Reza Jalali, of Kurdish descent, left his home in Iran because of fear for his safety under the Shah of Iran's regime, to study in India.
In 1985, Jalali was an asylum seeker who was admitted as a political refugee to Portland. His experiences in Maine led him to become an advocate for immigrants and refugees, and an advisor on immigrant programs.
As of 2017, Jalali is a writer, author, educator, and a Muslim scholar, who has taught courses at the University of Southern Maine and Bangor Theological Seminary. He holds a position of Coordinator, Office of Multicultural Student Affairs at the University of Southern Maine in Portland.
Jelilat Oyetunji immigrated from Nigeria to Maine at twenty-four with one identity, as a Nigerian college student. She found herself a decade later with a broader one, as a Muslim woman who thinks across national borders and speaks with a strong and effective voice for change. “I want my daughters to know it’s okay for a Muslim woman, with or without a headdress, to do whatever she wants to do.” said Oyetunji in 2009.
Timwah Luk got his Ph.D. in electrical engineering, and had opportunities around the globe. He immigrated from Hong Kong to Maine in 1982, and as of 2017, works for Fairchild Semiconductor in South Portland.
Luk’s life in Maine focussed on leadership of a growing community of Chinese immigrants in the Chinese Gospel Church of Portland.
“I’m comfortable in China, Hong Kong, and here. But this is home for me,” he said in 2009. “Even with all the problems we have in America, I think it’s a great country.”
“Why do we need borders?” Laura Val wondered as a young child in Romania. Having lived in three different countries, including Israel, she formed an identity as a “global nomad.”
In Maine she found a place to document the richness of human experience and promote cultural awareness. She developed "Celebrating Human Creativity", a nonprofit organization based in Portland that provides a web-based global media resource to schools and youth organizations.
Ismail Ahmed immigrated from war-torn Somalia to Maine. He opened S.T.T.A.R. (Support, Training, Technical Assistance and Resources) agency in 2007 to help refugees become self-sufficient.
A consultant with a master’s degree in leadership and organizational studies from the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn College, Ahmed provided what he remembered needing most when he arrived in the United States,—English and workplace-skills training. He made sure his students understand American cultural values so they can climb the ladder to self-sufficiency shown on his business card. “I tell them, ‘Time is money now. This is a competitive world.’”
At the age of seventeen, Tomas Fortson was one of the better young squash players in North America. National boundaries meant little to his athletic career that bounced back and forth between his native Mexico and New York, Venezuela, London, and Boston, as he played the professional circuit internationally and ran club squash programs.
By the time he became men’s and women’s squash coach at Bowdoin College, he and his spouse were ready to settle in a good place to raise their children, and they found it in Brunswick. “We can’t find a better place to bring our kids up in a healthy, safe environment,” said Fortson in 2009. The family immigrated from Mexico.
Lana Shkolnik and her step-mother, Galina Antonovskiy immigrated from Russia to Maine. “I can say it out loud, ‘I’m a Jew,’” said Shkolnik in 2009, who relished no longer needing to hide her identity. Even though they had led a largely secular life typical of all citizens in Soviet days, the Shkolniks suffered religious persecution, which qualified them for refugee status.
While Galina Antonovskiy had a rewarding career as a chemical engineer, she believes she could have moved into a higher management job if she had not been Jewish. She kept quiet about her religion, because anti-Semitism reared its head unexpectedly and often in Russia.
Pious Ali has worked as a self-described “foot soldier” on behalf of immigrant youth in Portland. “I believe that young people who have faith—it doesn’t matter what kind, and it doesn’t have to be organized religion—will do better.” To that end, he started an organization called Maine Interfaith Youth Alliance.
For a former celebrity photographer once welcomed in the highest circles of Ghanaian society, this life of service to disadvantaged youth in his adopted homeland of Maine does not really seem so contradictory. “This has become home. So I might as well make this a good place for kids,” he says.
Pious Ali immigrated from Ghana to New York in 2000, moved to Maine in 2002, and as of 2017 is a member of Portland Public Schools Board and a community organizer. He was the first African-born Muslim elected to public office in Maine, and was elected to Portland's City Council in 2016.
