Dear Maine: The Trials and Triumphs of Maine’s 21st Century Immigrants
By Morgan Rielly and Reza Jalali (Islandport Press)
Review by Tina Cohen
I’ve just read online that in 2021, and 2022 so far, Maine is the “whitest” state in America, at 93.2 percent. (Not far behind are Vermont at 92.8 percent and New Hampshire at 90.1 percent.)
While Maine has a history of immigrants settling here, the country from which the largest percentage have come is Canada. But “New Mainers” moving here are making Maine a state with more diversity.
Maine is holds the title as the “grayest state” in America, with the highest percentage of residents over the age of 50. As more retire or relocate here, new Mainers bring their job skills, motivation, education, and experience to the labor market.
Fear or disdain of immigrants who have moved to the U.S. is, sadly, nothing new.
But a welcome mat may not be what new Mainers first encounter. Fear or disdain of immigrants who have moved to the U.S. is, sadly, nothing new. Some Americans react with simplistic, paranoid thinking, saying “Build the wall” or “You will not replace us.”
In response to the challenges faced, two Maine writers have created a book aimed at dispelling stereotypes and geopolitical ignorance by introducing us to some of Maine’s newer arrivals, where they have come from, and why they came here.
Dear Maine: The Trials and Triumphs of Maine’s 21st Century Immigrants, is authored by Morgan Rielly and Reza Jalai. Rielly is a Maine state representative and graduate of Bowdoin College; Jalali is a former refugee and noted writer, and currently executive director of the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center.
They write, “As a state, we can do a better job of warmly welcoming immigrants and helping to create a more diverse, accepting, and inclusive Maine. We hope that this book will play at least a small role in highlighting and celebrating the common goals and dreams we all share, and shine light on the different paths our friends and neighbors have taken to get here.”
The book also features stunning full-page portraits of each person profiled, photographed by Lilit Danielyan. Born in Armenia and raised in Central Kazakhstan, since 2012 she has lived in the U.S., including studying at the Maine Media Workshops+College.
Participants in these interviews speak with candor and insight as they reflect on the decisions that led to departures, the journeys that led to America, and what was gained as well as lost. The experiences highlighted—both before and after their immigrating—include personal economic conditions, education and work, religious and cultural practices, political realities, and the role of family.
There is, understandably, a range of emotion expressed, including sadness, pride, regret, fear, courage, satisfaction, and confusion. E,ach chapter features one of the 22 participants and begins with their photo and a few notes on country of origin and its distance from Maine.
There is also a small image, lacking any details, of the shape of the country. Why not a map? I’d like to picture where it is, and what some physical features and cities or regions are. Another question: the U.S. is only one of three countries in the world not using the metric system. In the interest of inclusion, why not use kilometers as well as miles in denoting distance?
What I think the creators of this book got absolutely right, and for which I thank them, is the overall experience provided and how they crafted it—their choice of participants and the trust and respect the authors had in letting each of them tell their own story.
“Think of this book as a local dinner party,” we’re told. “We are introducing you to some of our neighbors. We hope you leave with a new perspective, an appreciation of the people you’ve met. We also hope you leave inspired.”
Tina Cohen is a therapist who is a seasonal resident of Vinalhaven.