Som Subedi: Refugee, community activist, ‘force of nature’
Ten years ago this week, Som Subedi arrived in America with $10 and change in his pockets and a big plastic bag for his belongings. He was a refugee from the Kingdom of Bhutan and had spent years in a camp in Nepal with his parents and three siblings.
On Tuesday, June 19, this brown-skinned man with a huge heart and energy to burn, celebrated his 10-year anniversary of living in the United States.
And how did he do that? By giving back.
Som hosted a community dinner for 100 guests at a Cambodian restaurant in Northeast Portland. I was honored to be among them.
While the food and drinks were appreciated, and we all joined in celebrating Som’s many accomplishments and contributions to the community, there was something bigger to the event. In truth, Som’s gift to all was providing a venue for Portlanders of all races and ethnicities to celebrate the presence of immigrants in our community.
The event could not have come at a better time.
During a week when President Trump was shamed into signing an executive order to stop separating families at the U.S.-Mexico border, Tuesday’s dinner was a grand opportunity to recognize the contributions that immigrants make to the political, social and cultural fabric of our city, state and country.
In Som’s case, it’s an amazing list.
But, first, let me set the scene at Mekong Bistro:
In this spacious restaurant just off 82nd Avenue, you had community elders, families, educators, political activists, college students and friends coming together as if it were a mini United Nations.
I met people from Togo and Russia and Thailand while drinking beer produced in Cambodia and Laos. People from all over Southeast Asia and Africa mingled with North Americans and Central Americans. We listened to music performed by individuals from Nepal and Vietnam.
Poster boards displayed photographs of Som with Gov. Kate Brown, both of Oregon’s U.S. senators, and several local politicians, as well as from protests, rallies, soccer tournaments and other community events that Som has had a hand in organizing.
Senator Jeff Merkley appeared on video from Washington, D.C., saying, “It’s important to celebrate the important work that immigrants do when they come to this country.”
A representative of Senator Ron Wyden shared her personal tribute and then presented Som with a flag that had been flown over the U.S. Capitol.
Two Portland city commissioners, Amanda Fritz and Chloe Eudaly, were among those who took a turn at the mic. as did some of Som’s co-workers and mentors. Called upon unexpectedly by the moderator, I did too.
A mutual friend, Ronault LS “Polo” Catalani, whom I’ve known since we played basketball at the Salem YMCA three decades earlier, had also moved to Portland. Polo, a Spanish-speaking lawyer and activist from Malaysia, invited me to a lunch with a handful of community leaders in the S.E. Asian community at a time when I was The Oregonian’s Sunday Opinion editor and looking to tap into new voices and new perspectives.
Of the group, only Som stayed in touch. He wound up writing a couple of poignant op-ed pieces that we published, starting with this one in December 2010: Bhutanese refugees: American dream tantalizes, deceives
He also wrote this in November 2011: America’s proud tradition of generosity to immigrants.
In time, Som would also be published or written about in The Seattle Times, Los Angeles Times, National Public Radio and Oregon Public Broadcasting, plus many more times in The Oregonian and OregonLive.
I commended Som on his record as a community ambassador and wished him well in his next 10 years.
As for the man of the hour, he’s accomplished — and given back — more in just a short few years than most people do in a lifetime.
Arriving in 2008 with a limited grasp of English, he met a volunteer ESL tutor with a nonprofit organization that helps newly arrived refugees find work and a level of self-sufficiency with everyday tasks like shopping, banking and using public transit.
Within seven years, Som had not only found work but also bought a home and a new car. He and his wife are raising a young daughter and twin boys.
Som’s first job meant working the night shift at a Popeye’s. He later became a case manager for a social services agency assisting refugees. More recently, he’s worked for the city’s Parks for New Portlanders program, part of the Bureau of Parks & Recreation. Last year, Som was honored as Park Champion of the Year by the National Recreation and Park Association, and traveled to Washington, D.C., to receive the award.
A fellow employee at Parks & Rec described Som as “a force of nature” in terms of what he brings to work — uncommon enthusiasm, a legendary work ethic, and a constantly growing network of politicians and community contacts who can help refugees and immigrants adjust to life in their new country.
His ideas aren’t too bad, either. In 2010, Som organized the first Portland World Cup, a soccer tournament conceived as a way to bring together young immigrants as an alternative to the allure of gangs. It’s grown to include two dozen teams and players speaking at least 23 languages.
In his remarks, Som displayed both a sense of humor and a continued commitment to serve. Laughing, he recalled his confusion over going to Papa Murphy’s and buying a to-go pizza that was unbaked. He said he’s figured out the difference between “hippie” and “hipster” and “realized that ‘Portlandia’ is an exaggeration.”
In the next 10 years, he vowed to sleep more, take care of his health, write a movie script (“I feel strongly I have a story to tell”) and, of course, give back to the community. He called attention to the PDX World Refugee Day celebration this Saturday and, in closing, urged us all: “Vote this November and make a difference.”
In sum, Tuesday was an occasion to celebrate a remarkable man and his personal milestone. I felt privileged to be invited and left with a sense of gratitude to celebrate not just Som but all immigrants who make our community a better place.