As a former refugee, I know how essential trusted civic and cultural ties can be to ensure safety, stability, and success in life. There is a strong sense of community and collective duty in East Portland that drew me to make it my home. We are industrious, resilient, and powerful—and we all belong. I have worked with the people of East Portland and North Clackamas for twenty years as a community organizer and advocate, and I will continue fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with you, the residents of District 24, as your State Senator.
Kayse’s lived experiences represent the people of Senate District 24, and he brings his years of deep, on-the ground relationships and the diverse voices of our entire community to Salem, passing policies aimed at changing all our lives for the better. Kayse knows what it’s like to make difficult choices in hard times and to overcome barriers—and it’s this adversity that has helped prepare him to lead as we recover from multiple crises. Kayse is the first former refugee and the first Muslim serving in the Oregon Senate, and he diligently represents all of the residents of Senate District 24 in Salem.
Kayse Jama's Story
I was born into a nomad family in Somalia. In order to survive the harsh desert environment, interdependency was key to our survival—everyone in the family had a role to play and if one of us failed to do our job, the entire system would collapse. I carry this collective thinking with me until today and I believe that everyone’s unique skills, contributions, and talents only make our communities stronger. It’s what drives my passion to make a difference in my community.
At 8 years old, I moved to the capital, Mogadishu, to start my education. This country boy quickly realized he didn’t fit in. To survive, I would need to adapt to my new environment and step into a different role. I convinced my teacher to appoint me "student master" and even at that young age, I took the position very seriously. I learned to lead by involving my classmates in their own learning, setting high collective expectations, and creating an environment of mutual success. We would only do well individually if all of us did well collectively.
By high school, I was one of a five-member student council that represented the entire city. Those years taught me that leadership is not an individual act—it is a skill that lives or dies by one’s ability to understand, engage, and inspire others. In other words, to be a good leader, one must remain close to the people.
In the early 1990s, civil war erupted in Somalia and the country quickly descended into anarchy. I fled in search of safety, looking—as so many do when wars break out—to build a better future. I was a refugee for many years before finally arriving in the United States in 1998, settling in Portland shortly thereafter. I worked the front desk at the Portland Doubletree while attending Marylhurst University, but my American Dream would not be achieved if my community was lagging behind. So I began working at Lutheran Community Services, helping new refugees adapt to life in the U.S., and in 2003, I co-founded the Center for Intercultural Organizing (now Unite Oregon), a statewide nonprofit dedicated to uplifting all struggling Oregonians. Unite Oregon now works with thousands of people each year and has three chapters statewide.
For so many of us, the American Dream has been deferred from the beginning because our federal, state, and local policies have been designed to work only for those who wield money and power. In short, the system has not worked for most of us. Too many of our fellow community members have been left behind, struggling to make ends meet: women, people of color, Native people, immigrants and refugees, the LGBTQ community, people with disabilities, and rural communities, to name a few.
And now with COVID-19, we face one of the greatest tests to our resilience and a choice about how we will both stabilize our state and build our collective future. As a leader who has navigated innumerable challenges, I am dedicated to empowering our communities to build our vision for the future. Together, we can chart a course that positions Oregon as a leader on economic, social, environmental, and racial justice.
It’s time for us—those who believe Oregon can be a better place to live and work for everyone—to make our voices heard in Salem and fight for the future we deserve.
Kayse Jama, 47, currently serves as the Senator for District 24. He was previously the co-founder and Executive Director of Unite Oregon. From 2005 to 2007, he trained immigrant and refugee leaders in Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Utah and Idaho with Western States Center under a prestigious New Voices Fellowship. Kayse has been awarded the 2007 Skidmore Prize for outstanding young nonprofit professionals; the 2008 Oregon Immigrant Achievement Award from the Oregon Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association; the 2009 Lowenstein Trust Award, which is presented yearly to “that person who demonstrated the greatest contribution to assisting the poor and underprivileged in Portland”; the 2012 Portland Peace Prize; the 2016 Rankin Award in recognition of "lifelong activism and extraordinary service"; and the Northwest Workers’ Justice Project’s 2017 Tribune of Worker Justice Award, celebrating his dedication to uplifting the lives of Oregon immigrant and low-wage workers. He lives with his wife, David Douglas School Board member Stephanie D. Stephens, and their twins, Sahan and Saharla, in the Hazelwood neighborhood of East Portland.