Molly O’Donnell, Save First director, said Parvaneh Chavoshi Kivi’s success reflects how Catholic Charities’ holistic approach bolsters clients’ own efforts to improve their lives. (Courtesy Catholic Charities)
Molly O’Donnell, Save First director, said Parvaneh Chavoshi Kivi’s success reflects how Catholic Charities’ holistic approach bolsters clients’ own efforts to improve their lives. (Courtesy Catholic Charities)
When Parvaneh Chavoshi Kivi arrived at Portland International Airport in 2017, she expected to see her Catholic Charities caseworker and a U.S. sponsor. Instead the Iranian refugee was met by a group of around 20 people, some offering flowers, others holding signs that read, “You are welcome here.”

The greeting was organized by Catholic Charities of Oregon.

“I was really surprised,” said Chavoshi Kivi. “I was scared because I didn’t know about the future, but I couldn’t believe what I saw and I was really happy.”

That first emotional boost at the airport from the nonprofit transitioned into concrete, practical support enabling Chavoshi Kivi not only to build a new life from scratch but also to fulfill a persistent dream.

“It’s important to have an idea, a dream, but it’s another to know how to start,” Chavoshi Kivi said. “Catholic Charities’ Save First helped me know how to begin, what to do next.”

The 44-year-old single mother was reflecting on the past few years while sitting in a downtown Portland jewelry store. She was surrounded by an assortment of dangling silver chains, boldly colored bracelets and intricate earrings.

It is her store, full of her creations.

With hard work and the aid of Catholic Charities' Save First Financial Wellness program, Chavoshi Kivi gained the tools and foundational funds needed to start a business this past fall.

“For her to come from another country with nothing and be able to open a store in Portland shows such fortitude,” said Molly O’Donnell, Save First director.

O’Donnell said Chavoshi Kivi’s success reflects how Catholic Charities’ holistic approach bolsters clients’ own efforts to improve their lives.

“She came in through one service, the refugee program, and because of Catholic Charities’ wraparound services she could take advantage of more support,” including Save First, O’Donnell said.

The agency’s financial wellness program focuses on long-term self-sufficiency. It assesses clients’ financial situations, provides educational workshops, and offers personalized coaching to teach saving, budgeting and prudent spending. It also connects clients to matched savings programs.

Through the Oregon Individual Development Account Initiative, federal, state and local agencies match dollars that clients have saved for an asset such as buying a home, attending college or launching a business.

Chavoshi Kivi was eligible for an 8-to-1 match, and after saving $500, she received $4,000 to help open the jewelry store.

In Iran, the artistic Chavoshi Kivi designed women’s clothing. But the country eventually became unsafe for her. She did not feel comfortable elaborating.

Women’s rights are severely restricted in the Middle East nation, where policies and laws limit a woman’s mobility and right to work.

After leaving Iran, Chavoshi Kivi lived in Turkey for three years while waiting to be admitted into the United States as a refugee. It was difficult, “but I think it made me stronger,” she said.

The family’s refugee status had been accepted during the Obama administration, but days after Donald Trump was sworn into office, the new president’s first travel ban on Muslim-majority countries went into effect. It was unclear what would happen to Chavoshi Kivi.

“I was really lucky,” she said.

There was a temporary restraining order of the ban, and during a short window, Chavoshi Kivi arrived in the United States with her children.

“Many friends could not come,” she said, looking down at her hands.

Chavoshi Kivi’s coach at Save First, Connor Dwyer, calls Chavoshi Kivi “hard-working and brilliant.”

Dwyer recalled how each session she’d come with a list of questions for him.

A certified public accountant and one of dozens of volunteer Save First coaches, Dwyer said financial-knowledge gaps look different among the program’s diverse clients — a struggling family recently off the streets, an immigrant like Chavoshi Kivi or a middle class family loaded with debt. But one of the reasons Save First is so effective is it “bridges those gaps that people have,” he said.

Chavoshi Kivi works seven days a week, nearly 10 hours a day at her store. Then she goes home, cares for her children and plans for the future.

“My hope is that the kids are successful in the ways they want,” she said. “I want them to feel happy, to have joy.”

O’Donnell said it is inspiring to work with clients like Chavoshi Kivi.

“To help enrich such lives in some way through relationships and to give people tools of empowerment,” said O’Donnell, “I think it’s what Christ calls us to do.”

Learn more

— There are no income-based eligibility requirements for Catholic Charities’ Save First Financial Wellness clients.

— Save First also administers emergency assistance funds through a number of employer programs, including Providence Health and Services and the Portland Clinic.

Find out more at savefirstfinancial.org.

See her jewelry

Parvaneh Chavoshi Kivi’s jewelry store is located in the mall at SW Yamhill and Fifth Ave., Portland. The entrance is near the Apple store. For more information about her pieces, email parvaneh@byparvaneh.com or go to byparvaneh.com.