PORTLAND – Ah Jiao, 30, said she never felt safe until she arrived in the United States in November.
Ah Jiao, who now goes by the name Susan, said that as a Burmese living in Malaysia she was always frightened of the police and muggers and, working 12 to 14 hours a day, never had enough money for food.
Expecting a baby in August, she had to leave her husband behind in Malaysia. She arrived without friends or family. But she said she is making new friends in Portland.
“In Malaysia you have to worry all the time. This is a big change for me,” said Ah Jiao.
She was one of more than 100 recently arrived refugees and asylum-seekers who participated in New Mainers Day at the University of Southern Maine on Saturday. In its third year, the event aims to reach out to the roughly 250 refugees and asylum-seekers who moved to Maine in the past year.
“It’s a way to welcome the families to Maine,” said Ashley Storrow, mentoring program coordinator at Catholic Charities Maine’s Refugee Immigration Services, which co-hosted the event with USM.
Catholic Charities Maine’s Refugee and Immigration Services has been the major provider of such services in the state since 1975. It has helped 7,500 people through its resettlement program and 18,500 with support services.
The organizers took over the gym at the Sullivan Recreation and Fitness Complex, where volunteers from Take Action Portland served trays of ethnic food prepared by Michelle Zang, the dinner cook at Preble Street Soup Kitchen in Portland. There were games for the children, music and informational tours for those interested in taking courses at USM.
The refugees now coming to Maine are mostly from Somalia and Iraq, with a smattering from other countries. Many have just experienced their first winter in a northern climate. Some of the newly arrived who attended Saturday’s event said they found Mainers to be friendly and welcoming.
Ammar Alhashimi, 17, and his brother, Yousif Alhashimi, 20, arrived with their parents, and younger sister from Iraq in November. Now the two are enrolled at Deering High School and hope to go on to college. Yousif wants to be a surgeon. Ammara said he wants to be an architect.
Mohamed Ali Mohamed, 21, is a native Somali who fled to Kenya as a young child with an uncle. He lived in a refugee camp in Mombasa, where mosquitoes made life miserable, he said. Newly arrived in February, Mohamed said he is sharing an apartment with three other refugees and is looking for a job.
Adel Alshaikhli left Iraq with his wife and 7-year-old son, who has a hearing disability. In Iraq, Alshaikhli was an engineer who worked with American companies and the U.S. Army building hospitals and schools. He said that since arriving in July he has found the transition to American life fairly easy, having been a fan of American movies and pop culture since he was a boy.
“I was the stranger back in Baghdad. We are good here,” Alshaikhli said.
He said the hard part is finding a full-time job or even two part-time jobs.
“I will do anything, as long as it is legal,” Alshaikhli said.
Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at: