March 25, 2013

Immigrants find havens – in Portland suburbs

In Westbrook, the trend is especially evident, changing the fabric of the former mill town.

By Leslie Bridgers
Staff Writer

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Ahmed, 14, Sandra, 17, and Mohammed Banijameel, 12, sit in their Westbrook home. The Banijameel family, originally from Iraq, moved to Westbrook after living in Portland.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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Francine Nkurunziza's family, originally from the Congo, moved in two years ago from an apartment on Park Avenue in Portland.

"This is nicer than the other one," she said, sitting in her kitchen earlier this month while home on spring break from the University of Maine.

Her parents like that they can walk from their home to Tigris Market, a store on Bridge Street that was opened by an Iraqi immigrant in 2011 and always keeps a certain kind of corn flour used in African bread.

Jabbar Jabbar, whose brother owns the market, said he'll take special orders for anyone. Working the register on a recent afternoon, he weighed a bag of goat meat for a customer while having a conversation in Arabic on his cell phone, held between his shoulder and his cheek. Behind the scale hung phone cards that he sells to people who want to place international calls, one kind for Africa and another for the Middle East.

Those are the locations of the 11 countries of origin listed by last month's applicants for general assistance from the city -- a good indicator of who's new in town.

Program administrator Sarah Ludin said 33 of the 73 households that applied in February identified themselves as immigrants or refugees. That's more than double the number of applicants from immigrants and refugees a year earlier, when they made up 16 of the 51 households.

Down the hall from the general assistance office in the Westbrook Community Center, the food pantry has also seen an uptick in the number of immigrant families, said director Jeanne Rielly. Although they make up a relatively small percentage of people who come in -- maybe three dozen of the 350 families, Rielly said -- she's gotten volunteers from Jordan and Rwanda to help with the growing number of clients who can't speak English.


In a different part of the building, English classes for adults on Monday and Wednesday afternoons are getting bigger every week. A young woman from Ethiopia dropped in halfway through the beginner class last Monday. She had been in America for two weeks.

"Today, maybe just listen," said teacher Mary Klement as she tugged on her own earlobes.

Sitting in pairs at old science lab benches, the rest of the students repeated the words for types of jobs: receptionist, custodian, mechanic. They talked about their own jobs, too. A woman from Sudan said she had been a nurse. A couple from Angola had owned a travel agency.

"We have folks that are walking in here with master's degrees," Klement said after class.

For most, she said, their greatest motivation for learning English is to be employable in America.

The beginner class is the biggest with 18 students -- twice as many as there were in the fall semester, Klement said.

At Westbrook Middle School, the English-language program also doubled in size within the school year, from 48 students to 99.

In a classroom on the first floor, David Moisan's math students look like any sixth- and seventh-graders, in hooded sweatshirts and skinny jeans. When they raise their hands, they wiggle their fingers, some with nails painted blue.

But in addition to geometry, they're also learning English. Along with words like scalene and congruent, they're practicing how to say rectangle and square.

Parallelogram proved particularly difficult as the class in unison read off the words from a white board on a recent morning. Of nine students in the class, three are from Africa and six are from Iraq. Some slipped into Arabic as they compared worksheets, waiting for Moisan to check their math.

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Additional Photos

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Fatimah Al Shuwaili, 8, and several of her classmates at Saccarappa Elementary School write in Arabic on a classroom white board. Saccarappa has the largest English-language program of Westbrook’s three elementary schools.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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The Tigris Market on Bridge Street in Westbrook, which is owned by Jabbar Jabbar's brother, sells Middle Eastern food and other goods to the city’s immigrant community.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer


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