By Lillian Lema
On Wednesday May 25 the doors of Portland House of Music opened to celebrate the launch of Dear Maine: The Trials and Triumphs of Maine’s 21st Century Immigrants, co-authored by Westbrook-born Morgan Rielly and Iranian-born Reza Jalali, with photographs by Lilit Danielyan, a documentarian from Central Kazakhstan.
Dear Maine is a collection of twenty inspiring stories of men and women from various backgrounds who have settled in Maine and made it their home. The men and women come from five different continents and eighteen countries – from El Salvador to South Korea, and from Azerbaijan to Rwanda. Each person’s reason for choosing Maine as a destination is unique. The stories showcase the contributions New Mainers have made to their communities and the state through such avenues as entrepreneurship, art, politics, activism, and education.
Jalali, a former refugee, is currently executive director of Greater Portland Immigrant Rights Center. He is an author, educator, and human rights activist who has sought throughout his career to help dismantle the stigmas associated with immigrantion. He uses his love of writing and storytelling to share his vision of a welcoming and unified community.
In 2009, Jalali wrote New Mainers, also a collection of immigrant stories. But over the past 13 years, new groups of people from other places in the world have moved to Southern Maine, and he felt the need for a second volume.
“There were many new faces arriving in Maine. There was a change in landscape. When the book was published we didn’t have immigrants from Iraq, Syrians, few Lebanese, and very few asylum seekers from Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, just to name a few places,” Jalali said. “I felt that there was a need for another book, because we were missing a mention of many groups of people.”
Jalali’s interest in a second book of immigrant stories strengthened after the 2016 Presidential elections. “We were dehumanized overnight…immigrants were falsely called criminals, rapists… we were defined [in public] by people who did not like us,” Jalali said. “We had to fight back, and as a writer, I had to share the actual stories of immigrants in Maine.”
Writing the stories was the easy part of the project . Deciding who to include was much more difficult. “This book could have included over 100 stories!” Jalali said.
The main criteria in the selection was to make sure there was a diverse profile of individuals in relation to country of origin, ethnicity, nationality, gender, age, religion.
“Morgan and I were looking for stories of lives being transformed because of migration,” Jalali said. “A collection of powerful stories of individuals achieving their version of the American Dream.”
The book launch celebration was a joyful event, with live music performances by VIVA, Assasi, Graphic Melee, and B. Positive. Attendees included friends of the three creators, and family members of those profiled in the book. Laughter and joy and a strong feeling of community, belonging, and unity filled the room.
In order to capture the true essence of each individual she photographed for the book, Danielyan first read their stories. Her work took place during the height of the pandemic, with winter complicating things. However, Danielyan said the project actually helped her during those troubling times of isolation during the pandemic.
“Working on this project was a way to connect with my community, and it was helping me as well to create beautiful meaningful work and to meet people who are doing amazing work in the community.”— Lilit Danielyan
South Portland City Mayor Deqa A. Dhalac was profiled in Dear Maine. For her, sharing her story means being a part of a legacy that will endure for the people of tomorrow. “They are going to know that there were people before them who did so many different things to contribute to Maine through education, politics, business…they will know their ancestors did something good,” Dhalac said.
Mohammed Nasir Shir, a Cape Elizabeth resident, said he feels that sharing his story in this book is a way to give back to his community. “Maybe others can learn from our experiences, and they can take the next steps when we are not around,” Shir said. Shir urges the public to welcome immigrants. “Give them a chance. Immigrants work harder than anyone else I know, because they have to prove to themselves, to their parents, to their grandparents, and to their communities,” Shir said.
Financial advisor Quang Nguyen – also profiled – said that he is very grateful for this country, and for the opportunities it has given him. “It’s a wonderful country. I came here by myself and was later able to bring my parents and siblings. To see them start their journey, their American dream, it’s a great thing to have a land of opportunity that provides success to not just you, but your friends and family,” he said.
Kerem Durdag, originally from Turkey, and raised in Pakistan, emceed the event. He closed the evening out with these words: “Be well. Keep the stories going. This is our future right here for our children.”
Jalali noted that creating a community takes time, effort, and understanding. He hopes that Dear Maine will help humanize immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, and build bridges between people. He said, “We all look at one another trying to judge each other and put them in a box. It’s human nature. But we are all human beings, with the same fears, the same aspirations, the same hopes for ourselves and our children. We aren’t telling a new story, we are telling the story of America!”