Portland Tries Different Approaches to Absorb Immigrant Influx

Portland Tries Different Approaches to Absorb Immigrant Influx
Chairwoman Suheir Alaskari at the Maine GOP Multicultural Community Center in Portland, Maine, on May 26, 2022. (Steven Kovac/The Epoch Times)
Steven Kovac

PORTLAND, Maine—Every town is a border town.

Just ask Democratic city officials in Portland, Maine, who are struggling to provide social services to a flood of asylum-seekers and illegal immigrants from all over the world.

Maine’s Republican Party is working to help a group of recent arrivals that are largely being ignored—legal immigrants.

To accomplish their mission, Maine Republicans, led by Chairwoman Demi Kouzounas, recently opened the Maine GOP Multicultural Community Center near Portland’s downtown.

Maine Republican Party Chairwoman Demi Kouzounas and executive director Jason Savage in Augusta, Maine, on May 24, 2022. (Steven Kovac/The Epoch Times)
Maine Republican Party Chairwoman Demi Kouzounas and executive director Jason Savage in Augusta, Maine, on May 24, 2022. (Steven Kovac/The Epoch Times)

“The purpose of the center is to serve the needs of noncitizens who have come to this country legally,” Kouzounas told The Epoch Times.

She believes that it’s a first-of-its-kind project for the Republican Party anywhere in the nation. She expects the center to go a long way in demonstrating that the Republican Party isn’t opposed to legal immigration and that Republicans have compassion for strangers in need.

Running the effort is Suheir Alaskari, a legal immigrant from Iraq and a key player in the creation and implementation of the Maine Republican Party’s plan.

The Birth of the Center

Shortly after Alaskari and Kouzounas met at a party event last year, the idea of creating the multicultural community center in Portland was conceived and the approach was formulated.

Following some significant donations, a storefront office was obtained at 100 Congress Street.

“One thing we hope to accomplish is to redefine immigrants in the eyes of the people of Portland," Alaskari said. “Many legal immigrants are educated and speak multiple languages. If they don’t speak English already, it is very easy for them to learn an additional language.

“We offer English classes. We evaluate their skills and degrees and assist them in transferring college credits to American universities. If they have no college degree, they do have a strong belief in the American Dream, which is a powerful incentive for assimilation and success.”

The center offers classes to help the newcomers learn how to register, license, and finance a business.

A group of asylum-seekers warehoused in an alley in Portland, Maine, on May 25, 2022. (Steven Kovac/The Epoch Times)
A group of asylum-seekers warehoused in an alley in Portland, Maine, on May 25, 2022. (Steven Kovac/The Epoch Times)

“These people have a good work ethic and are business-oriented,“ Alaskari said. ”Most come from countries where there is no welfare. Many operated family businesses in their homelands. They want to work and hire others. They want to succeed and thrive.

“They have gone through a lot to get here. They are self-reliant, resilient, and tenacious.”

The center also provides instruction about real estate law, such as how to buy and rent property.

According to Alaskari, many of her clients bring with them family values similar to those of Americans. Their religious background has instilled in them a spirit of volunteerism and a desire to help others—something the center encourages.

She said the center helps people explore options for internships and mentorships. It also has a program called “Spend a Day with a Stranger,” which is designed to correct misconceptions between the native-born and foreigners.

“Our volunteers go out into the neighborhoods and participate in clean-up days and other projects that help foster a sense of community,” Alaskari said.

The center also serves as a liaison with the business community.

“We are constantly talking to managers, owners, and CEOs,” she said. “We are preparing a job fair for everybody in the community. All are welcome, but we will put a special focus on minorities. We have invited numerous employers.”

A view of the rugged Maine coastline in Kennebunkport on May 25, 2022. (Steven Kovac/The Epoch Times)
A view of the rugged Maine coastline in Kennebunkport on May 25, 2022. (Steven Kovac/The Epoch Times)

Prior to the job fair, the center is taking steps to help prepare people for job interviews and for filling out applications for both work and further education.

“These people are ready, willing, and able to work. But the problem is it can take up to three years to secure a work permit,” Alaskari said.

Her Own Story

Alaskari is quick to point out that she isn’t an “asylum-seeker,” a name recently applied to anyone who enters the United States without documentation, claiming that their lives are endangered in their native land.

