, building schools, health clinics and orphanages. After the U.S. invasion in 2003 he kept working for UNICEF, but that became dangerous.
During the war, anyone associated with a foreign organization was at risk. At the end of 2007 a coworker and friend was killed by al-Qaida. The Alkattans fled to Jordan, joining tens of thousands of Iraqi refugees. They applied for refuge in the United States in 2008.
While he waited, he continued his work for the U.N. and for Iraq. By the time he left, he’d built 50 new schools and rehabilitated and rebuilt 1,300 more. He’d built health centers, orphanages, water and sanitation projects, and Iraq’s first solid waste facility. He worked across sectarian and ethnic lines in a country where few did.
“I learned how to deal with different communities,” he says. “I found I am able to do intercultural work. I enjoy that.”
In 2012 the Alkattans were approved to come to America and settled in Tualatin.
Most refugees have little control of where they are settled.
The Alkattans, luckily, were able to choose Portland because a coworker at UNICEF living here sponsored them. Alkattan quickly connected with the newly formed Iraqi Society of Oregon and became a board member. Not long after, he participated in leadership development programs at Unite Oregon, a nonprofit based in Portland that advocates for multicultural social justice issues. That led to an internship with Metro.
Sheilagh Diez, Metro’s community partnerships project manager, says the plan was for Alkattan to support the logistics for Metro’s outdoor programs. Alkattan wanted to share the parks with other Iraqis, especially newly arrived refugees in the first, tough months of connecting to their new home. “It was a really great project that we just wouldn’t have thought of,” Diez says.
He began photographing Metro’s parks, showing the trails, views, picnic and play areas, and posting the images to the Iraqi Society of Oregon’s Facebook page. Then he organized outings, taking fellow Iraqis to parks across the region, introducing them to special places in their new home they might not have connected to without him.
Outreach within a refugee’s own community is a major goal of leadership training, says Zack Mohamed, who came to the U.S. as a refugee from Somalia when he was 11 and is now Unite Oregon’s leadership development coordinator. “It definitely takes a village – people being guides for each other, helping each other out, being there for one another,” he says.
Four years after arriving here, the Alkattans have made the region their home. His daughters have jobs and are in college, as is Lubna. He says he reminds them – and himself – to “imagine where you were four years ago.”
Imagine where they’ll be in four more years. Imagine how many others Alkattan will help make this place home.