Immigrants from war-torn Bosnia, Soviet Armenia and Vietnam …

Oregonian, OR
Aug 22 2004

Immigrants from war-torn Bosnia, Soviet Armenia and Vietnam bring a
bit of their homelands to their lives here through their ethnic delis


The shopkeepers arrived in Portland from the world’s most anguished
corners: Vietnam, Bosnia, Soviet Armenia. Like the waves of
immigrants who founded and shaped this country, they came in search
of a life where death and oppression were distant stories, not a
daily reality.

Picturesque Portland has delivered on that wish. But for refugees
fleeing war, life here is neither simple, nor as richly hued as it
was in their homelands.

In their hearts they will always be strangers, catering to people
who, like themselves, yearn for the smoky cafes of the former Ottoman
Empire, the bright colors and pungent smells of Saigon’s open-air
markets, or a slab of sesame flatbread fresh from an Armenian brick

In their unassuming shops, small islands between hair salons and rug
stores, they marry the sometimes-incongruous demands of business and
nurturing. Nothing can ever really compensate for longing, but food
from home can soften it.

Here are some tales from around the city — and around the globe.


Phat Nguyen stands behind his state-of-the-art cash register and
sighs. His small store on Sandy Boulevard is a long way from the
dense jungles of South Vietnam, where he fought as a soldier
alongside U.S. troops. Nguyen, 54, spends his days ordering frozen
shrimp and squid, delicate eggplants and fresh coriander, but his
thoughts turn swiftly from the mundane to the ponderous. “I think
always of war,” he says softly above the hum of his giant freezers.
“It is in my heart.” At night, after the shop closes, he switches on
news of another war. “I hear of a young soldier dying, and I think of
his brothers, sisters, his parents, his wife,” he says.

His own three brothers were killed in the fighting; three sisters
remain in Vietnam. Resettled, Nguyen lives with his third wife and
two young children.

“War destroys every family it touches,” he says. “Two marriages,
gone.” He sweeps his hand through the air.

Like many others who fled Vietnam on rickety boats, Nguyen, who left
Saigon in 1980, was among those who suffered for his allegiance to
the U.S. “I had to leave,” he says.

So did Chuong Nguyen, 62. During the war he served as a South
Vietnamese army officer, and trained with the U.S. Army in Georgia.
He was imprisoned by the Vietcong for six years. Now, he works as a
machine operator for Siltronic Corp. “I was lucky to get out,” he
says, and excuses himself to look for fish sauce.

Phat Nguyen shrugs, then steps into his aisles crowded with rice
cookers, floormats, green tea candy and canned lychees. The one thing
his customers miss the most — exotic Southeast Asian fruit — is
unattainable. Because of import laws, Nam Phu’o’ng can carry only
frozen and canned varieties. “In Vietnam we eat fruit all day long,”
he says.

Some solace exists, though, in the form of giant durians piled in a
corner freezer. The spiked, basketball-sized fruit, little-known
outside Asia, is often hailed as the “King of Fruit,” and is prized
for its sweet, smooth, yellow flesh. (It is also known for its
distinctive odor, which is often compared to that of overripe

He picks up the knobbed globe. “This cannot take away sadness but it
has a good taste,” he says. “For good memories.”


If you by chance are in the market for some ouzo-flavored jam from
Greece, some sea buckthorn juice from Georgia, a Moldovan tarragon
drink or some dried jumbo limes from Syria, Avetis Nor-Ashkarian is
your man.

He is the owner and proprietor of the Anoush Deli in Portland’s
Gateway district, and everyone in Stumptown from behind the former
Iron Curtain seems to be his friend. For that matter, so are locals
in the area, who line up daily for the giant gyros that Avetis — his
full name means “good news” and “new world” in Armenian — provides
daily. (He himself disdains them, eating them only when he is
desperate. “So messy,” he says.)

For Avo, as he is called, is something of a neatnik, with pressed
shirts, spotless trousers, and Old World manners in his native
tongues, English and Russian.

Nor-Ashkarian, 42, arrived in the U.S. in 1980 in the midst of the
Cold War, and just before tensions between Soviet Armenia and
Azerbaijan erupted into armed conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, an
ethnic Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan.

