For immigrants from Africa’s equatorial climes, the wonders of Maine’s snowy season can inspire very different responses, as nervous adults watch children dive right in.
Muhidin Libah saw snow for the first time a decade ago after moving to Maine from a refugee camp in Kenya. The Somali immigrant was so afraid of the snow that he didn’t leave his apartment for days.
Libah, who lives in Lewiston, remains cautious about the hazards of snow, but the 34-year-old father has found – to his astonishment – that his six children growing up in Maine love to romp in the stuff.
“I say, ‘No, stay in.’ My impression is that it’s very dangerous to go out and play,” he said.
Conflicting views of winter are not unusual within immigrant families. They face a generational divide on many fronts as the children adapt more quickly to a new language and culture. For African immigrants who have settled in northern states like Maine, that divide extends to attitudes about winter.
Of course, many native Mainers hate winter, too. But imagine moving to Maine – where snow is possible seven months of the year – from a country like South Sudan, where the temperatures hover around 80 degrees all year long.
There is no cold season. Rather, South Sudan has a wet season from April to October and a dry season from December through February. In the capital, Juba, located less than 340 miles from the equator, March is the warmest month, with an average temperature of 86 degrees. July is the coolest, averaging 77 degrees.
The temperature range is about the same in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia. The coldest month there is also July, which has an average temperature of 79 degrees.
SYMPATHY FOR ‘EXTREME’ CONDITIONS
The concept of snow is hard to describe to people back home, said Anna Lameri, a Portland resident from South Sudan.
“We call it ice falling from the sky,” she said.
The African immigrants don’t have a word in their native tongues to describe that time of year in Maine when the temperatures drop below freezing. Whether speaking in Arabic or another language from their homelands, many immigrants refer to the season as “wintah,” a word they have picked up from neighbors with Maine accents.
Samuel Albina, 53, an immigrant from South Sudan, said the hardest part of winter is dealing with his car. He seemed exasperated one day recently as he sat in his car on Portland’s Boyd Street. He complained that he has to shovel out his car after each storm, and move it to prevent the car from being towed during overnight parking bans.
“I’m an old man, and every day I have to dig,” he said with a sigh. When he posts photographs of Portland’s winter landscape on Facebook, he said his friends in South Sudan write back and offer him sympathy for living under intolerable conditions.
“They say, ‘Oh, this is extreme. You live in a very extreme place. Why do you want to live there?’ ” Albina said.
His grandchildren have a different view.
“They want to play in this,” he said. “They want to jump in it. But for us, it’s scary.”
ERODING FONDNESS FOR LIFE IN MAINE
Last week, Sam Kabbashi published a photo on Facebook of his 3-year-old son, Richard, shoveling snow in the family’s driveway in South Portland. He said his relatives in South Sudan saw the photo and are concerned that the boy may become sick.
“I tell them, ‘The only thing for the little guy to do is put snow clothes on and stay warm, and there is nothing wrong with that,’ ” said Kabbashi, 46. “To them, it’s amazing we are living and surviving in this cold weather.”
Mariano Mawein, who has four children ranging in age from 2 to 9, posted a photo of his SUV almost entirely covered with snow.
“From yesterday,” he wrote below the photo. “My heart isn’t in Maine no more.”
During an interview in his Portland apartment with his family gathered around him, Mawein said he’s mystified that his children embrace winter – a time of year he has come to dread. He remembers his first Maine winter shortly after moving here in 2007. He lost control of his car while driving down a hill, a terrifying journey that ended in a snowbank.
He’s learned that he must wear gloves and a hat when he ventures outside, but the cold still bites the exposed skin on his face.
“This cold thing is very bad. You have a runny nose, teary eyes. You feel it in your chest,” he said. “And they call this place Vacationland? I don’t get it, to be honest.”
YOUTH PERSPECTIVE: JOIN HOCKEY TEAM
For the generation raised in Maine, winter is not something to fear, said Ludiya Abdulla, 16, who was born in a refugee camp in Egypt but moved to Maine with her family when she was a baby.
Ludiya learned to ice skate in December and joined the Portland/Deering cooperative hockey team, playing goalie.
When Ludiya told her mother, Regina Nataniel, who is from South Sudan, that she joined the hockey team, her mother thought she was joking. The mother also expressed her fear that Ludiya would fall on the ice and hurt herself.
As a goalie, Ludiya explained, she would have lots of padding.
The season is now over, and Nataniel is proud of her daughter for having the courage to take up a new sport.
For Ludiya, the biggest challenge was overcoming a fear that her teammates would not accept her because she was the team’s only black player.
“I was an immigrant, and I was different,” she said. “But I couldn’t ask for a greater group of girls to play with. They were so supportive.”