As a child in Thailand, Suwanna Sanguantonkallaya proved herself capable of doing man’s work on her family’s farm. She had a goal of owning her own business some day, even though that didn’t fit the role society outlined for women in her culture.
“They give me a new life here in America. You can dream from here. A woman can do business by herself. In Thailand, they believe only men can do everything,” she said in 2009. Suwanna Sanguantonkallaya immigrated from Thailand to Maine, and as of 2017 is owns Sengchai Thai Cuisine restaurant in Portland.
Winston Williams, a seasonal worker from Jamaica, has worked as a foreman of a sixteen-man crew at White Oak Farms in Warren. “I like Maine. Peoples very friendly, not a lot of crime—that’s what the guys like here. The only problem we have with Maine is the cold,” he said in 2009.
The work is hard, and Williams dreams of cutting back to fewer months spent in Maine each year “to make it easier for me and for my family [in Jamaica].”
Spouses Rifat and Tasneem Zaidi immigrated from Pakistan to Maine. As of 2017, Rifat Zaidi works as an orthopedic surgeon at Miles Memorial Hospital in Damariscotta, and Tasneem Zaidi owns a small online business.
When a catastrophic earthquake struck Pakistan in October 2005, Rifat Zaidi knew he could help. In just two weeks, he raised $30,000, rounded up donated medical equipment, and gathered a team from his hospital in Maine to accompany him to Pakistan. From Damarascotta, he generated more support, conducted more medical missions to Pakistan, and helped found a burn center there.
Such daunting projects are doable in the universe of Rifat and his spouse Tasneem, a physician herself who partners with him in the medical relief efforts.
Emrush Zeqiri immigrated to Maine from Kosovo to escape the conflicts there. “It’s not easy to do any job that was given to me here,” said Emrush Zeqiri in Portland in 2009, because he wasn't able to use the hard-won university degree so highly prized in Kosovo. He had to sacrifice his goal of becoming a high-school teacher. “In future, maybe I’ll do that...For now, I have to pay the mortgage.”
Zeqiri's spends free time teaching his children the Albanian language, seeing friends, and playing one of six musical instruments he has mastered. Every November 28, he celebrates Flag Day, and said he will continue to honor the red Albanian banner, relishing the freedom he now enjoys to display it.
As of 2017, Emrush Zeqiri is working as a machine operator for an auto parts manufacturer in Portland.
“The longer you stay away, the harder it is to go back,” said Zaynep Turk in 2009. Turk came to Maine to study at the University of Maine at Machias, got her M.B.A. at Orono, and worked her way up in a successful career in banking and trade. In choosing to remain in the United States, she has given up a lot: more time with her family, a more settled life, and an easier emotional road. “You give up that wholeness,” she says.
“I’m definitely a Turk. I don’t want to lose that identity. But I see America as a second home. Zeynep Turk immigrated from Turkey to Maine, and as of 2017 works as a senior trade specialist for the Maine International Trade Center in Portland.
With every gleaming hardwood floor Van Luu lays, he puts a little more distance between himself and his tough childhood at the close of the war in Vietnam, where educational and work opportunities were closed to him as the Amerasian son of a Vietnamese mother and an American G.I. father.
Van and his wife Kim have built a successful business in southern Maine. If they seem relieved to have put their life in Vietnam behind them and focus strictly on the good things America has to offer it is little wonder. Amerasians’ rejection by their own cultures added an additional layer of suffering to the one all Vietnamese experienced during the war. “We still miss and remember Vietnam, but also it’s painful for us,” said Kim in 2009. “We’re really happy over here.”
Van and Kim Luu, Vietnam immigrated from Vietnam to Maine and as of 2017, are the owners of A-Z Floor Sanding in South Portland.
Oscar Mokeme immigrated from Nigeria to Maine and as of 2017, works as the Founder and director, Museum of African Culture in Portland. Part collector, part educator, part healer, he transforms the artistry of West Africans and the wisdom of his ancestors into personal experiences American audiences can relate to.
“The psychology and motivation behind the art interests me. They are not just art; they are documents where ancient wisdom was recorded,” he said in 2009.
