The director of the new state refugee office, who was once a migrants herself, was ready to work

The director of the new state refugee office, who was once a migrants herself, was ready to work ...

When communications between government agencies and immigrants and refugees have broken down, Toc Soneoulay-Gillespie has had to overcome the missed opportunities.

When she or her parents arrived in the United States as refugees from Laos in 1979, the new director of the recently established state Office of Immigrant and Refugee Advancement didn't know much about her health care skills.

I was shocked at discovering what Oregon Health Plan / Medicaid actually offers, she said of a month of learning. I wish I had understood all of that information, not just when we was receiving Medicaid from college, but also when I was conducting resettlement training at Catholic Charities.

In her new role as the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Advancement, Soneoulay-Gillespie said she intends to correct those gaps in understanding and prioritize education between services and refugee and immigrant recipients.

The new Oregon office is tasked with implementing new policies, obtaining more federal funding for the state's immigrants and refugee organizations, and, most importantly, to Soneoulay-Gillespie, coordinating work already underway across the state for immigrants and refugees.

In March, Gov. Kate Brown had appointed her to lead the position, and it was established by the Oregon Legislature. In the next few months, she will hire several others to assist with data collection and support.

After years of working with state refugee resettlement agencies and organizations connecting Oregonians to affordable health care, Soneoulay-Gillespie believes she will build on what she has already done.

We already have a refugee program, she said, and so many state agencies are very siloed and fragmented. This office is unique to be positioned as a bridge and as a connection.

Soneoulay-Gillespie hopes her office will be at the legislative table for immigrants and refugees in the United States, and that she will assist state leaders in preserving immigrants and refugees ahead of time when they adopt policies for the future.

"I'll be revealing to our state offices who refugees and immigrants are, and how different these two groups are," she said, while also educating our immigrant and refugee communities on what state agencies do, how they operate and how decisions are made.

The actor will be the director of The Queen's Hospital.

Soneoulay-Gillespie and her parents travelled to New York, but the family went to Salt Lake City, Idaho, California, and Alaska, where they met.

Soneoulay-Gillespie graduated from La Grande University in 2001.

"I fell in love with Oregon and stayed there," she said.

After graduating briefly, she became director of refugee resettlement for Catholic charities, served on Brown's Behavioral Health Advisory Council, and is continuing to serve on the state's Asian Pacific Islander Affairs committee.

"It's amazing to having to assist my parents navigate systems at an early age, seeing their sacrifices, and then, on a broader scale, just the larger refugee and immigrant community being faced with obstacles." She said. "This office is incredible, right?

How to get to work

Soneoulay-Gillespie said she will be working at a systems level rather than directly on services as previously. Her office will develop public policies for new housing opportunities for refugees and legal assistance.

She will also seek federal funds for the state's six refugee resettlement organizations, as well as the state Human Services Department.

Lors a recent meeting with department leaders, Soneoulay-Gillespie said she discussed the requirement that refugees pay back airfare payments to a loan service through the State Department within six months of arriving in the United States.

If you are a 10-year-old, that's a lot of money, she said. Im like, what would it look like if we could pay for their airfare?

A key part of the organization's advancement goal is to find solutions to the need for new immigrants and refugees to obtain state permits and certifications that validate their skills and education in their country.

"When we think of people coming over, some were nurses or pharmacists returning from Nigeria or Iraq, and they arrived, and they don't know how to just enter that space and continue to work," she said.

"How can this office benefit from those who have been misled by it?" she said. What are the things you must do to be re-credentialed? Is it time to take additional hours? Is it paying for an exam?

The office might, for example, meet with officials at the Oregon State Board of Nursing to discuss how to help people navigate certification more fluidly and how to get paid for exams or training hours.

"I want our office to be able to again become a bridge." "How do we assist that community not only step into the role of being, like, a taxi driver and there's nothing wrong with being a taxi driver but also, how do we provide alternative treatment to them."

Soneoulay-Gillespie prefers her office to prepare for immigration and refugees far in advance rather than responding to large global events.

What will we do when Title 42 is lifted? she said of growing immigration restrictions that will be passed by the end of May. Were gonna see more migration happening, right? How are we anticipating the future when Oregon will intervene to support them?

She said she believes that more Afghans will be coming to Oregon without having applied for a refugee status that can be difficult to obtain.

"They will not have access to the services and benefits that refugees offer," she said.

She wants to get those who are covered by a new state program that begins in July.

Legislators created "Cover All People" last year, allowing the state to extend its Medicaid services to low-income adults, regardless of their citizenship and residency.

Soneoulay-Gillespie has announced that she is still in learning mode, chatting with individuals from different departments and organizations.

"It's about breaking bread. It's about understanding someone's heart, before we can actually make a serving plan," she said. "This is much bigger than me, and it's far more important than just a kitchen."

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