Oregon leader will use her own refugee experience to guide changes in state programs

The new director of the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Advancement wants to build bridges between state agencies and the people they are supposed to serve

By: - April 11, 2022 6:00 am
Welcome at airport for Afghan family

Volunteers with Salem for Refugees welcomed an Afghan family at the Portland International Airport in 2021. (Salem for Refugees/Salem Reporter)

Toc Soneoulay-Gillespie has lived through the missed opportunities when communications break down between state agencies and immigrants and refugees.

The new director of the recently-formed state Office of Immigrant and Refugee Advancement didn’t know much about the health care her or her parents were entitled to when they arrived in the U.S. as refugees from Laos in 1979.

When she became director of community health for a nonprofit that helps people get on the Oregon Health Plan, the state’s Medicaid program, “I was blown away at learning what all the Oregon Health Plan / Medicaid actually offers,” she said. “I wish I knew that information, not just when we were receiving Medicaid growing up, but I wish I knew all that it covered when I was leading the resettlement work at Catholic Charities.”

Toc Soneoulay-Gillespie is the new director of the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Advancement. (Office of the Governor)

Soneoulay-Gillespie said she intends to close those gaps in understanding, and prioritize education between service agencies and refugee and immigrant recipients, in her new role leading the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Advancement. 

The new Oregon office is tasked with creating new policies, securing more federal funding for the state’s immigrants and refugee organizations and, most importantly to Soneoulay-Gillespie, coordinating work already being done across the state for immigrants and refugees by government and nonprofits. 

She was appointed to lead the office by Gov. Kate Brown in March, nearly a year after it was established by the Oregon Legislature. In the next few months, she’ll hire several others to work with her on data collection and support. 

Soneoulay-Gillespie comes to the role after years working with state refugee resettlement services and nonprofits connecting Oregonians with affordable health care. She said wants to build on work being done already.

“We already have a refugee program,” she said, “but so many state agencies are very siloed and fragmented. This office is uniquely positioned to serve as a bridge and as a connector.” 

Soneoulay-Gillespie hopes her office becomes the seat at the legislative table for immigrants and refugees in the state, and that she can help state leaders keep immigrants and refugees front of mind as they craft policies for the future.  

 “I’ll be explaining to our state offices who refugees and immigrants are, and how different those two groups are, and then also educating our immigrant and refugee communities on what state agencies do and how they operate and how decisions are made,” she said. 

Becoming the director

When Soneoulay-Gillespie and her parents came to the United States they arrived in New York, but the family followed work to Salt Lake City, to Idaho, to California and, eventually, to Alaska. 

Soneoulay-Gillespie came to Oregon to attend Eastern Oregon University in La Grande to study anthropology and sociology. She graduated in 2001. 

Toc Soneoulay-Gillespie provides water to newly arriving refugee families arriving at PDX. (Submitted photo)

“I fell in love with Oregon and stayed,” she said. 

She left briefly to earn a master’s degree in social work from the University of Alaska in Anchorage, and then returned to Oregon to work for Impact NW, a nonprofit providing housing help. She then became director of refugee resettlement for Catholic Charities, served on Brown’s Behavioral Health Advisory Council and continues to serve on the state’s Commission on Asian Pacific Islander Affairs. 

“Having to help my parents navigate systems at such a young age, and seeing the sacrifices they made, and then also, on a broader scale, just the larger refugee and immigrant community being faced with barrier after barrier,” She said. “This office is extraordinary, right? This appointment is extraordinary.”

Getting to work

Soneoulay-Gillespie said she will be working at a systems level, not directly on services as in the past. Her office will create state policies for new housing programs for refugees and for legal services for refugees and immigrants.

She also will pursue federal funding for the state’s six refugee resettlement organizations and the state Human Services Department.  

Soneoulay-Gillespie said that during a recent meeting with department leaders, they discussed the requirement that refugees pay back airfare costs to a loan service through the State Department within six months of arriving in the U.S. 

“If you’re a family of 10, that’s a lot of money, right?” she said. “I’m like, what would it look like if we could pay for their airfare? Let’s take that conversation up to the federal level.”

A big part of the office’s advancement goal is to find ways to get new immigrants and refugees state licenses and credentials that recognize skills and education they earned in their home countries. 

Toc Soneoulay-Gillespie helps a newly arriving refugee set up their apartment. (Submitted photo)

“When we think of folks coming over, some were pharmacists or nurses back in Nigeria or Iraq, and they arrived and they don’t know how to just jump into that space and continue to work,” she said. 

“How can this office learn from those communities who are challenged by that? What are the things that you need to do to be re-credentialed? Is it additional hours? Is it paying for an exam?” she said.

The office could, for example, talk to officials at the Oregon State Board of Nursing to figure out how to help people navigate certification more fluidly, and how to help pay for exams or training hours. 

“I want our office to be able to, again, be a bridge. How do we help that community not just step into the role of being, like, a cab driver – and there’s nothing wrong with being a cab driver – but how do we create other pathways for them?” she said.

Soneoulay-Gillespie also wants her office to prepare for influxes of immigrants and refugees far in advance, rather than responding to big global events. 

“What are we going to do when Title 42 is lifted?” she said of pandemic restrictions on immigration that will be gone by the end of May. “We’re gonna see more migration happening, right? How are we thinking proactively about how Oregon will step in to support them?” 

She said more Afghans are coming to Oregon without having applied for refugee status that can be difficult to obtain.

“They’re not going to have access to the services and benefits that refugees have,” she said.

She wants to get those people covered by a new state program that starts in July.

Legislators last year created “Cover All People” to extend the state’s Medicaid services to low-income adults regardless of citizenship and residency. 

One month into the new role, Soneoulay-Gillespie said she is still in learning mode, talking with people across agencies and in organizations.

“It’s about breaking bread. It’s about understanding someone’s heart, before we can actually build a strategy around serving,” she said. “This is much bigger than me and is much bigger than just an office.”


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Alex Baumhardt
Alex Baumhardt

Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post.