She arrived in the United States in 2014 on a Special Immigration Visa that she received for helping the U.S. government foster economic development and job creation in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I was a staffer working with cities and municipalities in Iraq to build a private sector economy in the aftermath of the Iraq War,” Alaskari said.

Before long, the efforts at nation-building were overpowered by the forces of destruction, she said.

When a violent civil war erupted in Iraq, Alaskari was targeted by warring militant groups because she was working with the United States. In imminent danger of being murdered, she was forced to flee her native land.

“I had to get out of Iraq immediately,“ she told The Epoch Times. ”I could no longer live in my own homeland as an Iraqi. I went to Syria—a contiguous country that would accept me—and became a refugee under U.N. protection.

“My plan was to go to America.”

Why America?

“Can you blame me, or any refugee, for wanting to come to the greatest country in the world?” she said. “American society is inclusive. The United States is a place that gives immigrants options. It is a land of mutual respect and individual freedom.

“Most of us want to assimilate into the American way of life. We want to be proud Americans.”

Alaskari bristled when she was told that overwhelmed and confused Portland-area refugee relief workers were asking in frustration, “What is American immigration policy?”

She told The Epoch Times that the United States has had a workable and clearly defined legal immigration policy in place for decades. She cited her own experience as evidence.

“To come here, I had to go through an involved process, dealing with many different agencies. It cost a lot of money in fees and attorney bills and required a lot of patience,” Alaskari said.

Determined to follow the rules and do everything legally, she agreed to go from Syria to Sweden.

“Even if it is not your first choice, if a country offers to take you, you cannot refuse. That’s the procedure,” Alaskari said.

An H-2B visa foreign hospitality worker in Kennebunkport, Maine, on May 26, 2022. (Steven Kovac/The Epoch Times)
An H-2B visa foreign hospitality worker in Kennebunkport, Maine, on May 26, 2022. (Steven Kovac/The Epoch Times)

Alaskari, who speaks three languages and holds multiple college degrees, said the Swedes were good to her, helping place her in a job.

“But I could never really get settled in Sweden when I knew it was, for me, an intermediary country on my way to America,” she said.

Describing her state of mind at the time, Alaskari said that “immigration is a trauma. It raises issues of self-esteem. It’s a real bureaucratic runaround.”

The task ahead of her was daunting.

“In order to get to America, I had to learn and follow the laws on three continents. My personal immigration file is a foot thick,” Alaskari said. “It took five years for me to obtain a visa. I underwent extensive vetting, a medical examination, and had to obtain sponsors. Then there was a five-year wait to obtain permanent resident status.

“Five years after that, I was on the road to becoming a naturalized citizen. That process included more medical questions, a language exam, and a civics exam.”

She told The Epoch Times of her experience with a well-intentioned social worker she dealt with along the way.

“When she learned I was from Iraq, she asked me if I was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder,"Alaskari said. “She then pointed out a box on a form we were filling out. By checking the box, she said I could get free food and rent and everything paid for because of my disability. I told her I’m not interested in disability. I want a job!

“Imagine what might have happened if I wasn’t able to read and understand English. Why are we offering welfare programs at first-line first-contact meetings?”

Alaskari said she uses her personal migration odyssey to illustrate that there’s a clear U.S. legal immigration policy in place, but it isn’t being enforced; it’s being ignored.

“Achieving U.S. citizenship legally was a welcome end to a long, hard road,” she said.

Alaskari told The Epoch Times that, as her dream of U.S. citizenship and the right to vote approached, she began to “check out” the two major political parties. An acquaintance told her to not bother looking into the Republican Party because she wouldn’t be welcome.

“My friend, Aqeel, persuaded me to go to a GOP meeting anyway,” she said. “Last November, when I walked into a Republican event, I saw Dr. Demi Kouzounas, the state chairwoman, and heard her speak. The leader of the Maine Republican Party was a person that looked like me.

“I found her to be a strong woman that is helping to train women and encourage them to run for office. Her immigrant family’s story reflected my story. I discovered I had been told lies.

“All immigrants need to learn for themselves what real Republicans look like and how they think and act.”

Aqeel Mohialdeen, who’s now vice-chairman of the Maine GOP Multicultural Community Center, was reluctant to talk about himself and refused to have his photo taken.