He has had many metiers: first as a dental technician in California,
and later as a phlebotomist at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center
(he refers to this as his “vampire phase”). But perhaps history —
Armenians have been involved in the spice trade for centuries —
helped set the stage for his current endeavor.

Each day, scarved grandmothers and burly contractors enter the
pristine shop with throaty Russian singers blaring from the speakers,
and thrust tiny slips of paper into his hand. They search for nuts,
or cheese, or yogurt. And judging by his array of sour cherry
preserves — there are more than 17 different labels — sour cherry

“Sour cherries are serious business,” Nor-Ashkarian says. “It has to
be this brand, or that brand, but absolutely not this one.”

He has learned the hard way that substituting a product he thinks
might work is not a wise idea. Customers will come to retrieve their
goods, with money hard-earned as electricians or nurses, stone masons
or telephone repairmen, only to shake their heads or purse their lips
and say, “Of course not that kind, either.”

Beer — there are a dozen brands — often summons the biggest
emotions. “You cannot imagine the disappointment if the right one is
not here,” he says.

Romanian-born Ana Alexandru, 67, stops to buy puff pastry she will
fill with cheese. Victor Chika, 71, picks up some Ukrainian sunflower
oil. American brands are inferior, he says. “No flavor!”

The bell sounds, and Nor-Ashkarian is off to dish up Bulgarian feta
for a homesick Sofia native. Then he glides to the small tables with
a tray of gyros for some chiropractic students.

On the wall behind him are three large laminated maps. On either
side, bright blue oceans complement orange and green continents. In
the center, though, is Nor-Ashkarian’s new world, and everyone
else’s: It is a giant map of Portland, with streets in minute detail.


The anchor of Muhamed Mujcic’s corner store, A Taste of Europe, on
Southeast Hawthorne, is a bright red espresso maker. Mujcic, who fled
Bosnia in the midst of the war in Yugoslavia, cheerfully presses
coffee for customers with an expert hand. His demeanor betrays a
lingering sadness for his former life in the town of Banja Luka,
where he was surrounded by extended family and had a prosperous
business. “We had a beautiful life there,” Mujcic says, nibbling from
an espresso-soaked sugar cube.

Muhamed, his wife Vesna and their two daughters, Jasminka and Vanesa,
were among thousands of Muslims driven out of Bosnia by Serb-led
militias in the campaign of ethnic cleansing. In 1994, the Mujcics
arrived in Portland, where they were sponsored by Muhamed’s brother.

Muhamed, 56, set up his store in 2000. In a town where rhythms seem
driven by the barista’s hiss, he has a varied clientele: tattooed
Portland twentysomethings wander in as they chat on their cell
phones. Eastern Europeans, many from the former Yugoslavia, walk in
purposefully, first for a handshake, then coffee. They stand,
chatting, in the back of the store, beneath vivid oil paintings by
Jasminka and tapestries of Bosnia.

Amer Filipic, 37, is a psychiatric nurse at Adventist Medical Center,
and stops by each day before his afternoon shift. “This is the best
coffee,” he says, draining his small cup. “It is fuel for my soul.”

Mujcic cheers up at the sight of his friend. “Good coffee, good
chocolate, good beer!” he calls out. “Those are necessities.” He
waves his arm past rich chocolates with orange,
strawberry-and-pepper, and marzipan filling. He shows dozens of teas,
mostly from Bosnia. One, though, is universal: “To Lose Weight Tea,”
it says simply.

He imports several types of coffee, all of it lacking the bitter
taste some commercial American brands are known for. “In Bosnia, we
began drinking coffee 400 years ago. For us it is no fad, it is our

Jasminka looks on, her face solemn. “We’re in this country now,” she
said. “But when you step outside this door, you are always reminded
that you are different.”

Behind every war, of course, are lives, and losses. Muhamed’s family
has suffered more than its share: Though his three brothers escaped
Banja Luka, they died prematurely here. “Heart attacks, brain
attacks,” he says. “In Bosnia my family always lived to be old.”

The results of war, he says, are the same everywhere. “The biggest
losers are the smart, honest people.”