A bicultural person, Grace Valenzuela described herself as “an Asian American from the Philippines” in 2009. If, as she admits, “it’s hard to be the only person of color all the time,” she doesn’t show it as she works to bring together immigrant and native-born Mainers to learn from each other.
“Every point of view that gets added to yours expands your worldview. I feel blessed by being in a role where I learn something every day from people whose cultural background is different from mine,” she said in 2009.
Grace Valenzuela immigrated from the Philippines to Maine, and as of 2017 she works as the Director of the Multilingual and Multicultural Center for Portland Public Schools.
In the Damascus of Gerard Kiladjian’s youth, non-Muslims like his Armenian Christian family lived well. People of both faiths mingled easily. He could have remained in Damascus forever, enjoying the best of both worlds. But he couldn’t have enjoyed the wide-ranging career he has had in hotel management.
For years, under Kiladjian's management, the Portland Harbor Hotel thrived. And he breathed new life into Maine’s Armenian community. “My identity is Armenian—that’s the language and culture,” he said, adding that he was Syrian, too, when he was living there. “And now the U.S. is my home.”
Gerard Kiladjian immigrated from Syria to Maine, and as of 2017 is a hotel general manager and Armenian community leader in Portland.
“Girls never go to school,” Mary Otto’s uncle scolded her when she was young. Yet in May 2008, Otto graduated from the University of Southern Maine. During the intervening years, she did what she was supposed to as an Acholi woman of Southern Sudan—raised a family—and much more.
In the 1990s, Sudan’s civil war forced Otto to call on a different kind of intelligence that she possessed in great quantity: the quick-witted resourcefulness needed to live on the run from bullets.
Today she is a role model for students who, like her, experienced trauma.She tells them, “If I can do it at forty, you can do it!”
Mary Otto immigrated to Maine from Sudan and as of 2017 is a language facilitator for Portland public schools.
“Music has no boundaries,” says Shamou, who has crossed quite a few geographical ones since leaving his native Iran as a teenager determined to become a musician in America. Having performed from coast to coast, in venues from schools to Las Vegas casinos, he finally settled in Maine.
Shamou started feeling the pull of visiting his homeland of Iran in 2009; but he does not pine over the loss of his culture as some immigrants do, perhaps because he has stayed connected to it through music: “It’s a unifying force wherever you go in the world,” he says.
Shamou immigrated to Maine from Iran and as of 2017 is a musician, composer, and dancer in Portland.
Makara Meng spent more than three years in the forced-labor campa of Cambodia, living in barracks with hundreds of other children, weeding rice paddies and living on one bowl of watery rice soup each day until eventually starvation reduced her to “a skeleton in rags.”
She sometimes slipped out to visit her mother, whom she was forbidden to see. One of Meng’s most painful memories is passing her mother on her way to work in the fields and hearing her mother call to her, but being forbidden to answer. “To this day, I never told her what happened, and she never told me what happened to her,” Meng says. They had both learned the code of silence that settled over survivors of the killing fields.
Makara Meng immigrated to Maine from Cambodia and is the former owner of Mitpheap grocery store in Portland.
“It’s not an easy job. Everybody has problems. What keeps me going is the resilience these families have, after what they have been through. Some of them have been in the camps for years. It’s so scary for them coming here. In spite of all the challenges, they still want a job. They still want to go to school. They still want their kids to do well.” Their bravery inspires Guled, who knows how to elicit trust among clients wary of sharing their troubles with strangers. A graduate of University of Southern Maine’s School of Social Work, Guled uses her profession to help other New Mainers.
Khadija Guled immigrated to Maine from Somalia, and as of 2017, is a social worker in Portland.
“In my lifetime, I have worked the equivalent of two or three people,” says Jose Castaneda in 2009. When he was five years old, he began his work life on the family farm in El Salvador. Since coming to Maine from Central America in 1993, he has taken whatever jobs he could, all of them in seafood processing, with little time for fun. Yet he has carved out one place in his life where he can forget about work and experience pure joy: the soccer field.
As of 2017, Jose Castaneda works as a seafood processor and proudly founded the Portland soccer league.
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