When I wrote a newspaper column a few weeks ago, proposing that we call immigrants “new Mainers,” I had no idea there was a book by that name, published by Tilbury House in 2009. But that book was quickly called to my attention and I ordered up a copy of it.
Wow, this is an eye-opening, inspiring, and very important book, a book I hope ever Mainer will read. These wonderful folks aspire to be Mainers, and that’s a great compliment to those of us who were lucky enough to be born here and lived our lives here.
New Mainers, written by Pat Nyhan with photos by Jan Pieter van Voorst van Beest, tells the amazing stories of 25 immigrants who are making remarkable contributions to our state, from medicine and education to hotel management and social services. In my columnI reported that, while writing our weekly travel column over the last five years, Linda and I came to realize that our new Mainers have brought a lot of creative delicious cuisine to our state, including the folks from Thailand who own our favorite Thai restaurant, Long Grain in Camden, and Mei of Ming Lee in Waterville, our favorite Chinese restaurant.
I wrote about our recent encounter with Chef Ray of Solo Bistro in Bath, a Jamaican, whose creative dishes are delicious. But what we really enjoyed was watching Ray in the open kitchen, always smiling, obviously enjoying his work. In another recent travel column, we wrote about Dancing Elephant restaurant in Fairfield and Chef Iqbal Hossan and his wife Shawn, from Bangladesh. After their kids get out of high school each afternoon in Portland, Shawn drives them to Fairfield where they all work in the restaurant, a truly hardworking and inspiring family.
Many of the personal stories in New Mainers are astonishing, and in some cases heartbreaking.
Jaden Li Eung arrived here as a young girl after her family fled war-torn Cambodia. Nyhan reports that, “Although she was a tough twelve-year-old, Jaden Li Eung was deeply hurt by her unfriendly reception when she arrived in Maine in 1993.” Fortunately Jaden feels better about Maine today. She turned the pain of her immigrant experience into activism at the University of Southern Maine, as founder of the campus’s first Asian Association & Symposium, a member of the student senate, and an advocate for homeless youth.
Nyham reports that in Cambodia, Eung’s father was a French teacher and musician, but the country was in ruins, and her family was always on the run, living in poverty, without even shoes to wear. Her earliest memories are of escaping from a Thai refugee camp. Unimaginable, really.
And then there’s the story of Winston Williams, a seasonal worker who is foreman of a 16-man crew at White Oak Farms in Warren, home to Beth’s Farm Market, a favorite stop for Linda and I anytime we are visiting our daughter, son-in-law and grandsons who live just down the road in Union. For much of the year, Winston has to leave his wife and children in Jamaica to make a living here. “It makes life better for me,” he said. “I build my own house, buy a new car. It’s very hard to get a job in Jamaica.” Indeed.
You will be inspired by the story of Rifat and Tasneem Zaidi who came here from Pakistan. Rifat is an orthopedic surgeon who lives with Tasneem in the Damariscotta-New Castle area, and now returns regularly to his home country of Pakistan on medical missions. Nyhan reports that, “They find no problem living in a place where Pakistanis are scarce. Nor is the lack of a mosque an impediment.”
“We pray at home,” said Rifat, “observe Ramazan, pay zakat (giving a percentage of one’s income to charity), and don’t eat non-halal products. We’re just like regular people.” Awesome!
Some of the situations suffered by these wonderful people are truly frightening. Consider this, from Emrush Zequri, a Portland musician from Albania. Nyhan notes that, “His father, like many others in the impoverished region, had to leave home to support his family, laboring in an Austrian metalworking factory for twenty-six years and coming home only twice a year.”
“He sacrificed his life for us,” says Emrush. “I feel sad whenever I think about him.” One day in May of 1995, Emrush tell us, “About 4 am, my house was circled by fifteen special Serbian police and an Albanian inspector. A police put a handgun to my forehead, and another put one in my back. They asked me about weapons and beat me in front of my family. I didn’t have weapons. They took me to a police station in Presheva. I had two ribs broken, my left eye swollen, and trouble breathing. I stayed there ten hours; then they said, ‘Sorry, we were looking for another person.’ It wasn’t true; they just wanted to hurt me.” When he tried to get his ribs X-rayed at a hospital, a doctor refused, fearing he’d have to document that for the police.
Emrush was charged with illegally celebrating Albanian Flag Day and owning Albanian books, and spent one year in prison, missing the birth of his first son. After getting out of prison, he returned to his village, where “there was daily news of massacres.” There is a lot more to this horrific story, including his being pushed to the ground and shot at, bullets hitting the ground all around him.
Eventually, he and his family escaped, although is Mom died in the violence. But once he got here, because his university degree was unrecognized, he had to give up his dream of becoming a high school teacher. Emrush now has a job as a machine operator at Nichols in Portland, and his wife works as a hotel housekeeper. But they own their own home, and intend to put their four children through college.
In the book’s appendix, you’ll get the real facts about immigrants, and I wish I could just reprint all of it here. But please, for yourself, and for all of our new Mainers, read this book.