But he did tell The Epoch Times, “There is no difference between the Democrats and the totalitarian regime from which I came. That regime was the only source of everything. They controlled people by subsidizing food, housing, and education, which created dependency instead of independence.

“When I was young, I thought it was great that the government supported people. I learned it’s an awful way of controlling people. The failure of the system immigrants are coming out of is why they are here today. Do they understand what makes America different?

“The center is working to educate newcomers about the core values and foundational principles of this country.”

Director Reza Jalali at the Immigrant Welcome Center in Portland, Maine, on May 25, 2022. (Steven Kovac/The Epoch Times)
Director Reza Jalali at the Immigrant Welcome Center in Portland, Maine, on May 25, 2022. (Steven Kovac/The Epoch Times)

Reza Jalali is the executive director of the Immigrant Welcome Center of Greater Portland, which is across town from the GOP center.

The Welcome Center is dedicated to helping immigrants of all classifications assimilate into U.S. society.

“Mostly because of the language barrier, Portland has the most educated cleaning people in the country. There are many professional people in the immigrant community, such as doctors and lawyers, working the only jobs they can get,” Jalali said.

Jalali, a Kurd from Iran who speaks three languages, told The Epoch Times that there’s no stereotypical immigrant.

“There are evolving classifications with subtle differences,“ he said. ”What we once called refugees are now called asylum-seekers. These are people who must prove to the U.S. government that they have a well-founded fear for their lives if they were to remain in their home country.

“Then we have migrants here on temporary visas or restricted visas. We call some green card holders. Many of these people speak five or six languages, but not English.”

Jalali never mentioned illegal aliens who have simply jumped the southern border in search of a better life. He said the Welcome Center doesn’t want to be called a social services organization.

“We have a wonderful language lab, where we offer English lessons with a self-paced approach,” he said. “We work with the Maine Medical Center, construction companies, and other industries who pay us to offer practical industry-specific English classes.

“Our goal is to help the new arrivals assimilate into American life, become employed, become citizens, and then register to vote and run for public office.”

One Maine businessman, who didn’t want to be named and has nothing to do with the Welcome Center, said his company has been very satisfied with the quality of immigrant workers.

He said his firm obtains them from an agency he refused to name.

“These folks are very hard workers. Some are amazing—even brilliant,” he said.

Jessica Grondin, communications director for the City of Portland, told The Epoch Times that the influx of asylum-seekers comes at a time when Maine is facing a labor shortage, a housing shortage, and a shortage of social services staff to care for everyone.

“We are dealing with 300 families comprised of about 1,200 people, plus 500 single individuals,” Grondin said. “The average stay in our family shelter used to be from four to six months. It’s now nine to 12 months.

“It is extremely difficult for them because they can’t work. Federal regulations prohibit them from going to work for one year. Therefore, they must be reliant upon the state. We need federal legislation to reduce the one-year prohibition to 30 days.”

Carroll Conley (L) and Thomas Keith of the Christian Civic League of Maine in Augusta, Maine, on May 24, 2022. (Steven Kovac/The Epoch Times)
Carroll Conley (L) and Thomas Keith of the Christian Civic League of Maine in Augusta, Maine, on May 24, 2022. (Steven Kovac/The Epoch Times)

The Epoch Times contacted the office of Maine Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, several times for comment on what the state is doing to solve the labor shortage, the affordable housing shortage, and the breakdown of adequate social services, all exacerbated by the flood of asylum-seekers.

The governor’s office didn’t respond.

Carroll Conley, executive director of the nondenominational Christian Civic League of Maine, provided a nonpartisan, biblical perspective on the immigration crisis that’s pitting Mainers against one another and forcing people to examine their conscience.

Conley told The Epoch Times that immigration is a complex issue that requires striking the proper balance between the scriptural calls for hospitality and welcoming the stranger and the stewardship of the biblical principle of national sovereignty.

“Many of us from the conservative bent look at the present challenges of safety and lawlessness of undocumented immigrants as legitimate issues,“ he said. ”The challenges do not obviate us from wrestling with the mandates we have regarding compassion and hospitality.”

“We have a broken system that impacts even those that are seeking to enter our country legally. That requires our attention and our advocacy.”

Steven Kovac reports for The Epoch Times from Michigan. He is a general news reporter who has covered topics related to rising consumer prices to election security issues. He can be reached at [email protected]